The Internet, once hailed as a borderless realm of information and connectivity, has evolved into a complex arena intertwined with geopolitics (Dahlberg, 2011). In today’s interconnected world, the control and influence over cyberspace have far-reaching implications for states and global stability (Dahlberg, 2011).The Internet can be a battleground for state power, global dialogue, and activism, as evidenced by the rise of cyber attacks, the role of social media in shaping public opinion, and the struggles for digital rights. While the internet and social media serve as an openly accessible platform for activism, however, it has also become a critical arena for state power projection, which is the highlight of the multifaceted nature of geopolitics on the Internet.
Geopolitics of The Internet?
In this modern day world, democracy is being used as a unit to measure peace and freedom in a country (Dahlberg, 2011). Powers & Jablonski (2015) stated that in western countries the right to participate in the digital economy and communication online is seen as the fundamental human rights. Therefore, in this time of age, when private corporations take the lead in the global growth of the internet, making it accessible to everyone, it should not be taken for granted.
State Power Projection: Cyber Warfare
From Insker (2016) stated one of the most salient examples of the geopolitics of the Internet is the interference of Russian hackers in the US presidential election in 2016. The alleged Russian hacker published data from the Democratic National Committee to the public. The release of confidential DNC data strategically timed during the election season however, it had not been verified at the time whether or not these leaked information were true, it still had a significant impact on public perception which further created a narrative that influenced voters’ opinions and eroded trust in the democratic process (Insker, 2016). This action demonstrated that the Internet is not only a medium for communication but also a battleground where state actors can wage information warfare to manipulate public opinion and influence electoral outcomes. Thus further blurred the line between state and non-state actors in the digital world.
[FBI published a wanted poster for the culprit of the cyber attacks (FBI, 2018)]
Therefore, the Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election illustrated how nation-states can harness the Internet to manipulate information, influence public opinion, and potentially impact the outcomes of crucial political events.
Global Dialogue: Social Media’s Influence
Frangonikolopoulos & Chapsos (2012) showed how social media platforms have emerged as powerful tools for shaping public opinion and influencing geopolitical narratives through the case of The Arab Spring. During the Arab Spring, citizens used social media platforms and web blogs to share news, images, videos, and firsthand accounts of events unfolding on the ground which allowed people worldwide to stay informed about the protests and the actions of oppressive regimes (Frangonikolopoulos & Chapsos, 2012). The speed at which information spread was unprecedented, making it challenging for governments to control or suppress the flow of information.
Due to Web 2.0’s accessibility and cheap technology, it also provided an accessible and convenient means for activists to communicate and influence others (Frangonikolopoulos & Chapsos, 2012). Especially for this case, social media created a hitherto unheard-of possibilities for the dissemination of information independent of the dominating and regulated mainstream media of the Arab regimes (Frangonikolopoulos & Chapsos, 2012). Therefore, access to Social media platforms helped amplify the voices of ordinary citizens, allowing them to have a global reach. Activists and protesters could communicate directly with the international community, garnering attention and support for their causes. Images and videos of protests, often shared via social media, evoked empathy and solidarity from people worldwide. This international attention placed additional pressure on oppressive regimes and could potentially lead to diplomatic interventions or sanctions.
[The Arab Spring social movement (History, 2020)]
Digital Rights: Snowden revelations
The fight for digital rights is another critical aspect of the geopolitics of the Internet due to several key factors, particularly the revelations brought to light by Edward Snowden. In 2013, Edward Swoden revealed classified documents from the United States on the extent of government surveillance (Pohle & Audenhove, 2017) . Pohle and Audenhove (2017) gave a short summary on the paradoxical politics response to the revelations that it accelerated a critical conversation about the future of Internet regulation and the value of data privacy. This surveillance poses a significant threat to individuals’ privacy and civil liberties. Concerns over mass surveillance programs, such as the NSA’s PRISM, have sparked debates and public awareness on the balance between national security and individual privacy as well as the ethics and legality component of state’s practices (Pohle & Audenhove, 2017) . Which even further questions the democratic discourse of modern western civilisation. This pressured governments world wide to implement reforms on surveillance programs (Pohle & Audenhove, 2017). The Snowden revelations served as a catalyst for global discussions and policy changes related to surveillance, privacy, and transparency. Activists nowadays continue to use digital platforms to advocate for these rights and hold governments accountable for their actions in the digital realm (Pohle & Audenhove, 2017). The ongoing debate underscores the complexity and significance of digital rights in the context of contemporary geopolitics.
[Edward Snowden (The Guardian, 2013)]
However, Digital rights and surveillance practices vary from one country to another, reflecting different legal frameworks, cultural norms, and political agendas. Pohle & Audenhove (2017) mentioned the contribution of Nathalie Maréchal (2017) on the authoritarian network control policies in Russia as elements of their foreign policy to establish the country as a significant geopolitical player and envisioned the importance of geopolitics in Digital Information in the future. Contrasting to the public’s critical response in democratic countries. The geopolitics of the Internet encompass these variations and influence how nations approach digital rights.
Critics argue that the Internet’s global nature makes it difficult to regulate and control effectively, rendering state power in this realm limited. While it is true that the Internet resists complete control, state actors have still found ways to exert influence through tactics like censorship and cyber warfare. The Internet’s very openness can be exploited for state interests.
Furthermore, concerns about misinformation and polarisation on social media platforms are valid. However, these issues do not negate the fact that social media remains a vital tool for global dialogue and activism. Efforts to address misinformation and enhance digital literacy can coexist with the positive aspects of these platforms.
The undeniable truth of our modern world is that the Internet is deeply intertwined with global politics. It acts as an arena where states vie for power, a stage for worldwide conversations, and a driver for advocacy in the realm of digital rights. Despite the obstacles it presents, such as cyber warfare and the dissemination of false information, the Internet’s capacity to bring about positive transformation and foster global connections must not be overlooked. Recognising and navigating the complexities of the geopolitics of the Internet are essential for a more secure and democratic digital future.
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DeNardis, L., & GLOBAL COMMISSION ON INTERNET GOVERNANCE. (2017). INTRODUCTION: THE SHIFTING GEOPOLITICS OF INTERNET ACCESS. In The Shifting Geopolitics of Internet Access: From Broadband and Net Neutrality to Zero-rating (pp. 1–4). Centre for International Governance Innovation. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep05240.57
Frangonikolopoulos, C. A., & Chapsos, I. (2012). Explaining the role and the impact of the social media in the Arab Spring. Global Media Journal: Mediterranean Edition, 7(2). https://doi.org/10.1080/00396338.2016.1231527
FBI (2018).RUSSIAN INTERFERENCE IN 2016 U.S. ELECTIONS. In Most Wanted. FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION. https://www.fbi.gov/wanted/cyber/russian-interference-in-2016-u-s-elections <accessed 6 October 2023>
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Nigel Inkster (2016) Information Warfare and the US Presidential Election, Survival, 58:5, 23-32, DOI: 10.1080/00396338.2016.1231527
Powers, S. M., & Jablonski, M. (2015). The real cyber war: The political economy of internet freedom. University of Illinois Press.
Pohle, J., & Van Audenhove, L. (2017). Post-Snowden internet policy: between public outrage, resistance and policy change. Media and Communication, 5(1), 1-6.
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