The Internet in the Islamic World:
No Panacea for Democracy
It doesn’t take an expert to realize that the Internet has revolutionized cultural and political life. Virtually anywhere in the world, one can observe Internet-related social change that touches the lives of vast populations. In many societies, even people who don’t own a computer can access the Internet in low cost, public cybercafés. As such, people around the world have become connected like never before. While the utopians among us have recognized the great promise that this interconnectivity presents in terms of access to information, expanded horizons, civic participation and the calling of democracy, there is a dark side to the Internet as well. Setting aside obvious Internet-associated perils such as pornography, scams and other forms of depravity, there are numerous other issues that bring cause for concern. Such dangers are particularly acute in the Islamic world.
From a Western perspective, we might be quick to recognize that the Internet has been used by Islamist terrorist groups to spread information, to radicalize the public, and to organize terrorist activities. Gabriel Weimann (2006) reports that terrorist organization websites increased from 12 in 1998 to 4,800 in 2006. Many of these websites are associated with Islamic groups such as Al Qaeda, who have adopted a ‘whacka-mole’ presence on the Internet to operate with virtual impunity. Weimann notes that such groups use the Internet in order to engage in data mining, networking, recruitment/mobilization, logistical education, fundraising, and attacks on rival groups. Whatever the degree of dangers that such terrorist activities represent, it is important to recognize that radical Islamist groups account for only a small fraction of the Islamic world. To be sure, terrorist groups represent a threat to the peace and safety of people around the world. But to indict the Internet as complicit in global terrorism is the equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
For the vast majority of individuals in the Islamic world, the Internet experience has much in common with Internet use in Europe and North America. In these and other societies, the Internet (coupled with other new technologies such as text messaging) is rapidly becoming the backbone of modern social life as a source of information, entertainment, and social networking. In the process, the Internet has emerged as a powerful ideological force that inevitably raises concerns about resultant clashes between divergent cultures and even between generations within cultures. As it brings the world closer together, the Internet may also foment misunderstandings, hostility and even conflicts. Such intercultural turmoil is not new, but given the ubiquity of the Internet, it is inevitable and largely impervious to intervention from any authority or institution, though this doesn’t absolve societies of responsibility for being vigilant when it comes to assessing these effects.
Over the past 15 years, I have been involved in research that has examined some of the effects of the Internet on American society. More recently, I have been conducting Internet research in the Islamic world. These research projects have yielded some interesting contrasts. In American society, there is currently concern about the Internet’s impact on the credibility of news information. In the modern era of bloggers and user-created news content, we worry about false information created outside the professional rigor imposed by the scrutiny of traditional news organizations. Information consumers may be left confused about what to believe in the absence of institutional sanctioning from mainstream news organizations.
By contrast, we have observed a very different orientation toward information credibility among Islamic populations in countries like Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia. In such countries, mainstream U. S. news organizations (like CNN, the New York Times, Time magazine, etc.) are often viewed as providing distorted and misleading information, as they are assumed to be tools of the U. S. government. Non-official Internet information sources outside the perceived influence of the U. S. government are often considered more believable. In other words, it is quite common for citizens in these Islamic countries to make the opposite inference about information credibility that citizens in the United States make; that is, when information is attributed to mainstream U.S. media, they see it as less credible rather than more credible. As such, they often trust information that disputes claims made by U.S. media, regardless of the plausibility of the information or the credibility of its source. Moreover, such perceptions are accentuated by a history of naive leadership on the part of the U.S. government officials who engage in an ethnocentric brand of foreign policy. As a result, the Internet can fuel anti-American sentiment, give credence to anti-democratic forces, and further widen the cultural divide between the U.S. and the Islamic world.
In sum, optimism about the democratizing potential of the Internet as a social force in the Islamic world, should be tempered by counterbalancing concerns that inhibit democracy. But then again, we might say the same thing about the Internet’s democratizing potential in American society.
Douglas McLeod is professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He joins Inside Islam on the blog to write a guest entry about his research on the Internet and media in the Islamic world. New media was the topic for our second radio show: Young Muslims and New Media. You can you can find out how to listen and participate on the show’s page.