Human & Machine• SOCIAL MEDIA

The New Internet Diaspora

With larger and more diverse groups of human beings roaming the planet far from their traditional homelands, many are turning to online connections.
Raphael Tsavkko Garcia

Diasporas have historically occupied a secondary role in the study of international relations, despite the fact that such international migrations are a subject of great significance. In the past 20 years though, the study of diasporas has gained more relevance—especially now, with the massive migration of Syrian refugees toward Europe. Outside academia, diasporas usually gain prominence when they are celebrated and commemorated in localities and regions via the migrants' food, history, or other cultural markers. Diasporas also gain attention whenever an individual of a particular ethnic group commits a crime or serves as a scapegoat for xenophobic hatred, or conversely, when such individuals are victims of persecution, detention, or exile.

Despite the lack of agreement regarding the precise meaning of the concept of diaspora, one of the most accepted is that of academic Khachig Tötölyan, who calls it a "transnational collectivity, broken apart by, and woven together across, the borders of their own and other nation-states, maintaining cultural and political institutions." In other words, a diaspora is a population dispersed from its homeland, with collective memory and idealization of the homeland, as well as a strong ethnic consciousness and solidarity with other members of the group, and an exacerbation of allegedly common and ancestral traits that are periodically reinforced. The term "diaspora", however, is much older, tracing back to ancient Greek - meaning "scattered" - when it was used to refer to citizens of a dominant city-state who emigrated to a conquered land in order to colonize and assimilate the territory. The modern use, from the 19th century, most often describes the Jewish diaspora worldwide.

Migrants are those who are on the move, going from one place to another for a number of reasons, while a diaspora is the result of years (or centuries) of migration in which individuals settle and form collectives, maintaining a myth of the homeland and the consciousness of their roots and origin. Every diasporan is a migrant, but not every migrant will became part of a diaspora unless the memory of the homeland plays a significant role in their identity formation and of their family.

According to the International Organization for Migration, around 3.3 percent of the world's population (224 million people) live in a country different from the one in which they were born. More than ever before, they are playing more significant roles not only in the politics of their host countries, but—by virtue of online interaction—also back in their homelands.

Once migrants settle and create roots in a new country and form a diasporic identity, the focus of academic studies usually shifts to look at remittances (sending money back home), the diaspora as propaganda, or the pressure groups focused on the country hosting them. But digitally enabled members of diasporic communities are starting to create and express their own distinct identities. New technologies, platforms, and media have reduced communication distance to almost nothing. Real-time shared presence and new transnational spaces are increasingly common, where social, political, and economic relationships become borderless. In fact, these new spaces may transcend borders and encompass both home and host societies. Members of diasporic communities can not only consume media passively, but can also meet, communicate, and even intervene in transnational events.

Diasporas can both reinforce and weaken host states and their nationalistic agendas, depending on the circumstances of both the migrants and the host nation. In the case of the diasporas from those in stateless nations, they tend to weaken states’ nationalist agendas—in some cases even by supporting militant groups, such as the case of the Kurds (originally from Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria, now with considerable diasporas in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, and other European states); the Tamil (originally from South India and especially Sri Lanka, with diaspora groups in Malaysia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, and France); and to some degree the Basque diasporas (from a region between northern Spain and southern France, with relevant diasporas in Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Uruguay, and the US).

Diasporas are often driven to collective political action, while other sorts of migrants may never have this notion, or simply choose not to politically influence their homeland.

We can find examples of politically engaged diasporas within the Kurds, the Tamil, the Uighur, the Basques, and Palestinians, among others. In such communities, individuals living outside their homeland (whether from the first, second, or third generation onward) play a political role that goes beyond representing national interests abroad. Quite the contrary, they attempt to influence homeland and host nation politics with goals like supporting liberation efforts, or lobbying for political and ideological actions as independent and self-aware groups.

To take one example, the Iranian diaspora played a significant role throughout the 20th century in the politics of Iran. Until the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the number of Iranians residing outside their country was of just a few thousand, yet with a high number of intellectuals and members of the elite, especially individuals sent to study at elite universities in the West as well as those who left the country due to economic strain after World War II. After the revolution, emigration from Iran grew consistently -- and though the exact numbers are unknown, the Iranian diaspora is estimated about between one and four million people. 

The Iranian diaspora has been historically important for its remittances and the pressure it applied toward the liberalization of investments in the country. Initially there was a certain mistrust among the first generations to emigrate from Iran after the Islamic Revolution in relation to initiatives within the country to build an active civil society, particularly through charities. Many thought these organizations might help legitimize the regime and help it survive. As the Internet became more commonly used, the contacts grew, enabling "many to cross community borders that had seemed completely closed for years," wrote Halleh Ghorashi and Kees Boersma, researchers at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, in a paper published in 2009. Even members of the Baha'i religious minority, severely persecuted within Iran, maintain a consistent online presence, although it is considerably smaller than the Muslim presence.

Gorashi and Boersma add that "a growing number of Iranian diasporic transnational networks started to see their role as that of an essential channel, bringing the attention of the world to bear on Iran in order to encourage societal and possibly political change."

Commenting on the 2016 Iranian elections, internet researchers James Marchant, Amin Sabeti, Kyle Bowen, John Kelly, and Rebekah Heacock Jones wrote that "the intense online activity of the Iranian diaspora and the extent of its engagement with digital networks of activists and journalists inside the Islamic Republic is another major feature of the Iranian Twittersphere," showing that the internet is becoming not only a preferred but fundamental tool for political engagement connecting the diaspora to its homeland.

The Kurds' struggle for the independence of the territory they call Kurdistan (divided by Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq) is known worldwide, but little attention is paid by the common public to the activities of their immense diaspora in Europe and in the US through propaganda, lobbying, and financing of groups such as the PKK (considered a terrorist group by both the European Union and United States).

The Kurdish diaspora has emphasized creating awareness as well as lobbying for the Kurdish cause through modern broadcasting media (such as through the now-defunct Roj-TV, a satellite Kurdish channel based in Denmark and forcibly closed due to links with the PKK) and the internet. Both social media and blogging platforms serve this purpose—to engage politically, and often to support the independence of Kurdistan through actively spreading propaganda and lobbying. In addition, such efforts support the struggle of Kurdish forces in the Syrian Civil War by showcasing events, seeking worldwide support, and informing the diaspora and the rest of the world about what's happening on the ground.

Countless pro-Kurd social media accounts have emerged in recent years, sharing information and propaganda from inside and outside Syria as part of the wider diaspora. Beyond these overtly pro-Kurd accounts, similar media are shared by a diverse range of supporters, creating a bridge between the Kurdish community and the rest of the world. 

While the internet and its platforms create opportunities for sharing and dialogue, they also allow for rehashing the same disagreements and conflicts that created diasporas in the first place. Similarly, while the internet has the potential to strengthen democracy and democratic processes within and beyond states, it may also threaten governments and regimes. Furthermore, a tightly controlled internet has the potential to reinforce a state ideology over diasporas and to reproduce homeland conflicts and tensions.

As an example of online engagement and political struggle, in 2016, Reuters reported that “Iraq’s Kurds have declared independence in cyberspace with a new domain name that has provoked the ire of a neighbor hostile to their aspirations.” Similarly, Catalonia obtained the ".cat" domain as a challenge to the Spanish state, and was soon followed by ".eus" for the Basques.

The Basque diaspora is scattered all over the world, as are Basque clubs (or Euskal etxeak), which are present in almost 30 countries. Argentina boasts more than 90 such institutions, and it's the country where diaspora politics is strongest and has received the largest number of Basque migrants over time. Uruguay, Chile, Venezuela, the US, and Italy also have active left-wing pro-Basque-independence political groups.

For years, groups such as JO TA KE Rosario (No Stop Rosario), Asociación Diaspora Vasca (Basque Diaspora Association - ADV), the Euskal Herriaren Lagunak (Friends of the Basque Country - EHL), the Red Independentistak (Pro-Independence Network), Askatasunaren Bidea (Path towards the Independence), A Casa/Etxera (Back [to] Home), Foro Debate Diaspora Vasca (Basque Diaspora Debate Forum), and Diaspora Borrokan (Fighting Diaspora) have been competing online and offline for the minds of the Basques in the diaspora by supporting the cause of the so-called Basque political prisoners (members and alleged members of now-defunct separatist group ETA), and organizing rallies and debates in support of Basque independence from Spain. 

Contemporary organizations such as Independentistak and Askatasunaren Bideahave organize debates promoting the Basque cause, just as previous groups spent years creating links with Argentinean left-wing organizations and showcasing the Basque conflict and struggle for independence in order to gather support within and beyond the Basque-Argentinean community.

Their goals and methods vary, but most pursue a nationalistic agenda, advocate maintaining ties with the Basque Nationalist or Abertzale left-wing parties in the homeland, and spreading support for Basque political prisoners. They depend heavily on the internet to communicate with similar groups in the Basque Country, and sometimes even seek to politically influence the directions and debates of sister groups in the homeland—a goal that is often reciprocated by groups and political parties in the Basque Country who seek to influence diaspora groups and politics.

The Uighur diaspora, another stateless nation, uses the internet (more specifically Facebook) to express “the concerns of diaspora Uyghurs for the political and social issues in motherland,” as noted in a 2013 paper in the journal Identities. This includes details of human rights abuses, oppression, and criticism of China’s policies towards the Uighur. But the platform is also used as a tool for the (re)construction of their ethnic identity and to demand the independence of “East Turkestan.” According to Yitzhak Shichor in Diasporas in the New Media Age, the websites of the Uighur diaspora are victims of constant blocking in China, and a “number of these Web sites that existed in 2002 are no longer updated, or accessible, because of routine neglect but probably [also] due to Chinese hacking.”

The Uighur are victims of a persecution campaign by the Chinese government, which has both offline and online fronts. Millions have been sent to re-education camps, and their diaspora has launched a campaign to demand proof from the Chinese government that their relatives are alive. In February 2019, a Uighur activist in Canada was reported to the Chinese consulate in Ontario due to her militant activity in behalf of her homeland. At roughly the same time, a Tibetan-Canadian student was attacked online after winning a student council election. This was allegedly done under Chinese orders.

The Tamil diaspora, in particular the one from Sri lanka and therefore a stateless nation, is yet another example of a diaspora playing a key role in supporting homeland groups and institutions. In this case, the objective concerns the long struggle for the liberation of their nation from Sri Lanka (whose population is concentrated in the north and east of the country) and the support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan (LTTE), active from 1976 to 2009. The focus of the Tamil diaspora had been on creating propaganda and providing support for refugees and financing the LTTE while it was still active. Today, most of the focus has shifted towards supporting the rebuilding of the Tamil region after decades of conflict, and on denouncing persistent human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan government.

Other diasporic groups have similar organizations defending not only the interests of diaspora members, but also acting on homeland politics with “a common interest in their location of origin and a foundational identity that is rooted in that place which defines an in-group, in spite of the fact that people may or may not have ever personally interacted with one another in real time and space,” explains a 2004 paper by Harry H. Hiller and Tara M. Franz in the journal New Media & Society. The Palestinian diaspora, well known for its academic and literary production, also uses the internet for propaganda, denouncing alleged Israeli abuses, raising awareness of the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the West Bank, and promoting Palestinian resistance, identity maintenance, and political action, such as supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. 

According to Miriyam Aouragh, a researcher at Oxford University, in a paper published in 2008 by the Journal of Arab & Muslim Media Research, the internet "fills an important gap for what is absent offline [. . . ] online communication has strengthened social and political agency. It clearly evoked a new type of media activism [by] giving the ‘permission to narrate’: an important development considering the stereotyped portrayals of Palestinians trapped in either ‘terrorists’ or 'victims.'" 

Amira Halperin, research fellow at the Middle East Unit of the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in an article in the the book Journalism, Audiences and Diaspora, adds that the "availability of hundreds of news websites has eased the diasporic Palestinians’ ability to access information—a fact which is highly important at times of major news events. The Palestinians in the diaspora are an active audience. They create websites and blogs to disseminate their personal stories and to receive updates from Gaza and the West Bank from the people who live there. The new technologies are bypassing geographical distance and editorial guidelines, and they help to overcome the news problem, which was significant before the internet revolution, overcoming delays to enable the immediate dissemination of news."

A more singular case of digital activism comes from the Eritrean diaspora, whose proponents suggest “new formulations of citizenship and sovereignty and the ways the nation is imagined as community,” according to a 2006 article in Global Networks. This particular diaspora uses the internet as a tool to guide and help fellow Eritreans escape one of the most closed-off countries in the world, where military service is not only compulsory but often indefinite—a situation made even worse for female soldiers, who are under threat of abuse and rape.

The internet can be used for propaganda as well as the dissemination of new ideas and alternative agendas of many diasporas, whether as part of established or new institutions, or as autonomous individuals. Members of these groups seek to create alternative spaces with greater freedom of expression and action in order to communicate, organize, and reproduce symbols and myths, share emotions, and strengthen ethnic and identity ties—constructing links among individuals and building online communities.

Generations of immigrants and diasporic individuals are no longer limited to passive consumption of major media. Now they can be active participants in politics and society, both in their host nation and in their homeland, with less obstruction from the traditional geographic barriers of distance and borders. Their influence and impact extends beyond any fixed territory in ways they and the rest of the world are only just beginning to understand and appreciate.