The internet rules international relations

Katherine Pye outlines the influence of the internet revolution on global politics.

At the recent G7 summit, the usual array of national figureheads flooded our television screens, their quarrels, rifts and pledges seem to characterise global politics today. One ignorant megalomaniac too many on the international stage seems to tip the world into despair.

Yet, beneath the surface a revolution is taking place, shifting power from the hands of presidents shuffling around conference tables to glow beneath the fingertips of ordinary citizens. It is a quiet revolution of 1s and 0s, which is slowly but surely shifting the sands of international policy-making. The internet, and how it is used, is revolutionising international society and global power structures.

International relations has historically revolved around nations and their interrelation- ships. Diplomacy has historically been a way to conduct those interactions. Yet the exponential growth of the internet is both multiplying and intensifying the voices that shape strategic international decision-making. The internet has, under the feet of international leaders in glowing fibre-optic cables, been an integral force in driving forward a global civil society; civilian transnational groups that act across international borders and operate independently of what their states tell them.

The ‘Israel loves Iran’ and reciprocal ‘Iran loves Israel’ Facebook page which went viral in 2012 is a brilliant example. Whilst it had little effect on the geopolitics of the region, it markedly affected how millions of ordinary citizens viewed each other. Thousands of meetings were arranged between ordinary Iranians and Israelis, who circulated photos and formed new friendships. They completely undercut the conventional diplomatic process, directly addressing citizens over states, with “not ready to die for your war” as the most famous slogan.

In this way, ordinary voices have, slowly but surely, undercut the state monopoly on the diplomatic process, particularly on relations between citizens. Cyber space is what its users make of it; its content is defined by groups of users circulating what they want others to see in the world. These communities are lateral and dispersed, but able to act collectively through the internet, most notably since 2010 in the Arab Revolutions in which Facebook and Twitter connected disparate communities to unite, in the face of great danger, behind a common cause. Naturally, a global cyberspace community also spreads into the deep and dark web, with the spread of fascist and islamist hate speech in groups online.

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But the internet is also hastening the dissemination of information, regardless of whether it is accurate or not, often on events which can have a global impact. International government pandemonium over how to deal with WikiLeaks reflects the emergence of a society far beyond their control. More and more, information is going on to the internet directly to users and even established news outlets are struggling to filter, process and gain the upper hand in the dissemination of information. You only need to ask the Chinese government how difficult it is to retain a state monopoly on information in light of current internet technology.

So how should our national figureheads respond? Is there still a place for intergovernmental organisations? International organisations such as NATO hugely benefit from data-driven technology which allow them to exchange large volumes of information between member states. Yet many of the international organisations founded in the aftermath of World War II lag behind in dealing with the new challenges posed by the internet age. They are losing their ability to govern the vastly expanding but largely unregulated domain technology has generated. Institutions that deal only in sanctions, international summits and confers information by press conferences are already an anachronism.

In the way that the development of ships for ocean voyages in the 16th century enabled the European expansion at the expense of Arab empires and radio and telegrams transformed 20th century international relations, so the expansion of the internet creates new opportunities for 21st century foreign policy. However, the rate of change brought about by the internet is unprecedented, and the change is more radical than ever before. The internet will not continue to expand unregulated at its present rate; the next decade will see governments and organisations begin to adapt to the Wild West of cyber space. Global society in 10 years’ time will likely be unrecognisable, for better or for worse, directly because of continued technological innovation.

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