Digital Diasporas: Politics by Proxy

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The State department’s diaspora 2.0 initiative, part of the recently initiated International Diaspora Engagement Alliance Initiative (IdEA), links the political and economic power of so-called digital diasporas to US foreign policy goals – the first time a major power has harnessed this concept so overtly. Recent events have brought the political part of this role sharply into focus: digital diasporas have been important actors in recent events in Egypt, Libya and Syria as well as in recent anticorruption protests in India. The digital component of these diasporas facilitates and intensifies the focus of their often already significant influence. But it’s not always easy to classify digital diasporas in terms of this influence, which can be benign or otherwise.

Research on digital diasporas and their role in political activity in source countries stretches back to the early days of the Internet. Some authors focus on the role of diasporas in facilitating good governance in source countries and in post-conflict situations, while others point out its role in potentially prolonging conflict by facilitating the transaction of funds and propaganda and engaging international actors. Longstanding online diaspora communities such as the Kurds and Tamils are good examples of both sides of this coin: engaging the broader international community in governance and human rights issues which might otherwise be overlooked, and also potentially intensifying conflict by prolonging it and providing harbour for unregulated, anonymised discussion.  Richard Eriksen’s typology of digital diasporas usefully characterises these various political activities by online diaspora based on their different goals and their relationship to various nation-states.

However, not all politically active digital diasporas are traditional activist diasporas in the sense of these examples. A key example here is hazara.net, a website focusing on the Hazara diaspora which appears to be aimed at political activity in a Western English speaking context – specifically, asylum seeker receiving states. The Hazara are an ethnic group historically targeted by the Taliban, although with significant populations in Iran and Pakistan.  They form a large and relatively recent diaspora in the West sourced largely from refugee communities.

Hazara.net acts as an English-language clearing house for information about Hazara persecution. That is, it doesn’t engage in what some scholars refer to as  ‘rooting’ mechanisms of maintaining culture or ‘routing’ mechanisms of maintaining contact with source countries. Nor does Hazara.net focus only calling for international intervention in either Afghanistan or Pakistan on behalf of the Hazara. Instead, it acts as a source of curated information which arguably serves two purposes: to support claims for asylum by Hazara in the West, and to publicise asylum policies – such as deportation of failed asylum seekers,which affect the Hazara community. It publishes exclusively in English, despite the fact that most Hazaras speak Hazaraji or Dari/Persian as their primary language, and several of the articles come from non-English sources.

In this, the sites appear to serve a particular function: access to curated, English language examples of Hazara persecution. The audience here is arguably Western refugee determination agencies. Claims for asylum are presumably more effective if information regarding the details of persecution can be supported by sources other than the applicant, particularly when the claim regards the information-poor environment of Afghanistan/Pakistan. In providing these examples, the digital diaspora engages in a type of activism which is different to the other types of online political activism in that it doesn’t seek to engender domestic political change from outside. Instead, it bases the activism on a distinctly transnational community as an agent (the Hazara diaspora) and another distinctly transnational community as an audience (Western countries of asylum).

Hazara.net is perhaps conceptually similar to the Global Huaren movement – an online movement of multi generational ethnic Chinese diasporas formed in response to anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia after the economic shocks of 1997 and focusing on disseminating evidence of anti-Chinese sentiment in various diaspora locations. Here, the global identity of ethnic Chinese approaches another global/transnational identity: the various and varied home countries of members of the Chinese diaspora, ranging from Malaysia to the United States.

The concept of bridge bloggers may also be relevant in classifying this type of activism. Bridge bloggers are those who ‘reach across gaps of language, culture and nationality to enable interpersonal communication’. Bridge blogs/twitter feeds are distinguished from the vast majority of their brethren because they are designed for an international audience. By providing (usually translated) information online in English, they allow Westerners to access information—sometimes real-time feeds of reactions to political events—from non-Western states. In this analysis, Hazara.net is not necessarily about ‘interpersonal communication’ but rather ‘bridge blogging’ as a form of activism.

The concept of politically active digital diasporas feeds into ongoing debates in International Relations concerning the impact of globalisation and its cousin, transnationalism on the nature of the sovereign state. Hazara.net is particularly relevant to these debates because, as above,  unlike many examples of so called digital diaspora’ activism’ – Kurds, Tamils,  Eritreans and Somalis – it engages in a sort of ‘multi-source’ and ‘multidirectional’ activism aimed at any country which receives Hazara asylum seekers. In this, rather than transgressing the boundaries of the state, and thus fundamentally changing its nature, as many scholars of globalisation and transnationalism argue, it arguably co-constitutes those boundaries as it targets but simultaneously relies upon them.

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2 Responses to Digital Diasporas: Politics by Proxy

  1. Hla Oo says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Bridge Bloggers!

    Bridge blogs are distinguished from the vast majority of their brethren because they are designed for an international audience. By providing (usually translated) information online in English, they allow Westerners to access information—sometimes real-time feeds of reactions to political events—from non-Western states.

    I like the term, never heard of it before though. That’s what I’ve been doing exactly since 2007 first on New Mandala and then on my own Blog.

    http://hlaoo1980.blogspot.com/

    Thanks,

    Hla Oo

    • Sarah Logan says:

      Hi Hla! Thanks for your comment! Bridge blogging is increasingly important–especially regarding states like Burma which have not only language issues re reaching a wider audience but also issues of media censorship/access.