Neuland: How the Internet Challenges Old Politics

Are we witnessing the beginning of user-generated politics, even hashtag politics, with no need for leadership? Since the dawn of user-generated content, it has become ever easier for us common people to assert political views in forums where they can be viewed and studied by all.

Now, popular grievances and political ideas can be expressed by anyone in chat-rooms, in the comments sections of websites, or simply condensed and inserted into the debate as a hashtag on Twitter. Distrust of authority necessarily extends from the anarchic democratization favored by the internet, as each person sticks to his own user-generated political theory. The spread of wild conspiracy theories is part of this phenomenon, as people reject the mainstream in favor of alternatives, usually their own user-generated political narrative.

On the positive side, most people are well-informed enough to weigh in on any political issue, which always adds to a healthy democratic process. On the negative side, charlatanry spreads and irrational attachment to one’s personal political narrative can blind a person to other advice or legitimate authorities. As such, the internet can be seen to qualify ignorance as the equal of wisdom. Whatever the negative effects, democratization of knowledge and the means of expression is a necessary part of social progress, so the ill effects presently being witnessed in web politics deserve to be forgiven.

Because of the ease of accessing information through the internet, web users are prone to find solace in any political camp that is expressing their current political interests, no matter what ideology or party this political camp originated in. In turn, ideologies and parties that depart from old labels and flags, and instead turn to a hashtag or web slogan as their identity, eliminate any sectarian tendency and so they tend to have the most popularity on the internet.

Examples of hashtag politics can be found in the Anonymous collective and the Occupy movement. The former celebrated its very lack of any identity, as a headless agent for decentralized popular rallying. The latter (although left-wing in its political theory) drew attention to the pure fact it represented majority interests as the 99%, rather than celebrating tenets of a specific ideology.

Both of the above are cases of an idea or name being electronically carried by people who did not necessarily join an organization. Lack of membership in an organization represents a very definite departure from traditional party-coordinated forms of political activism.

Lack of interest in organization membership can be compared with another trend related to web politics: unthinkable coalitions. Increasingly, we can see the formation of very unlikely coalitions, on the basis of a slogan or a top priority that can demonstrably turn serious ideological foes into allies. One example of this is the kind of broad-based opposition movement that became the norm in the Arab Spring. Another is the alliance of progressives and libertarians to promote internet freedom in the US and Europe.

It might sound great that foes can become allies, but there is a perilous fault in their relationship. When political solidarity forms on the basis of a slogan or idea, such as the Arab Spring’s famous call, “the people want the downfall of the regime,” it is easy for diverse individuals and groups to join hands as they hate a regime together. Unfortunately, it provides no guarantee that their differences will not lead to fierce infighting, especially after the regime is gone. This happened in the cases of Egypt and Libya, where the succeeding regimes were extremely fractured or even suffered further internal conflicts. Hatred of a previous regime is no basis on which to invent a new regime, especially when the groups overthrowing the regime are patchy, highly sectarian and attached to some minority program.

In the case of libertarians and progressives joining forces to support internet transparency, we do not have the kind of peril observed in the Arab Spring coalitions, because internet transparency is not about destroying a regime but about limiting its abilities. By supporting internet transparency together, libertarians and progressives are simply joining hands in a limited sense to curtail some government powers, but not deluding themselves that they are really a coalition or an alternate regime.

Another internet challenge to old politics is the capacity for the organization of campaigns through social networks. Many Arab Spring protests were organized through social networks, and this is possible with no specific political party lending its resources for the purpose of campaigning. Social networks enable a level of anonymity for protesters, although this is not guaranteed as ever greater state technologies are being developed to monitor protesters.

Social networking for the purpose of political campaigning can lead to what states consider to be unlawful gatherings and protests. State authorities, by breaking up the unlawful protests, are then portrayed by campaigners as repressing legitimate popular expression, when they are actually simply preserving the law. Popular involvement in social network-led campaigning demonstrates that a strong sense of legitimacy can be gained through electronic gatherings, and this can override faith in the political process of a country.

On the whole, the internet is bad news for the old forms of politics and statecraft. Those of us who are puzzled by Nicolas Sarkozy’s attitude to the internet when he called it a new frontier, or Angela Merkel when she called it “neuland”, should consider the seriousness of the internet’s dire challenges to old-fashioned statecraft.

States are searching for ever greater levels of secrecy and internet snooping because they are trying to slow down something they do not understand. The motive for their actions towards the internet is their fear of the unknown, their fear of a rapidly changing political landscape and new faults in the foundations of the nation-state.

Harry J. Bentham is a British futurist blogger who has been a contributor at a number of think tanks including the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies since 2013. His work at Press TV and the multi-faith Beliefnet website has gained increasing attention and praise, including in the international media. Commentaries on political and ethical controversies by Bentham have been published at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, H+ Magazine, Dissident Voice and numerous other publications. He edits The Blog. Read other articles by Harry.