Towards IR 2.0: International relations, the internet and new political actors

Marcus Woodcock is a Franco-British second year International Relations student at King’s College London. He is interested in the role of the internet in shaping far right ideology and Contemporary Security Issues.

International Relations has frequently been described as a “field in crisis”.[1]Wedged between the holy trinity of realism, liberalism and constructivism and its post-modern critics, theory building in IR never ventures far from its cold war roots. Though this dialectic between post-modern and positivist theories is essential, it is necessary for the field of International Relations to shift its attention to the transformation of the international incurred by new technologies of communication such as the internet. 

  1. IR 101: the current understanding of the internet by IR 

All three core IR theories of IR fail to adequately address the role of the internet. They each adopt instrumentalist perspectives by treating the internet as inherently value free – a tool of communication to be used by different actors to varying degrees of effectiveness. Realism adopts a black box perspective, while Liberalism and Constructivism each analyse the power of culture and norms without paying close attention to the way the tools through which they are disseminated function (aside from international institutions). As a field which purports to study power between and among states, understanding the effects of the internet is essential. To this end, this article will seek to outline three ways the internet is reshaping international politics.

  • The dissemination of Western liberal culture

The internet is not an ex nihilo tool of communication; developed in 1969 by the U.S. Department of Defence (Arpanet) and adopted as a space of freedom, expression and emancipation by early users, it was gradually instrumentalised, monetised and transformed through the encroachment of corporations. As Carr describes it the internet “has metamorphosed into an office park, shopping mall, and entertainment centre”.[2]  

The internet has entrenched, amplified, and disseminated neoliberal ideologies of individualism across the world. Social media is a new space of self-construction and “realisation of the self”. To use a Foucauldian perspective, it has become a “digital panopticon” where standards of self-projection are westernised and prescribed through likes and comments. [3]

Though it could be argued that the internet has taken different forms in more autocratic regimes such as China, the underlying culture is the same. Tik Tok dances, online shopping, changing profile pictures are all political acts which signal one’s belonging to liberal culture, even if explicit political content is censored. The internet is the ultimate mould for norms and ideas, even when the user is not aware of it; If it had been developed in China, it would have probably looked very different.[4]

  • The creation of a new political forum

Another consequence of the internet is the creation of a skewed political forum. The inherently capitalist nature of the internet means that the interests of platforms are fundamentally different from those of their users. While the user intends to use the internet as a tool, the objective of internet corporations is to maximise the time their users spend on their platforms, to then collect and monetise their data.[5]

This leads to the entrenchment and radicalisation of political opinions. The analogy of echo chambers is now widespread; platforms will recommend more content maximise the time users to spend on them. An internal inquiry by Facebook revealed that 64% of all extremist group joins are due to (their) recommendation tools.[6]Moderate anti Vaxxers are funnelled towards conspiracy groups such as Qanon, which now have an aggregated following of about 3 million subscribers on Facebook.[7]

The overload of information with which users are confronted creates environments where attention is in short supply. Behavioural studies show that content which is inflammatory and provokes moral outrage is more susceptible to be disseminated and popularised. The rise of “outsiders” such as Donald Trump can be understood through this prism: It is estimated that the amount of free attention he received on twitter in the 2016 elections would be worth more than 2 billion dollars.[8]

Both these occurrences are compounded by the fact that states are struggling to monitor internet discourse. Though legislation such as the GDPR has been passed, implementation is difficult and platforms such as Twitter are still largely left to autoregulate which content they consider as appropriate or inappropriate through their terms and conditions, effectively entrusting them to define the parameters for global political debate.

  • The rise of new groups and actors

This shift in the way political debate occurs has consequently led to the emergence of new ideological actors. The unique spatialisation of internet enables trans-national association of individuals which were previously considered marginal or deviant. Counter-hegemonic discourses such as that of the Alt-right are amplified and concepts such as Brexit can be birthed into existence and popularised through the internet. The New Right has used the internet to reify their narrative of a global class war between the metropolitan, managerial elite and the “left-behinds” of the globalised economy.[9]

There are metrics for analysing the success of ideas (such as likes, shares), which can be manipulated (by algorithms, or bots), affecting their circulation and the way they are perceived. As a Google executive recently said, the validity of an idea on the internet is no longer determined by its content, but by its popularity.[10]Blommaert highlights that the internet has becoming a battling ground for cultural hegemony: an increasing number of actors compete to assert the legitimacy of their ideas. Redefining what is considered as “normal” political discourse is now possible as the perception of previously marginal ideological positions are refracted and amplified through the internet. [11]

Viewing the internet as an inherently political structure in International Relations is essential for it to transition into the information age. Instead of solely focusing on ideas, it is also primordial to analyse the way they are spread. Creating new analytical tools or applying old ones to the internet should be a priority for IR if it desires to remain relevant.

Bibliography:

Abrahamsen, R. et al. (2020) Confronting the International Political Sociology of the New Right. International Political Sociology. [Online] 14 (1), 94–107.

Anon (2018) Professor Jan Blommaert on Foucault and the internet[online]. Available from: https://www.diggitmagazine.com/videos/professor-jan-blommaert-foucault-and-internet (Accessed 5 October 2020).

Anon (n.d.) Social Media and IR: Reconsidering Liberalism. MIR [online]. Available from: https://www.mironline.ca/social-media-and-ir-reconsidering-liberalism/ (Accessed 5 October 2020).

Anon (2019) Why Gramsci’s ideas are still relevant[online]. Available from: https://www.diggitmagazine.com/column/why-gramscis-ideas-are-still-relevant (Accessed 5 October 2020).

Carr, M. (2016) ‘International Relations Meets Technology Theory’, in US Power and the Internet in International Relations. [Online]. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK. pp. 16–44. [online]. Available from: http://link.springer.com/10.1057/9781137550248_2 (Accessed 5 October 2020).

Kumar, S. (2011) The exercise of hegemony in contemporary culture and media, and the need for a counter-hegemony initiative. Social Scientist. 39 (11/12), 33–40.

Michelsen, N. (2018) International Relations Scholarship at 100: Publicism, Truth-Pluralism and the Usefulness Problem. New Perspectives. [Online] 26 (3), 107–134.

Williams, J. (2018) Stand out of our light: freedom and resistance in the attention economy. Cambridge, United Kingdom ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Wong, J. C. (2020) Down the rabbit hole: how QAnon conspiracies thrive on Facebook. The Guardian. 25 June. [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/jun/25/qanon-facebook-conspiracy-theories-algorithm (Accessed 5 October 2020).

[1]Michelsen, N. (2018) International Relations Scholarship at 100: Publicism, Truth-Pluralism and the Usefulness Problem. New Perspectives

[2]ibid

[3]Anon (2018) Professor Jan Blommaert on Foucault and the internet [online]. Available from: https://www.diggitmagazine.com/videos/professor-jan-blommaert-foucault-and-internet

[4]Carr, M. (2016) ‘International Relations Meets Technology Theory’, in US Power and the Internet in International Relations. [Online]. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK. pp. 16–44. [online]. Available from: http://link.springer.com/10.1057/9781137550248_2 (Accessed 5 October 2020).

[5]Williams, J. (2018) Stand out of our light: freedom and resistance in the attention economy. Cambridge, United Kingdom; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

[6]ibid

[7]Wong, J. C. (2020) Down the rabbit hole: how QAnon conspiracies thrive on Facebook. The Guardian. 25 June. [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/jun/25/qanon-facebook-conspiracy-theories-algorithm (Accessed 5 October 2020).

[8]Williams, J. (2018) Stand out of our light: freedom and resistance in the attention economy. Cambridge, United Kingdom; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

[9]Abrahamsen, R. et al. (2020) Confronting the International Political Sociology of the New Right. International Political Sociology. [Online] 14 (1), 94–107.

[10]Williams, J. (2018) Stand out of our light: freedom and resistance in the attention economy. Cambridge, United Kingdom; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

[11]Anon (2019) Why Gramsci’s ideas are still relevant [online]. Available from: https://www.diggitmagazine.com/column/why-gramscis-ideas-are-still-relevant

Image credits:
https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2017/01/20/gmos-biotechnology-poses-challenge-international-relations/

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