Ethnicity and the Internet in a Global Society

Nils Zurawski
University of Münster, Germany

At first glance, ethnicity and communication technologies seem to be two very different subjects. On closer examination, however, it becomes obvious that this combination touches on essential issues regarding the "information age" and the identity of individuals and groups. Both ethnicity and the information age are closely related to social change. Ethnicity, after all, is a social construct that might evolve in one context and change in another; and the information age, through its "carrier" the Internet--and other means of electronic communication technologies--already challenges existing social and political structures and undoubtedly will continue doing so in the future.

Theoretical study in this area will help us to understand the relationship between cultural identity and information technologies and how the dynamic of the information age affects the collective identities of groups and their modes of self-organization.

I first want to develop some thoughts on the information age or the information society; and then to show how groups are affected by the evolving transformation processes, and how these groups can play an active role in their own cultural self-determination.

The information society and social transformation

According to its own narrative, the information age will change every aspect of human life, therefore establishing, in effect, a "new society." Perhaps this has been exaggerated in the various visions of media and corporate managers. What actually is so new that we need yet another name for our type of society?

Segmentary, agrarian, and industrial societies were named according to their economic and social structures. In the information society, then, the foremost commodity that will be exchanged presumably will be not industrial products, but information. This might indeed be true for the western industrialized countries; but surely not for most of the third-world countries--nor, for that matter, for marginal areas within the more developed nations. When we think about the information society on a global scale, then, the contradictions and the problems with this concept become fairly obvious.

Given that information is the commodity in world trade, and the driving force behind globalization, it seems that it is becoming more and more an end in itself. Information as such is then the decisive factor, and not its content. This degrades it to a mere fetish, since information is only meaningful when serving as the basis for social, political or economic decisions and actions.

However, independently of the concept of an information society, these technologies will bring some considerable changes along with them that will affect the way people communicate with one another and how they see the world.

  1. The rate of information dissemination and exchange has grown faster and faster, effectively rendering geographical distance insignificant. This reduction of transfer time to a minimum means that it is possible to react much more quickly than before; moreover, this reaction will be heard on the other side of the world instantly as well. This result may have profound effects on social, political, and economic processes.
  2. Information can be exchanged ubiquitously without regard to geographical and national borders. This will be an advantage especially for groups having widely scattered members. It will help to organize and coordinate group action on a global scale quite dramatically, because of its decentralized form. This way ethnic, political, or social movements may reach an audience that they otherwise wouldn't have, given the current situation of domination by the mass media. At the same time, however, this structure might enforce a fragmentation into a vast number of public arenas [1], which could lead to ineffectively narrow thinking, rather than to a broad perspective grounded on the idea of networking.
  3. Unlike radio and TV, the Internet allows a bi-directional way of communicating. This might give a number of groups the potential for media self-determination, which they have been denied so far. Obstacles to this, however, include of course the growing concentrations in the media-market (Murdoch et al.) and the attempts to control the access to, and use of, new media technologies such as the Internet. Obstructive strategies are pursued by corporate as well as by governmental agencies. A view of the worldwide distribution of modern communication technologies suggests that current class differences and dependencies are to be maintained rather than challenged, e.g., the North-South relationship.
  4. The new technologies will have an influence on the way people perceive the world. As technology's uses seem limitless, people can gain the impression that it has the ability to solve all political and social problems. Does not the illusion of a global village, however, blur the picture of "real" global politics, of social and economic interdependencies? The sheer mass of information alone--words and images--tempts us to believe that this is the world as it really is. In effect, everything cut out in the editing process ceases to exist. Because the information we get shapes our picture of the world or parts of it, facts à la CNN come to determine our image of the other.
  5. The way in which subjects and identities are constituted will be changed and thereby their meaning will also undergo metamorphosis. The possibilities of digital data transfer and editing open up unknown forms of manipulating data and information. It will grow ever more difficult to identify the authorship of a publication, as the Internet doesn't provide the same security as do newspapers and broadcasting. If subjects vanish behind the information, so will the responsibilities--i.e., it will create an insecurity regarding the constitution of subjects and identity. As the historian Mark Poster sees it:
    If modernity or the mode of production signifies patterned practices that elicit identities as autonomous and (instrumentally) rational, postmodernity or the mode of information indicated communication practices that constitute subjects as unstable, multiple and diffuse. [2]

What is at stake here is that identities may be defined by the group itself or by a third party. If identity completely vanishes behind the medium, then age, gender, and ethnicity are nothing but variables in a fuzzy pattern of technology, information, and social and political action.

Ethnicity as one of these identities and therefore stands at the intersection of technology and the information age. The question is not whether ethnicity will vanish as a collective identity and a socio-political resource in a globalized world; the question, rather, is how ethnicity is used, and will be used, by groups facing various challenges raised by the effects of globalization and new media technology. This is the issue I want to focus on in the following part of this paper.

Ethnicity and communication technology

Ethnicity is a form of self-organization for groups. Migrants may be one example of this, in that their cultural identity often proves to be the organizing principle they use for coping with the circumstances of the host country, e.g., the Turkish networks in Germany consisting of social and sports clubs, or the so-called immigrant colonies in the United States.

This identity comprises an in-out dialectic that focuses either on inclusion or on exclusion according to the given context. The bases for this collectivity are myths and legends, a common history that explains the origins of a particular group with norms and ritual codes to which all members of the group are committed. A significant feature of ethnicity is its dynamism and variability of self-definitions according to the frame of reference. This makes it a vital resource rather than--as is often claimed--an agent of reaction and conformity, because norms and codes can be changed from within the group itself.

The norms and codes are embedded in the traditions, laws, customs, arts, and literature of a group. These historical continuities do manage to persist with the appearance of modern communication technologies; the changes that they admittedly undergo may be seen as new interpretations of certain customs, and so forth, in response to the challenges of the information age. [3]

The possible intersections of ethnic identity and technology next will be put into four analytical categories that examine the persistence and dynamics of ethnicity in the medium itself (i.e, the Internet), and in areas outside the media that are nevertheless influenced by modern communication technologies and effects of globalization.

1. Ethnicity in Usenet

The discussion in the forums of the Usenet newsgroups appears to be the simplest form of ethnicity on the Internet. Alongside all the computer-oriented and recreational groups, there are several concerned with social, political, and regional issues around the world. Especially in the forums in the soc.culture.* hierarchy, ethnic and cultural as well as national issues are often discussed. Literally every aspect of human life on this globe is brought forward here. Nearly all the debates relate to experiences outside of cyberspace, or to experiences that, though they occurred in cyberspace, originated in real-world situations.

The range runs from mere questions about regions and their customs and people, through information about and from certain regions (as many participants are migrants from these countries now living in the United States, Australia, etc., where most Internet users are still from), to open hostilities and racism, all of which can be considered related to ethnicity.

The popularity of these forums springs from the opportunity for almost uncensored sending and receiving messages in a virtual marketplace. Though many of the debates admittedly are rather low in standard, redundant, or acrimonious, the amount of participation alone shows the importance of the issues for the people involved.

2. Ethnicity and the World Wide Web

Of a somewhat more complex nature is the information presented on the World Wide Web (WWW). The variety of the information is as high as in the forums of the Usenet, but of a completely different nature. Information here is presented rather than discussed. The atmosphere of a virtual marketplace is gone; this medium does, however, open up new ways of self-representation, and marketing, of groups. The almost total absence of regulation and control gives way to the reshaping of identities and group (and other) images by these groups themselves. What on the one hand is a chance for self-determination might, on the other hand, lead to distortion and manipulation of information.

An example of the latter seems to be the WWW home page of the Sudan (Africa). Here the impression is created that this is the perfect country for a family vacation, as though there were no civil war--accompanied by massive ethnic cleansing--going on in the south of Sudan. We learn nothing about the different groups living in the country, but get instead a lot of links to Arabic- and Islamic-oriented servers that mirror the situation of domination and power in the Sudan. The address of the server points, moreover, to some place in the west (e.g., the United States or Australia) rather than to one in the country itself.

Given the global distribution of the Internet and the people that actually have access to it, it becomes quite clear that the chances of self-determination are skewed to a certain extent, especially in third world countries, where the electronic communication infrastructure is rather underdeveloped.

Therefore I assume that a somewhat privileged techno-elite is taking leading roles here. This would give them the capacity to shape and construct identities of ethnic groups on the WWW, as representation there becomes more and more important for raising funds in particular, and for seeking international support in general. Immigrants, for example, may depict themselves and their country of origin quite differently than would the people that stayed in these countries. This is especially true of second and third generation immigrants.

Judging and working with information becomes more and more difficult as authorship and intention get less and less clear. Under these conditions, a situation of two or three official home pages for a single group or country becomes quite imaginable! If ethnicity on this level depends so greatly on elites, it is in danger of losing its dynamic and being manipulated for purposes beyond the reach of the members of that group.

3. Cultural and informational self-determination

The right to self-determination, and the struggle for it, becomes a central issue for groups regarding the dependencies and means of manipulation inherent in communication technology, both inside and outside the Internet. For an analysis it is therefore important to look at the everyday life situation of the people and the economic and social circumstances that they are facing.

Only then will we understand why and how groups are using the new media technologies. One important reason seems to be that with the help of these technologies, groups are trying to overcome marginal positions in the societies in which they live. The belief is that this position will not change unless they themselves are responsible for their own image and how they want to be seen.

The Native Americans in the United States and Canada could be an example of this struggle. Lacking most of the basic infrastructure to which all other citizens have more or less easy access (e.g., education, telecommunication, and medical care), their position can best be described as marginal and, in many respects, even devastating. Being more traditional than most other ethnic groups in the United States and Canada, they are not easily accommodated by a standardized image of ethnic groups in a multicultural society.

A report of the Office of Technology Assessment, Telecommunication Technology and Native Americans: Opportunities and Challenges [4], examines the situation and suggests strategies to overcome this discrimination. Control over the technology, in both form and substance, could lead to improvements in other aspects of social life (e.g., education, work, and medical care), in which they otherwise will continue to be disadvantaged:

The lack of infrastructure, leadership, planning, funding, and policy means--under this pessimistic scenario--that many of the rural, remote Native areas are left on the sidelines of the telecommunications revolution. These areas are unable to capture the potential educational, health, economic, social, and cultural benefits of telecommunications applications. In this year 2000 scenario, Native Americans run the risk of being exploited by, rather than controlling, the technology. Without meaningful and extensive Native involvement, telecommunications ends up further undermining Native culture and values and disenfranchising, rather than empowering, Native Americans. [5]

And furthermore:

Native Americans will need to have a central role in controlling, managing, and implementing these technology-enhanced cultural opportunities. [6]

In addition, these technologies may enhance or even revive specific cultural elements and therefore help ensure general cultural survival. The BBS-project Leoki [7] on Hawaii was used in this respect and actually helped to revive a nearly extinct language. But what was even more important was that through this project, community-building among people was enhanced, which is one of the major aspects of self-determination:

For some, like Leoki supporter Steve Cisler of Apple Library of Tomorrow, such BBSes represent the kind of community building that is the essence of telecomputing. [8]

Similarly, the Nation of Hawaii is pursuing a politics of community-building to create a network of people and institutions, without which the technology alone would be of little use for active social change:

The voices of the indigenous peoples of the world engaged in the process of self-determination can help provide the content that makes the use of the technology meaningful and useful in a real way. [9]

Self-determination depends on the ability to control information flows inside and outside the media (including the Internet). Secret and ritual knowledge, for example, must be dealt with quite carefully; decisions about what will be revealed must be made by the group itself or by other responsible persons. The initiative "Latinos and the Information Superhighway," for example, can be seen as such an attempt. [10]

If control is in the hands of third parties, the information might be manipulated for ends different from those of the group. Manipulation may occur in the form of stereotypical ethnic images, as shown by this complaint by Indian rights activists on America Online (AOL):

especially when their protests were stonewalled by AOL. "I was e-mailing a friend about it, and we came to the conclusion that the company didn't want to disturb the fantasy," said Miller. "It doesn't want real Indians--we're not Indian enough. It wants the buckskin fringes and the feathers." [11]

Other forms of ethnic standardization may be found in the Japanese strategy of "global localization," in which Japanese companies are sensitive to local preferences when marketing products in Asia. Like TV programs, however, the products are standardized commodities and will merely be injected with a little local flavor. As Koichi Iwabuchi, who researched this matter, states:

The idea is a totalizing one, which neglects the specific differences of Asian societies and obliterates the historical memory of Japanese imperialism. On the other hand, emphasis on Asian localism presents a positive and forward-looking possibility. It is one that seeks dialogue between Peoples in Asia not through tradition or authentic culture but through the people's skillful negotiation with the symbols and power of global capitalism. [12]

Ethnic groups that are not going to fit into this homogenized ethnicity will be marginalized, will not be seen on TV programs; and will be excluded from many benefits. The result of this will be a homogenized simplicity in an apparently pluralistic world. [13]

These mechanisms are an everyday experience for many groups around the world, and of course are not confined to cyberspace.

4. Ethnicity, resistance, and information technology

Individuals and groups are persecuted, discriminated against, denied the right of self-determination, and politically oppressed or even killed because of their ethnic identity (and for other reasons as well). Examples are easy to find around the world, such as the Ogoni struggle in Nigeria, the oppression of East Timor by Indonesia, or the Chiapas uprising in Mexico. Ethnicity may be used as one organizing principle in these conflicts. How do these conflicts and their ethnic resistance relate to the new communication technologies?

Ethnicity may provide one resource against denied autonomy; against the effects of exploitation and suppression; against the exclusion from education; and against attempts to prevent access to new technologies--especially when this exclusion concentrates on one particular group in a society.

The Chiapas uprising in Mexico may be understood in this context. [14] At the same time that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, so did resistance by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and by the peoples of Chiapas. The NAFTA, itself an agent of globalization, endangered their already unstable economic bases and was about to lower the prices for agricultural products once more. Even though this has apparently little to do with communication technology, NAFTA perhaps can be seen as a result of globalization, and therefore also as having originated in these technologies. The social situation of the people was closely connected to their identity as Indians, so that the uprising had an ethnic component as well.

The fact that the possibilities of modern communication technologies will continue to be refused to certain groups leads me to assume that ethnicity will remain an important factor in negotiating the effects of globalization and information technology. The Chiapas uprising, however, also can show how communication technology--in this case especially the Internet--may be used as a means of resistance. [15]

News, reports, and information about the uprising and its background were brought outside Mexico via the Internet, that is, by supporting groups doing this on behalf of the Zapatistas. Inasmuch as the Mexican press was censored on this issue, it was nearly the only way to get uncensored information out of the country. As the conflict went on, the Internet also was used to organize an international resistance and support network. The decentralized structure of the Internet helped to circumvent all censoring regulations and to put some pressure on the government. Given the way the traditional media work, this would have been impossible without the Internet.

In this manner local conflicts are globalized, and resistance movements may find supporters around the world--supporters who have other means to intervene and bring pressure to bear on the state or its responsible leaders.


Ethnicity plays a considerable role in these processes, inasmuch as these technologies may be used to organize resistance against inequalities that are often related to ethnic identities. It should be noted that technology is used to react on refused self-determination not as an end in itself; rather, information is an integral part of important processes in the world beyond the Internet, supporting the action of individuals and groups.

The blessings of the information age have by no means reached all people and countries of the world. To speak about a global information society is to overlook all these groups, even if they do make use of these technologies to improve their environment and their living circumstances--circumstances often influenced or even threatened by the effects of a global market (e.g., logging in third-world countries).

The value of the Internet as a means of resistance will have to be proven in the future. The unresponsiveness of the French government to protests from all over the world against their nuclear testing, or the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his fellows despite worldwide petitions, dampen hope of the Internet as the means of choice for such resistance movements. Yet these disappointments of course do not diminish the cases in which the Internet proved to be an excellent tool of resistance and networking toward social change.

Ethnicity, and other social organizing principles such as gender and class, will continue to be important as long as global inequalities remain unsolved. Technology must be a part of the process of social transformation and social change toward a better world, rather than an end in itself. In the words of Phil Agre:

The only way the world changes is through social organizing and institution-building, and technology can't do this by itself. But let us be aware of the specific ways various social movements take hold of particular media and think about how technologies might be used differently. [16]


[1] Habermas, Jürgen. Aufgeklärte Ratlosigkeit. In Frankfurter Rundschau, 30 December 1995, p. ZB4.

[2] Poster, Mark. The Second Media Age, Cambridge, 1995, p. 32.

[3] See Smith, Anthony D. Nations and Nationalisms in a Global Era, Cambridge, 1995, p. 47f; see also Sigrist, Christian. Von Tscheteschenen und Inguschen. In Vereinte Nationen, No. 2, 1995, pp. 54-61.

[4] U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), Telecommunications Technology and Native Americans: Opportunities and Challenges, OTA-ITC-621 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, August 1995).

[5] Ibid., Chap. 1.

[6] Ibid., Chap. 2.

[7] Hale, Constance. How Do You Say Computer in Hawaiian? In Wired, August 1995, Vol. 3, pp. 90-100.

[8] Ibid., p. 100.

[9] Crawford, Scott, and Crawford, Kekula. Self-Determination in the Information Age, last update 3 May 1995, at (;

[10] On the issue of community-building and the Internet, see also Rheingold, Howard. Virtual Communities, Reading, Massachusetts, 1993.

[11] Larson, Anne, and Wilhelm, Anthony. Thomas Rivera Center (Contact: Latinos and the Information Superhighway. Via: Red Rock Eater mail server (, ed. Phil Agre ( September 1994.

[12] Martin, Glen. Internet Indian Wars. In Wired, December 1995, Vol. 3, pp. 108-117. Similar problems are also discussed in the OTA report cited in note 4.

[13] Iwabuchi, Koichi. Return to Asia? Japan in the Global Audio-Visual Market. In Sojourn, Vol. 9, No. 2 (1994), pp. 226-245.

[14] Becker, Jörg. Die Einfalt in der Vielfalt: Standardisierte Massenkommunikation als Problem der politischen Kultur. In Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, Supplement to the weekly Das Parlament. 30 September 1994, pp. 21-28.

[15] Cleaver, Harry ( The Zapatistas and the Electronic Fabric of Struggle, 25 February 1996, at; see also: Ya Basta! Der Aufstand der Zapatistas, Topitas (eds.), Hamburg, 1994.

[16] See also Neumann, Lin. The Resistance Network. In Wired, January 1996, Vol. 4, pp. 108-114.