The Internet and the Revolution of Homo Globalis

Are we indeed in an era in which the internet and social media revolutionize politics?

In the last two decades, a new species has been born: Homo globalis is defined by its intimate connection to the global infotainment network. It is plugged into this network 24/7 through its laptops, smartphones and tablets. Its horizon is more global than that of any previous generation.

What are the characteristics of the new species? Experts differ on the matter: authors like Robert Wright have argued that the internet pools the globe’s knowledge and creativity into a new type of intelligence, giving birth to a new historical period. Others again point out that the generation growing into the age of Facebook becomes ever more adept in moving around in cyberspace while losing the ability to interact face-to-face.

egypt - Reuters - February 12 2011

As is generally the case, the implications of the revolution in communication technology are as yet difficult to gauge. My own research shows that the internet, like all technologies can be used to bring out both the best and the worst in human nature. Effects range from a persistent fear of insignificance generated by the global celebrity culture to a new global consciousness that is giving rise to global movements in domains like ecology and social justice. The internet can be used to champion human rights – but also to instruct terrorists in the construction of bombs.

What about politics, then? Are we indeed in an era in which the internet and the social media revolutionize politics? What is the meaning of the chain of events that started with the Tunisian uprising and, so far, has culminated in the fall of Hosni Mubarak? Do the new social media empower Homo globalis and increase the push towards democratization? Or does politics and political change continue to depend on people taking to the streets, as Malcolm Gladwell has argued recently in an article entitled ‘Why the Revolution will not be tweeted’?

We can say for certain that the internet and social media are not sufficient conditions for a successful revolution, as the failure of Iran’s Green movement to successfully contest the rigged election results of 2009 shows. The social media played a great role in these election protests, and the image of Neda Soltani, killed by Iranian security forces became an icon of this movement and was broadcast and uploaded throughout the world; so was footage of the brutal tactics of the police and the paramilitary Basji.

There was widespread, worldwide support for the Green movement, and international condemnation of the brutal repression of the protests. But Ahmadinejad stayed in power, and the regime of Islamic Republic remained intact, even though Iran’s educational and economic level of development is higher than Egypt’s. Hence a developed middle class together with the use of social media and the internet are not sufficient for successful democratization.

The crucial difference between the failed Iranian protests and the successful toppling of Hosni Mubarak seems to be that Mubarak strongly depended on public opinion in the Free World and the support of the US government. It was part of his power-base that his regime was perceived as pro-Western. When he realized that the Free World had taken the protester’s side, he stepped down. The support and solidarity of those connected to the social as well as the global mainstream media was instrumental first in convincing the White house to side with democracy, and then in making clear to Mubarak that his cause was lost.

As opposed to that the Iranian regime cared little for the Free World’s support: While claiming to be a democracy, its internal legitimacy did not depend on international recognition. It had built its image on its opposition to Western values and its ability to stare down US pressure on nuclear development.

Hence it could afford to do what Mubarak refrained from doing, because he could not disregard international opinion: it cracked down brutally on the protesters, and continues to suppress dissent viciously. It is estimated that currently up to three people a day are executed in Iran, thus creating an atmosphere of terror and enormously increasing the risks of those who openly oppose the regime. The fact that such executions can be seen on YouTube seems not to have any influence on Iranian theocrats: the internet’s impact on its actions is negligible.

So, on the one hand, then, solidarity of Homo globalis does make a difference politically. Images of physical courage, great determination and the quest for freedom can mobilizes world-opinion, and, in the case of Egypt, generate international pressure that provides protesters with crucial support. No longer dependent on mainstream media, people from around the globe feel that they can be of use to causes they believe in. In some cases, the social media also provide political activists with an insurance policy: they can let their followers know where they intend to be, and thus make sure that people know if they have been incarcerated by the regime.

On the other hand, totalitarian regimes that are largely cut off from the rest of the world like Iran and North Korea, and powers strong enough to be global players like China and Russia so far withstand pressures towards the protection of human rights.

The internet and social media certainly empower Homo globalis politically in one, crucial respect: each and every one of us can nowadays ascertain the veracity of information. The social media provide Homo globalis with the tools to interact with each other directly across boundaries. Bloggers communicate with each other directly, and the information they gather flows into the mainstream media, and plays a crucial role in mobilizing world-opinion.

In the long run I am optimistic about the internet’s political impact, particularly in zones of conflict. Prejudice and mutual distrust are mostly fed by distance and ignorance. Anti-Semitism correlates negatively with actually knowing Jews, and Islamophobic people are unlikely to know any Muslims. The social media allow human interaction across boundaries that cannot be crossed physically, and are therefore likely to lower thresholds of as their impact increases.

Internet penetration in the Middle East is already high, and it has been growing exponentially in the Arab world – and the impact is beginning to show, not just in Egypt. Stories of ongoing communication between Iranian activists and Israeli bloggers, as well as ongoing communications between Israelis and Lebanese citizens during the second Lebanon war cannot but strike a chord in those of us who believe that humanity can do better.

The struggle for global justice and democracy will always encounter resistance fuelled by ignorance, bigotry, fear, prejudice and sheer inertia. Nevertheless the temptation to write ‘Homo globalis of all nations unite!’ is irresistible. We shouldn’t let Bibi’s government with its boring, predictable fear-mongering make us forget that if we choose to make use of the new technologies for progress, peace in the Middle East is not just a dream.

Carlo Strenger’s latest book is The Fear of Insignificance: Searching for Meaning in the Twenty-first Century.