How the internet can help democracy – or not…
The Arabic spring introduced a new era of revolution. An era of revolution whose main weapon is the internet – revolution 2.0.
Like so many other revolutions also the Arabic Spring began with severe disappointment and discontent. The people were fed up with the brutally dictatorially and rigid regimes and the lack of freedom of speech and possibilities. Poverty, education, big differences in social classes, corruption etc. were all things that frustrated the people. After years of silence and suffering the people decided to stand up for their rights.
So what was new? The special thing was, that there was no leader, no hero. It was a revolution that was lead by many. On social media platforms, people collaborated, shared information, pictures and videos. They reported acts of violence and human rights violations. The people created pages and created petitions. This seemed to announce a new era of democracy and politics. Politics made by the people for the people. But this utopic dream ended in complete failure. Rumours, hate speech and misunderstandings started to circulate on the pages, even degenerating into violence. The same tool that united the people finally tore them apart. But why? Wael Ghonin, a previous advocate of social media and leading figures on the social media platforms in Egypt during the revolution, believes that it is because of the nature of the internet.
There are some critical challenges when it comes to the use of the internet and social media. In the internet we create extreme Eco chambers – we create spaces where we only exchange information and ideas with people we agree with and exclude those from our pages and discussions that do not share the same world-view as us. When we talk about others and their organisations these “discussions” often end in angry mobs – people scream at each other virtually. This is fuelled and further intensified by the loss of communication habits and rules that apply to direct communication. For example, on the internet you do not have to follow an argument to the end like when listening to an argument in real life as you have the choice of not following a link in the first place or clicking it away. Body language, tone and register, that are important in real life cannot be applied as well. Therefore, comments can be misunderstood and misjudged severely when they seem to confirm biases. As we, to face we don’t even have the possibility to explain ourselves and illustrate our ideas and motivation.
Communication on the internet has also been specialized to the general fast-living nature of it. The shorter and the more one-sided a post the more appealing it is for a greater audience and the more views it will receive. We jump into fast conclusions and squeeze the things that we want to share into a few sentences or just post a picture. The arguments are shallow and often even non-existent. How do we want to change something like this? It also seems as if everyone is just interested to present himself; people post and communicate their views but they seldom really communicate with their environment and „friends “, in terms of listening to information, processing it and then reacting to it. In the internet acting according to impulses is just one click away.
I am not saying that we should not be using the internet and social media in the spreading of our ideas and perspectives! I am for an effective, controlled and respectful use of the internet. Having tons of information at hand does not benefit us if we do not do something with it as well. We should use it to start healthy, robust and controversial conversations. If we do not communicate (in terms of listening and talking) with those that do not have the same ideas and beliefs as us then we are not acting in a democratic and liberal way and we do not have the possibility to gain new perspectives and ideas. We do not have to except everything but we should be open to everything.
We must work out how the internet is part of the solution and not part of the problem. I personally don’t believe that the internet is the problem in the first place. It is us, that misuse it. The internet is a tool that does not have the possibility to change, while we are capable of changing. We have to ensure that we once again communicate and exchange information with others in a civilized way. We have to create a virtual environment on the internet where we actually discuss with others. This implies leaving our comfort zones and also congregating with those that we do not generally agree with. We have to approach discussions with positive and open attitudes. We have to listen to and process information before reacting to it. We have to ask for explanations when we do not understand a certain point.
In addition to that, we have to establish democratic rules and regulations for the use of the internet. People that misuse the anonymity of the internet to advocate misanthropic viewpoints have to be reported and sentenced. Extremist pages that endanger world peace and represent and stand for human-rights violations must be removed from the platforms. Freedom of speech has a limit; it is no longer acceptable when it does not take place in a respectful and civilized way and violates the other human rights.