No internet access means no political power – nor social power – for politically marginalized ethnic groups feared by governments around the world.
Those are the findings of a new study published September 9th in the journal Science: autocratic and authoritarian governments seeking to limit the rise of ethnic groups perceived as a threat to the status quo power structure simply limit the groups’ access to the Internet.
“The places where politically excluded groups live tended to be the very places that internet connections were the most sparse,” explains writer John Bohannon in Science. “The net result is that politically excluded groups had 30% less internet connectivity compared with others in their own country. And for the most excluded groups, that number plummeted as low as 1%.”
The internet is supposed to be the great democratic leveler, of course, giving even the most oppressed ethnic and politically or socially shunned groups and individuals a free voice and open platform. That turns out to be true – in democratic societies and nations.
But according to the study conducted by a group of researchers at Germany’s University of Konstanz autocratic governments limit politically marginalized groups’ power not necessarily through censorship but, rather, through denying them access to the internet in the first place. The research team studied internet access from 2004 through 2012.
“Rather than being organized top-down, the world’s computers are connected to each other by a bushy, redundant network of servers,” Bohannan explains. “Each country builds and maintains its own infrastructure for connecting citizens to the wider internet. The decision to expand and maintain the infrastructure in one region and not another is up to those in power. And therein lies the problem: Ethnic and religious minorities who are excluded from their country’s political process may also be systematically excluded from the global internet.”
The Konstanz University team’s study shows ethnic and religious groups such as Muslims and the Madhesi people in Nepal, the Venda in South Africa, the Yi and Bouyei peoples in China, the Kashmiri Muslims in India, the indigenous people of the Andes in Peru, the Moro in the Philippines and the Papauans in Indonesia to be among the most marginalized in the world when it comes to internet access. The governments of South African, India, Peru, Philippines and Indonesia are not considered by the world to be particularly authoritarian, if should be noted.
The next step, suggests the Science piece (and Konstanz University study), “is to measure the (effect) of the internet gap using natural experiments. If people’s access to online computers influences the outcomes of elections or the frequency of political riots, for example, then it would show that the old adage is truer than ever: Information really is power.”