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Internet Democracy?
The role of the Internet in the revolts in the Maghreb region, and the dynamics at play between local and external influences?
Arturo Di Corinto ??
@ Fejs AC 2011

Since the times of Pericles, the forms of communication are constantly intertwined with the forms of democracy. It is perhaps for this reason that we have come to believe that any new medium, particularly with the penetration of modern mass communication, could herald a new dawn for our democracy. That was the case with the launch of telephone, radio, cinematography and finally television. But we know how that turned out: initially used by a bunch of pioneers, in some cases these media become a tool for Government propaganda and eventually large companies stepped in giving way to a typical merger and acquisition trend. The resulting conglomerates learned quickly how to control content and to communicate it to the masses to suit their own interests, while more and more the media space was being occupied by political figures just interested in gaining power, from Thailand to Italy to Mexico.
In recent years we witnessed the emergence of a novel and powerful communication tool – actually, broad a set of tools which we simply call the Internet. Once again, this new medium has deceived us in envisioning “a new era of Athenian democracy,” according to former USA vice-president Al Gore. Among its early theorists, the founders of the monthly Wired Magazine called up for “a democracy without professional intermediaries” based on a widespread use of distance technologies enabling an open and multidirectional communication. And in 1996 the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, drafted by John Perry Barlow (co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation), sanctioned the vision of a totally “self-governing Internet” and the rebuttal to government of the Internet by any outside force, specifically the United States.

However, even in this case we could predict the outcome of this story. With the current professionalization of political communication, who has deep pockets is the winner on the Internet, can develop the best sites and pay viral agents to trigger the message chain that leads to the general consensus. Despite our initial hope that on the Internet every individual could communicate on equal terms, today this approach is far from the truth.

In other words, even before a large new movement (such as MoveOn.org in the USA) was able to effectively use the network power to mobilize people around a political idea, people got involved and organized on the ground. The same stands true for the Iran’s Green Wave on Twitter, the online support for Burmese monks and, more to the point, the large protests and revolts in Africa fostered by social media.
In Italy, for example, we have the “Purple People” based on Facebook, along with other online projects such as “People of the Tomato”, “People of the Blue Suitcase”, and so on. Could we say that these forms of association are a new way of democratic participation? Absolutely. Are these forms enough to actually change things? Certainly not.
On one hand we are still trying to figure out how the Internet actually works and how it can be an instrument of democracy, while on the other hand we need to re-think the broad meaning of democracy.

It’s a fact that the Internet is the largest public Agora in history, but this is due only to its initial design aimed at allowing a horizontal, borderless, many-to-many conversation. However, National laws and decrees, along with specific issues such as the digital divide, are constantly threatening its open nature and preventing many people to fully access its tools. In Africa, for instance, the landscape is all but optimistic: several authoritarian States are trying and have tried to “turn off” the Internet, and in some cases they even succeeded, even if briefly.
Yet the recent protests of North Africa have reveled the leadership of a younger generations using online platforms for political action. They are not afraid to expose and criticize their government conduct, to promote new initiative and to ask for worldwide support for their protest. In many instances, this online wave has been going on for a while — as shown in a beautiful documentary of Carolina Popolani, focused on Egyptian bloggers who have been expressing for several years their dreams, their current needs and their hopes for the future (http://www.vimeo.com/19744049). Persecuted at home, they connected with other bloggers and activists across the world, particularly with the Africans of the “diaspora”, launching new forms of participation and mobilization both online and offline.

This framework has been confirmed, for example, by a research of the European Forum on Immigration (fieri.it). The final outcome finds that young Italian immigrant (and digital natives) are increasingly taking an active role as “netizens”: mostly excluded from the traditional avenues of participation, they find on the web a public space, a place to share citizenship and non-conventional political participation, open to all individuals and associations as well.

In the same fashion, on the southern Mediterranean coast, online social networks offered an opportunity for “redemption” especially for second-generation immigrants. Facebook and YouTube alone are not enough to spread democracy, but they are certainly promoting a new political consciousness whose outcome cannot be easily predicted.

These social networks are becoming “public spheres” in which to articulate and disseminate questions and proposals, thus stimulating new forms of participation and mobilization well beyond the online environment. When someone can express their own views and dissatisfaction, often anonymously, joining others with the same perspective, people feel less alone and more powerful, and they are willing to take it to the streets and risk life. That was the case of Tunisia, where the desperate act of a street vendor inflamed the Maghreb region.

Therefore, somehow it is true that these tools encourage awareness-building and, paired with traditional media, could become a powerful tool of pressure against national political elites. But the future of those “democracies” born from the ashes of the North African revolts remains still an open question. The people of the Net are not and cannot be an electoral constituency.

Despite the “democracy of opinions” pushed by social networks, democracy must not to be confused with an electronic referendum or the many “like” Facebook buttons, or with choosing from alternatives let down from above, or with e-voting. Democracy is a process where the ability to express ourselves according to the rules is the foundation for an open dialogue and confrontation where we must reach a stable and shared decision-making procedure. It is too early to be certain that the Internet will be effective in actually giving birth to new forms of deliberative democracy. At this stage we can only hope that (and work for) a new era of Athenian e-democracy will lead to the creation of a new public sphere finally aware of itself.