Is internet a democratizing technology? Or is it first and foremost a tool for dictators to further control their populations? In a recently published article I used extensive quantitative research to demonstrate that increasing internet use has led to more protests in authoritarian regimes. However, although increasing use of the internet has facilitated mobilization, other researchindicates that the existence of the internet has not contributed to thedemocratisation of authoritarian states. How to make sense of that? The authoritarian regime of Malaysia illustrates how the internet can enable collective action without truly threatening an authoritarian system.
Ever since independence in 1957 the same ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), has been in power in Malaysia. Strict control over the traditional media has always been an important pillar of its rule. However, when the internet became available to a wider public in the late 1990’s the Malaysian government promised not to censor the internet, in order to attract foreign investment. At the time, this was not seen as a huge political concession: there was no ‘dictators’ dilemma’. Internet was understood in purely economic and not political terms. Also very few Malaysians had access to the web: it was not perceived as a mass medium and hence not threatening. Read more