The Internet empowers people and allows the disenfranchised and downtrodden to raise their voices. Activists tell each other where to protest, when and against what or whom. Police brutality is videoed and evidence of corruption shared with millions. In short, the Internet is good for democracy. Or is it? I got thinking last week after a discussion we had on the subject at this year’s Bodrum Roundtable, an annual meeting of 50-odd politicians, think-tankers, editors and other people who shape policy, hosted by Istanbul’s EDAM think-tank and the UK-based Centre for European Reform.

The relationship between the Internet and politics is not straightforward. At the end of the 1990s, 4% of the world’s population were using the Internet; today it is 40%. The number of movements, uprisings and campaigns that use Twitter, Facebook or other new media sites has probably risen as exponentially. The share of countries that Freedom House, the NGO, classifies as free, partly free and unfree has hardly budged since 1999. In the battle between networks and hierarchies, the hierarchies seem to be winning more often than not.

One reason surely is that autocrats have become as skilful at using the Internet as activists. Governments hold large amounts of data on their citizens. They use the Internet and mobile phones to track down opposition leaders. They restrict access to the Internet and employ armies of people to vet and skew the conversation online. Some argue that individual empowerment through the Internet fosters repressive responses (just like globalization has brought us state capitalism). Others say the Internet acts as political release valve and thus helps dictators stay in power.

Even the most determined autocrat cannot fully control political activity online. Unplugging the Internet – the crudest measure – is becoming more painful as more economies depend on it. When Egypt shut down the networks at the height of the Tahrir Square protests in 2011, the country’s financial system almost went down too. Tech-savvy users tend to get around attempts at official censorship. Unable to control the input, some governments try to contain outcomes. The Supreme People’s Court in China stipulates that defamation becomes punishable if it is retweeted more than 500 times or read by more than 5,000 people on the Internet.

While governments are losing control, Internet activists are not necessarily gaining power. Online movements usually have lasting impact only if they generate traditional political activity such as street protests or the establishment of parties. For this, they need leadership. However, Internet activists often reject leadership since they see themselves as pure grassroots movements (look at the Pirate Party in Germany that almost self-destructed in its attempt to give each member an equal say in formulating its programme). In the absence of leadership, strategies and compromise, most Internet-aided uprisings have dissipated quickly.

Some people warn that the Internet might not only be ineffective in the fight against tyranny, but it could also be making politics in established democracies more volatile:

  • Only 16% of Americans in their forties read newspapers these days. The share among twenty-somethings is 6%. Even in the UK, with its vibrant print market, newspaper circulation has halved in the last 15 years. While digital media offer great diversity and easy access, they encourage people to retrieve only information and commentaries that fit their existing views. While traditional media can present their readers with balanced coverage, digital media might fuel political polarization.
  • Political firebrands, populists and radicals, from Beppe Grillo in Italy to the Tea Party in the US, use social media and the blogosphere to appeal directly to potential supporters. Populists’ rejection of “traditional” politics fits well with new forms of association (think Facebook support rather than party membership). The Internet allows political upstarts to amass a large following quickly. Many of them disappear from the political scene just as fast. But their ebb and flow can unsettle established politics, for example when centrist parties move to the right to lure voters away from more extreme parties.
  • Clever politicians have long embraced social media. Barack Obama has more than 38 million followers on Twitter. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reaches 3.5 million this way. Talking back to authority on the Internet gives people a sense of empowerment, but they also want their leaders to hear them and act upon their wishes and grievances. While Obama’s Twitter account follows 600,000 people (who could potentially respond to him), Erdoğan follows no one. If politicians use social media as a one-way street, young people might get disenchanted with their “unresponsive” leaders.
  • Young people might feel that they have exhausted their civic duties by joining the debate online. They do not join parties, trade unions or other interest groups that are needed for a smooth political process. The average age of party members in Germany is between 50 and 60 (depending on the party). In the UK, pensioners over 60 are more likely to be members of a trade union than workers under 30 (There is, of course, a vicious circle here, as “ageing” organizations have little appeal to youngsters). Without civil society organizations, politics becomes more fragmented and less cohesive; finding workable compromises becomes harder.

A more realistic assessment of what the Internet can bring to politics is welcome. Yet we should not become pessimistic or defeatist. Yes, the Internet can be used for propaganda, populism and repression. But it also informs, unites and empowers people in completely new ways and helps them to fight for their rights and freedoms.

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Author: Katinka Barysch is Director of Political Relations as Allianz SE and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. The views expressed here are her own.

Image: A man is seen holding up a laptop computer REUTERS/Dado Ruvic.