E-Diasporas: The Virtual Meets Reality
E-Diasporas: The Virtual Meets Reality (Image by Matthew Savage)

By John Coyne (The Strategist)

For outsiders, even governments, e-diasporas are a new and much-needed channel for communication with migrant groups and their nations of origin. E-diasporas present risks and opportunities for migration management, workforce planning, diplomacy, political engagement and the stability of governments in other countries.

Recently, ASPI released its latest Special Report, The virtual meets reality: policy implications of e-diasporas, written by Dr Deirdre McKay of Keele University. The report is a groundbreaking assessment of e-diasporas and their national security policy implications.

Diasporas aren't a new phenomenon -- after all, they're simply global social formations of people who have been scattered from their country of origin, and that's been occurring since the dawn of humankind. These travellers carry with them a collective representation, myth or imagined sense of their homeland.

Until the rise of social media, the connection between a diaspora and its members' original 'home' was sustained by letters, tapes and print media. For diasporas, social media have been the latest in a series of technologies that have offered possibilities for self-organisation independently of the state. Social networking services have both enabled diasporas to intensify their global connections and assisted new cohorts of people to migrate.

The rise of social media has intensified the articulation and elaboration of diasporic identities several-fold. E-diasporas recreate and expand a diaspora's sense of shared identity and community by providing a virtual venue for affirmation and recognition.

E-diasporas emerged as online manifestations of diaspora communities. They enable migrant identities to remain closely tied to places and social groups in their nations of origin. In practical terms, they've become networks of connective action, where individuals can personalise their experience and thus the ways they understand their participation in groups, discussions or networks.

E-diasporas are dynamic and amorphous online 'collectivities', but they also have their own idiosyncratic culture and etiquette. They produce a set of informal rules for online interactions and recognitions that encompass ideas about sharing content and deferment to cultural or spiritual authority.

Over time, e-diasporas can take on a life of their own and begin to reshape the offline communities that produce them. Although they come into being online -- shaped by the social networking sites and the technologies that they use -- they're extensions of real-world diasporic communities.

Where resources are sufficient and people have the skills, social media enable e-diasporas to:

  • increase the amount of information they share by making it easier to produce and distribute content
  • improve members' capacity to connect with others and to express themselves
  • create new forms of recognition and status
  • create better opportunities for members to organise, join and mobilise as social groups
  • bridge distance, strengthening members' ties to each other and to their country of origin
  • offer personal recognition for community contributions by migrants who may be experiencing challenges integrating into their host nation
  • personalise members' participation in groups and discussions to create intense and compelling forms of online co-presence.

With the rise of Facebook in the English-speaking world, a wider range of users have adopted social media to communicate with others, shape and express their individual identity, and create networks. Initially, they accessed these platforms through websites, but the social networking platforms were soon redesigned as applications ('apps'), supported by a tablet or smartphone interface.

By 2015, Facebook had 1.7 billion active monthly users globally. It has maintained a huge reach: currently, approximately 90% of internet users in key countries in the global South (including the Philippines, Mexico, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Brazil, South Africa, Malaysia and Turkey) use it. Most of those countries also have significant or rapidly expanding labour diasporas. Some (India, Mexico and the Philippines) have the world's largest and longest-established diasporas.

E-diasporas can be shifting and fragile networks susceptible to manipulation, scams and the spreading of false information ('fake news'). Like diasporas, e-diasporas can also keep alive cultural 'memories', experienced and manufactured, that can then feed into false or conflict-driven narratives. Manipulation via social media can create vulnerability and alienation in diaspora communities and seed political instability and conflict in home countries.

States are increasingly monitoring the online activities of individuals within their national borders. By no means are all the activities of e-diasporas a risk to migrants' home or host nations, but people operating in these spaces need assistance to develop the digital literacy and critical analytical skills required to discern political manipulation and entrapment.

E-diasporas are venues for communication and community-building, offering many policy levers for governments to support migrants' settlement and integration. For Australia's governments, e-diaspora networks could be used to better regulate migration and inform would-be migrants and new arrivals of services on offer, scams to avoid and legitimate routes to residency.

The virtual meets reality argues that host nations can better engage e-diasporas and the broader diasporas in which they're embedded by:

  • hiring in-diaspora social media campaign designers and analytical staff to promote verified government information and map its circulation
  • following the social media activity of diasporic organisations in-country
  • working with community leaders on social media to address the welfare and educational needs of the migrants they serve, including through education on digital literacy that covers common strategies for political manipulation
  • making e-diaspora engagement policies part of bilateral discussions with sending country authorities
  • facilitating public discussion of both the fluid line between civil liberties and protecting the public and the line between freedom of speech and the clandestine manipulation of digital forums
  • adopting a strategy of transparency in approaches to diasporic communities online
  • providing a consistent point of contact for communities to raise concerns and seek information on specific situational, regulatory and legal issues related to social networking sites.

 

 

John Coyne is the head of the border security program at ASPI. Image courtesy of Pixabay user LoboStudioHamburg.

Article: Courtesy The Strategist (Australian Strategic Policy Institute).

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