Bestselling Media & Internet in Politics in 2020
Media Politics: A Citizen's Guide (Third Edition)
In-Your-Face Politics: The Consequences of Uncivil Media
- Princeton University Press
Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media: Appropriating the Middle Ages in the Twenty-first Century
Media Madness: Donald Trump, the Press, and the War over the Truth
Media Nation: The Political History of News in Modern America (Politics and Culture in Modern America)
Real-Time Diplomacy: Politics and Power in the Social Media Era
- Used Book in Good Condition
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
- Amusing Ourselves to Death Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
The True Story of Fake News: How Mainstream Media Manipulates Millions
World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech
Social Media, Culture and Politics in Asia (Frontiers in Political Communication)
The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote
Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media
- Pantheon Books
Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right
Democratization, Eastern Europe, and the Internet
A look at the theories of Democratization in Eastern Europe through the lens of the Internet and Internet policy.
The Internet has several advantages over other types of media and communications. For one, it allows for multi-way messaging, similar to a telephone, but with a lessened threat of eavesdropping by the authorities through tapped phone lines. It also affords the advantage of option-value, meaning the consumer can choose freely what to content to view with ease, as opposed to having to search in secrecy for opposition newspapers or settling for state-loyal television or radio programs drenched with propaganda. Furthermore, through a variety of outlets, almost anyone with access can post anything they wish on the Web. All in all, the Internet represents a very powerful tool if utilized correctly by a democratic opposition or within a healthy democratic society. One scholar put it succinctly: "if one posits that democracy depends upon an informed, committed, and connected electorate, the Web has the potential to alter the face of democracy" (Puopolo qtd. in Holt 137).
However, many disagree on the power held within Internet technology. Some say that since it is a single-user technology, it encourages the populace to sit at home by themselves and not engage in a proper civil society. Consequently, they claim, it is not a means towards a greater democratic civilization but rather the opposite. Eric Uslander has examined the merits of such an argument and he sees a clear difference between a "good net" and a "bad net," the former being the Internet that brings people together out of benevolence, common interest, or positive friendship, whereas the latter is the Internet flooded with child abductors, illegal pharmaceutical sales, morally questionable sites and faulty information. His overall conclusion is that the grand effects are more or less neutral and that trust plays a heavy role (Uslander 223-42). Two of his more specific findings, however, are more intriguing to theories of democratization. First, he says that the Internet, or the anonymity it provides, allows people to cross traditional barriers of society that they likely would not in a more traditional public or civil society gathering. "[T]he Internet," he claims, "is the great leveler of class and race barriers" (225). Second, contrary to what many theorists have conjectured, the Internet may well promote broader socialization among its clientele than those who do not utilize the technology. He found that, somewhat surprisingly, "[t]he heaviest users of the Internet have wider social circles and support networks (229).
As a result, unfettered Internet access can play a role in aiding democratization in a variety of ways. Its widespread presence undoubtedly facilitates a more efficient economy, allowing for greater expansion and a generally more wealthy society. If modernization theory as forwarded by Seymour Martin Lipset and others holds true, then such telecommunicative technologies also assist in bringing democracy. If, on the other hand, the initial impetus for democracy must come through individual actors, as O'Donnell and Schmittner and Huntington have suggested, benefits will still come from the Internet because the technology allows for communication, information sharing, and other essential actions to be taken by opposition leaders in a much more clandestine and rapid fashion. Once the initial democratic elections take place and the true political structures of democracy commence, the Internet can help prevent a regression to dictatorship by providing an outlet for dissenting news. Furthermore, on an economic level, having the benefits of such technology helps the stability of democratic regimes. As Przeworski and Limongi argue, once a democracy hits a certain per capita GDP, it does not fall from democracy. Having extensive Internet technology will certainly bolster, not hinder, the economic stability of a modern nation. Hence, as it does not impede civil society, the World Wide Web can offer virtually nothing but benefits to long-term and short-term democratic ideals alike. These benefits, however, are also well known to authoritarian regimes and other leaders seeking absolutist control.
Many international politics scholars and globalization advocates see the Internet as a device which transcends traditional boundaries, borders, and laws. They argue that the only viable means of controlling the Internet is through a set of universally accepted international standards, and they therefore see it as a means through which the world becomes a smaller, more connected place. Nicholas Negroponte goes so far as to say, "[t]he internet (sic) cannot be regulatedâ€¦the nation-state is not relevant" (qtd. in Drezner 481). However, such an internationalist stance simply does not represent present reality. Individual countries and regimes still hold and exercise great authority over possible Internet technology as a means of maintaining their own positions of power, despite the innovative qualities of such technology that may lead one to believe otherwise. The strength of any democratic capabilities of the Web is strictly dependent on the political establishment which surrounds it (Hamelink viii).
On the island communist state of Cuba, for example, Fidel Castro has placed regulations that bar citizens from purchasing a computer system for their own use. On the other side of the globe, the Asian state of Myanmar has taken steps to prohibit private possession of modems. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia cross-checks all Web access and content for purposes of regime security. Similar measures have also been taken in East Asia, in countries such as Singapore and China, where any content that is perceived as being subversive is immediately removed (Drezner 488-9). As Daniel Drezner has contended recently, the presence of the Internet does not weaken state power, as consensus in international law is difficult to attain, but rather allows despotic states yet another avenue through which to exercise control (477-498). Another land beyond the five mentioned thus far which has also not only recognized the power of the Internet but also taken measures to extend its own regime authority over it is the former Soviet Republic of Belarus.
Shortly after gaining status and international recognition as an independent state, Belarus granted its citizens a relatively good amount of civil and political liberties. However, like many other nations that shared its situation, the Belarusian economy suffered many setbacks. This led to the ouster of the head of state and to the critical presidential election of 1994. During the summer of that year, Alexander Lukashenka, a former Soviet bureaucrat who ran on a platform of simplicity and populism, won the contest and soon assumed power (Commission 19-20). Upon winning election, he was soon seen as having "no intentions" of enacting anti-Soviet reform (Titarenko 86). In 1996, Lukashenka basically rewrote the state constitution himself, an act which greatly increased his own power by removing any horizontal accountability and subsequently limited the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly. He continually ignored the Belarusian courts, as well as any standard democratic practices. The international community harshly criticized him for these actions and unanimously refused to acknowledge his various anti-democratic referenda, save his staunch allies the Russians (Commission 19-23).
A decade after gaining independence, Belarus still looked very much as it did throughout the period of the Soviet Union. Whereas other former locations of communist legitimacy altered various aspects of society to reflect the political changes undergone, Belarus had done no such thing. Streets, state newspapers and media outlets, and bureaucratic departments all maintained the same identities they held under Soviet rule (Titarenko 81). Inflation remained high and there were very few advances of capitalist enterprise in any way, shape, or form (Cohen 40). While other areas previously under Soviet hegemony had experienced improved economic performance after initial decline, the standard of living in Belarus did nothing but drop further, failing to follow any sort of expected J-curve, thanks in part to Lukashenka's refusal to enact any further economic reform (Titarenko 82). The nation thus reinforced its relationship with Russia by following a similar economic path. Democratic transition in Belarus was and has been nothing short of disastrous. The economy is awful, civil liberties have been curtailed, and the judiciary and legislatures are largely ineffective (Commission 23). Freedom House, which comparatively ranks countries around the world in terms of liberty and rights, has lowered Belarus' rankings from four for political rights and four for civil liberties the year of Lukashenka's first election to six for each in 2004, where one is an excellent record and seven is the lowest possible ranking.
A component of society where the level of Belarus' authoritarian control can be easily seen is in the regime's regulation of the Internet. All Belarusian Internet Service Provider's must route their respective traffic first to Minsk, through BelPAK, a newly created division of Beltelecom, the state-controlled corporation that holds a monopoly on the telephone system. In addition, the Ministry of Communications forces ISPs to divulge full and accurate lists of their subscribers to the state (Eke 100). The old Soviet totalitarian bureaucratic organization has been maintained, and where necessary new elements of that structure have been created to address potential problems to the regime that have arisen since the fall of communism, such as the implementation of global Internet technology. There are some cases, however, where monitoring content is certainly justified. The September 11 hijackers, for example, used the Web for a variety of ends, and since, other modern states have taken measures to check content (Drezner 489). Yet, the government of Belarus abuses their authority beyond protecting against subversion and domestic terrorism.
Some opposition groups are allowed to maintain sites, but control is constantly exercised over them and with only 8.1 percent of the population having Internet access, with estimates as low as two percent privileged to have regular access, their effect is minimal (Freedom House ). Moreover, there are oftentimes strange and unexplainable hacker attacks that victimize the few independent politically-oriented sites out there (Eke 100). During the 2001 election, many of the opposition Web sites that sought to provide candidate information, as well as independent news sites that were to offer real-time updates and reports of polling violations, were suddenly and mysteriously blocked. As soon as Lukashenka's victory became official, everything worked wonderfully again, a situation that the regime officially labeled a coincidence (100-1).
Additionally, the Belarusian authorities have employed another tactic traditionally used by repressive governments: disciplining a dissident for his or her beliefs by utilizing a technical violation of farcical law. Charter '97, an opposition group of artists, journalists, and other intellectuals created in the same mold of the Czechoslovak Charter '77, reports that correspondent Natallya Kalyada was found guilty of participation in unregistered activities after she posted information about Belarus on a human rights Website (Charter '97). Such actions are quite telling of the overall character of the regime.
A sharp contrast can be seen by comparing Belarus with the Baltic country of Lithuania, its neighbor to the north. Although next to each other and both sharing a Soviet past, the two countries are quite disparate, and have had more or less polarized experiences with democratization. While Belarus retained its ties to Moscow and refused to reform its economic policies, keeping the old Soviet bureaucracy intact and the practices of collectivization and state-ownership alive and well, Lithuania sought to break from the Soviet model, finding allies in the other Baltic states and its neighbor to the west, Poland. Lithuania essentially reformed its economy, while also guaranteeing civil liberties, and now has successfully joined NATO and is in the process of obtaining membership in the European Union. Accordingly, their consolidation of democracy has gone relatively marvelously.
Because Lithuania broke all its formal ties to Russia and avoided any kind of tyrannical authoritarian takeover, its approach to Internet technologies has been different from Belarus'. Generally speaking, the people hold more civil liberties, and thus fall victim to excessive governmental intrusion into electronic affairs much less than their Belarusian counterparts. However, this is not to say that the government has not tried to limit online activities. Recently, the highest court in Lithuania "overruled the shutdown of a pro-Chechen Web site," meaning that there is an independent judicial system that can effectively check executive power and protect basic freedoms. Freedom House accordingly gives Lithuania a rating a one for political freedoms and two for civil liberties (Freedom House ). Such a court ruling never would have happened in Belarus, as the nation lacks the horizontal accountability that is respected in Lithuania and thus just by looking at two recent court cases in two neighboring countries that involve the simple, everyday technology of the Internet, one can learn quite a great deal about the successes of Lithuanian democratization and the utter failures of the Belarusian variety.
One of those differences has recently become relevant in Belarus' southern neighbor, the Ukraine. While it has traditionally been seen to many similarities with Belarus in its strong ties to Russia and its sociopolitical structure in general, the recent events concerning fraudulent election results and the subsequent protest mark an important step in Ukrainian democratization. A short time ago, the formerly puppet Ukrainian state media basically went public and said that it was through telling the lies of the regime. A bit later, the court system declared the most recent election invalid. These events show that the media and the judiciary have taken the proper actions to distance themselves from the centralized state, providing for a system of checks and balances that may well prove to greatly bolster the Ukraine's long-term democratic future.
Free and unfettered Internet access for citizens necessarily guarantees certain civil liberties, such as the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly, by its very capabilities as a form of media transference. Although economic difficulties may prevent the presence of such technology, as it has in much of the former Soviet Union, the way in which the government handles such technology where it does exist shows a great deal about the level of liberalism present in that society. In a way, the Internet can represent a metaphor for democratic process. For scholars like Fareed Zakaria, who emphasize prioritizing liberal rights above procedural democracy, advancements in Internet technology are most surely a positive thing because even if traditional liberal rights are violated by the regime, it is sometimes possible to maneuver around restrictions that might exist to the point where the government cannot violate those basic individual rights. In short, the presence of the Internet makes it harder for those in power to repress basic human rights.
In Belarus, it is possible for the citizens to access the Web free of any censorship or routing through BelPAK by dialing through their modems to a provider in another country. However, this process is very costly, and the underdevelopment of the telephone system removes it from the realm of practical reality. However, with the recent developments in wireless telecommunications, it may soon be possible, if various points inside repressive countries could set up receivers and small networks, to integrate democratic oppositions into a global network free of any laws or regulations set down by their government. In effect, then, a forum would be created that would allow free speech and independent media. Online gatherings may only be electronic, but for many purposes it would likely be more effective than traditional methods of risking an onslaught on opposition by the regime. Perhaps, then, the United States and other modern countries around the world could promote liberal rights and democratization through a system similar to that of Radio Free Europe. Such a setup may be unrealistic or far into the future, but it certainly would aid the democratization process.
Another foreign policy step that becomes apparent by studying the situations of Belarus, Lithuania, and the Ukraine is the necessity of a free and independent media and an autonomous judiciary that can ensure the freedom of the former. In Lithuania this has happened because they successfully committed themselves to economic reform and were thus able to discard any linkage to old-style Soviet totalitarianism; in Belarus, the power remained consolidated and unchecked under a centralized regime that was impatient with the initial decline during economic reform. Nations that wish to see others democratize must emphasize the importance of this separation of powers, this horizontal accountability, between the judiciary and the executive branches and their subsequent relationship to the media, especially if the primary media is state-funded.
In the infant stages of its post-Soviet independence, in 1992, Lithuanians elected the former communists back into power. Nevertheless, Linz and Stepan argue that it did not signify the return of communism because everything was done democratically; democracy was "the only game in town" (454-5). Conversely, in Belarus, democracy never has attained such noble status. Lukashenka and his associates altered the constitution in an undemocratic fashion and found an authoritarian dictatorship that adhered to long-standing Soviet norms and regulations to be an appropriate game to play. As a result, the methods each of these regimes has used to deal with the evolving issues of Internet technology have been radically different, even though both societies in time came to be ruled by former Soviet loyalists. The Lithuanians, respecting that democracy and liberal rights were the only rules permitted to be followed, had to apply democratic standards to their regulation of Internet technology. The leaders of Belarus hold no such respect and therefore implemented various means of illegitimate control.
The expansion of the Internet as a widespread tool is a phenomenon that mostly took place after the fall of communism. Popular use of such technology increases "forums for persuasion," individual participation, and discussion, all in full accordance with democratic ideals (Holt 11-16). Therefore, examining the way in which various countries have addressed issues raised by this technology can be a useful device in gauging the difficulties and pitfalls of democratic transition and consolidation. Belarus and Lithuania make a good matched pair to study the difference between spiraling towards tyranny and becoming a democratic nation accepted by the West's standards. The former refused to enact full economic change, break its strong ties with Russia, sacrifice stability in order to enforce democracy as the only acceptable government form, and de-centralize its state media and judiciary. When Internet technology became present in Belarusian society, the authorities then enacted stringent, illiberal regulations. In Lithuania no such regulations were required for the new technology because they successfully navigated through many of the difficulties of democratic consolidation, providing a system with horizontal checks on executive power, ensuring civil liberties, enforcing the constitution and the rule of law, and seeing economic reform to fruition. Through the commonplace lens of the Internet, one can see the current consequences of past events, and, since a free Internet represents a forum for democratic practice and implies expansive civil liberties, one can measure a country's success with democratization through how that nation handles matters related to Internet technology.