Inside the Information Society: What happened to those liberal hopes?

Twenty years ago, the internet was expected to advance the causes of democracy and human rights. But is it turning out that way? The world today is less liberal than it was back then. What’s happening?

Old expectations

Let’s go back twenty years or so, when the internet was becoming widespread in the North, more available in the South, and widely seen as a source of new hope for development and human rights. We made assumptions then about the impact it would have on politics, both globally and nationally.  

Many of those who designed, developed and deployed the internet in those early days – both in its heartland of America and across the globe – had liberal or (sometimes) libertarian instincts. They believed that it would advance causes they espoused: empowerment, equality, freedom of expression and association, multistakeholder decision-making, the rights of individuals rather than the power of governments or businesses. 

The internet, they expected, would inform and empower citizens, enhance democracy, advance human rights, reduce corruption, lead to a more integrated and politically open culture, better and more respectful governance. The world would be a better place politically – as well as culturally and economically – because of it. 

The ‘Arab Spring’, seven years ago, was hailed by many as an illustration of this democratising, rights-enhancing power of the internet. Facebook and Twitter, in particular, were praised by many – from the US government to the gurus of the internet – as new agents of popular action that would liberalise and liberate entrenched autocracies.

New realities

Twenty years on, the internet is much more widespread.  Almost everyone in much of the North uses it daily; it’s at the very centre of many of their lives.  Internet use is increasingly widespread in the South as well: while not universally available, it’s part of daily life and decision-making for almost everyone with political and economic power in every Southern, as in every Northern, nation.

We’re twenty years into the internet age. By now, if those expectations of the Internet as a force for political liberalisation were well-founded, we should be seeing liberalising, liberating trends across the globe. We should be able to take stock of the political transformation that was promised and look forward to the future.  

Yet when we look at today’s political landscape – globally and in most individual countries – we see something very different: the rise of populist nationalism, of authoritarian rather than liberal government, of disrespect for human rights.  It's hard to name more than a handful of countries in which politics today are freer than they were at the turn of the century; far easier to name those in which they’re not.

This blog is written partly in response to the latest turn of the ratchet away from liberalism: the election of a populist authoritarian president in Brazil, a country which has to date been strongly supportive of a democratic rights-based internet.

What has happened?

The internet age has not so far been the age of freedom and respect for human rights that its proponents hoped for and expected. We need to take stock of this, not to celebrate the internet advancing empowerment and freedom, but to question why it’s not done so. Were those liberal assumptions false? Why have they not been fulfilled?  How do we need to rethink our understanding of the relationship between the internet, democracy and rights in the light of this experience?

Let’s start with where we are.

It’s obvious, for example, that the ‘Arab Spring’ did not live up to expectations. Only one of the countries which experienced uprisings then, partly attributed to online activism, is recognisably freer now. Three have experienced prolonged civil wars and worse; others reverted to authoritarian rule.

The political culture in many democratic countries has swung, in the internet age, away from liberalism towards nationalism and populism. In America, Europe, Asia, governments have come to power which are less committed to human rights than those before them.

It’s increasingly agreed that the availability of greater content (online and offline) has not led to individuals experiencing more diversity of information but to increased reliance on intermediaries selecting information for them. That’s tended to polarise opinion – whether the intermediaries are partisan (Fox News) or not (algorithms) – rather than diversify it.

Online anonymity and pseudonymity enable people to bypass legal and social constraints on expression. This has positive and negative dimensions. In authoritarian countries it facilitates dissent (within bounds permitted by surveillance). But it’s also facilitated a resurgence in racist, misogynist and hate speech in democratic countries where these had been outlawed by changing social norms.  

The internet doesn’t only enable information, as was expected twenty years ago; it also enables misinformation and disinformation. It’s not just the most powerful tool for empowerment that we’ve experienced for centuries; it’s also the most powerful tool for manipulation. Conspiracy theories are profoundly destructive of the political trust essential for empowerment, but they’re far more seductive online than complex policy proposals. In the internet age at present, I’d argue, the advocates of freedom are being outmanoeuvred by the peddlers of propaganda. 

Three conclusions

Let me add three further observations before asking where we go from here.

First, revolutionary changes in communications have complex impacts. It takes time for these to be resolved. There’s nothing inherently ‘progressive’ about the internet.  Everyone can use it to serve their interests. Not everyone that uses it shares the commitment to development, welfare and rights that most readers of this blog might share.  Far from it.

Second, most people aren’t interested in politics or political engagement. They don’t have the time to spend on analysing political choices in the depth that those who are engaged would like.  (Anyone who’s been a candidate or canvassed in elections knows this.) It isn't simple to discriminate between fact and fiction, truth and lies. Slogans, therefore, often win out over complex arguments, as much in ‘information-rich’ environments as in ‘information-poor’ ones. This is easily exploited.

Third, we’re way past the time that the internet and its impacts could be considered in isolation from the rest of economic, social, political and cultural life. The future of the internet should not be determined by internet insiders within silos concerned primarily with advancing the Internet itself, but rooted in much broader international and national fora concerned with the complex interactions between technology and human societies. A world that is increasingly polarised is sadly lacking in fora that can do this now.

Looking forward

Let’s be clear, I’m not being negative here about the internet, or about the platform it provides for greater information and empowerment. That is immensely important and to be valued. We should not despair about the condition of the Net or the condition of the world (easy as the latter might be); but we should recognise that we think to think about them differently.  

First, we need to reconsider how we think about the internet. There is no automatic link between internet access – or  information access – and the outcomes which have been desired by advocates of development and human rights. Its likely impact on outcomes in politics and rights depends on human interaction with it. 

Shaping the internet and shaping future society require us to recognise the ways in which online activity is harming as well as helping empowerment and equality – and to prioritise resisting harm.

Second, we need to reconsider how we think about political engagement and human rights in the digital age. The internet has profoundly changed the ways in which opinion’s shaped and politics are done. Those who value democracy and human rights need to be more, not less, effective at using it than those who don’t.

Democracy and human rights are fragile, recent innovations in human history. They have never been the norm. Sustaining them is difficult. We can’t simply rely on citing rights agreements in order to defend them, but need to reinvigorate them within public discourse. Michael Ignatieff, among others, has written recently about the way rights language has lost resonance and called for more emphasis on the ethical framework that has meaning to most people. Both internet and rights advocates should reflect on this.

So: no more assumptions that all will be well; much more consideration of how they might well not be. And we need to get this right now rather than wringing hands and hoping for the best. Think about all those aspirations that are being expressed right now for artificial intelligence and big data. And then about how artificial intelligence and big data might be used by populist politicians and authoritarian regimes.  

Image: Randy Colas via

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.
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