Suggested citation format: Ciolek, T. Matthew. 2004. Internet and Minorities (a 2,000 words article). In: Carl Skutsch (Ed.), 2004. The Encyclopedia of World's Minorities. Independence, KY: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.

Internet and Minorities

Dr T. Matthew Ciolek,
Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies,
Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia

Document created: 16 Jan 2001. Last revised: 27 Nov 2001.

Internet and Minorities

(Note: Sample material is taken from uncorrected proofs. Changes may be made prior to publication.)

Those groups who are (or recently were) systematically marginalized and disadvantaged in relations with the rest of their society can find in the Internet a valuable ally. However, the effective use of the Net to ameliorate the situation, or simply to communicate the truth about their lives, is far from being a routine matter.

The new medium

For a long time since its inception in 1969 the Internet was regarded as largely an experimental resource. However, its formal status dramatically changed in a single day in September 1998 when the US Congress published the complete and intricate "Starr Report" on the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. This publication took place online and ahead of its subsequent releases by more traditional means of newspapers, radio, television, and books. The legislators' unprecedented decision to bypass the well established media in favour of the WWW meant that the Net had finally came of age and officially became the fifth branch of mass communication.

In early 2001 the Internet provided a planetary forum for nearly 410 million people. The forum comprised over 100 million host machines mainly in North America, Europe, and the Pacific Rim of East Asia, but also present in large numbers in other parts of the globe. The Internauts have contributed to and drawn upon the services of over 25 million web sites serving more than 1.5 billion web pages. They also used about 200,000 mailing lists, 37,000 chat-rooms, 30,000 Usenet newsgroups, and tens of thousands of Internet channels with music, video, radio, audio books, and TV (Zakon 2000, Nua 2000, Topica 2000).

The Internet is a remarkable phenomenon. The system is both global and local in its reach. It is fairly simple and fairly inexpensive to use from almost anywhere and anytime. It supports several activities: transactions with remote computerized systems; interpersonal and group communication; publishing; and finding, storage, and redistribution of digital information. Because of its format such information is readily searchable, indexable, and reusable.

On the Internet the English language is dominant due to its affinity with simple, fast transmitting ASCII encoding scheme. The Net is a rich space filled with originals, copies, and fragmentary remnants of all the previous months and years of communication and informational efforts of its users. However, it commingles and blurs the distinctions in traditional media between good and bad taste, hype and fact, and opinion and analysis. The Net supports both overt and public activities (via identifiable computer addresses and plain-text documents) as well as activities which are covert, anonymous or private. The latter scenario is enabled by a plethora of "hosted" web sites and mailing-lists, generic web-mail, chat-rooms, encrypted documents, as well as anonymized dial-up, web-surfing and email online privacy services.

This all means that the Net is a brand new environment, one that imposes new rules of conduct and new relationships among its users. For those who are intimate with its logic, the Internet can provide a remarkably level playing field. Most of the customary face-to-face expressions of power and status are not immediately apparent in cyberspace and are difficult to communicate there effectively. Moreover, since all interactions are remote and mediated by a machine, the cyberspace favours a style which is civil yet decidedly speedy, clipped and informal. "On the Internet", according to a popular saying, "no one knows you're a dog" (or an underdog). Unless you volunteer details about yourself, and this information is readily verifiable, no one online knows who you really are. Thus all e-publishing and communicating parties are, initially, an "important somebody" (and, at the same time, a "likely nobody") until they are proven otherwise by their accumulating electronic reputations. This means that while in "real life" not all people would treat each other as equals, on the Net the sheer logic of navigational circumstances and chance encounters inclines them to do so. The Net fosters a culture of equality of opportunity. This trend is further promoted by the non-hierarchical and thus essentially democratic, if not anarchic, organization of cyberspace. Its hosts, sites, devices and servers operate side-by-side, whether as colleagues and peers, or as ruthless competitors.

The electronic agora

The Internet is an immensely competitive environment. Here everyday millions of participants vie with each other for attracting (and keeping) the largest possible slice of e-traffic and thus the largest possible share of Internauts' eyes and minds. The size of the online audience is always a strictly limited commodity. There are only a few hours a day a person can spend online, while every email message sent or received, and each networked document created or visited uses-up a portion of that limited time. The competition is real and the stakes are high. Once gained, the online readership is directly convertible into cash, strategic alliances with other sites, social prestige and political power. In that sense the struggle for audience on the Net is very much like the struggle for ratings observable in the world of radio and TV stations. The online competition is fierce, for 20% of all of today's web-traffic is captured by the 10 most popular sites, 40% by the top 100, 60% by the top 1,000, and 80% by the top 10,000 sites. The remaining tens of millions of servers share the leftover 20% of the traffic (Kahle 2001).

The size of an Internet site's audience is, ultimately, a function of that resource's hard-earned reputation. This remains so, despite numerous promotional campaigns conducted on and off the Net. Such reputation forms a self-fulfilling prophecy. It can be measured in terms of numbers of electronic bookmarks or hyperlinks leading to it, volume of hourly or daily traffic, frequency of word-of-mouth recommendations, and friendly off-line references.

Networked resources enjoy trust (as well as regular and much prized repeat visits) if the offered content is unique and detailed; fresh; fully referenced, i.e. attributable to a named and contactable source; factually correct; presented in the language of the target audience (and if possible, in English or other international languages); expressed in a simple, succinct and understated manner; and easily correctable (i.e. any factual and/or typing errors, if reported by readers, are speedily rectified, and readers' input is duly acknowledged). Online reputations are also made (or lost) by the resource's usability. Networked resources attract increased numbers of readers if they have: an easy to remember (and record down) electronic address; simple, compact, interoperable and user-friendly architecture and format; quick response times; and easily indexable by major search engines (e.g., and catalogued by authoritative resource directories. See for example "University of Minnesota Human Rights Library",; "WWW Virtual Library on Migration and Ethnic Relations",; "Virtual Library of Internet resources on national and ethnic minorities in Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union",; "Indigenous Studies WWW Virtual Library",; or "The International Clearing House for Endangered Languages",

In other words, networked initiatives whose content and architecture are merely transplanted from other contexts (like book publishing or TV broadcasting) alienate their audiences. Similarly, those who operate with little or no thought for Internauts' actual expectations and for the rules of "netiquette", inevitably lose users' interest and goodwill (Nielsen 1995-2001).

This means that a well-prepared, imaginative and dedicated professional or a small team, with an inexpensive but skillfully managed site or a mailing list, can attain online visibility and following far greater than that achieved by bloated sites established by many hundreds of amply resourced and staffed but Internet-illiterate organisations. This point is clearly made by such electronic initiatives as "Bytes For All" (about making the Internet generally accessible, esp. in South Asia,; "The Information Exchange for Korean-American Scholars" (a resource to inform and empower the "high-tech coolies",; "Tibet Information Network" (reports on the situation of Tibetans in China, Nepal and India,; "Independent Information Centre Glasnost - Caucasus" (about ethnic conflicts in the North Caucasus,; and "The Fourth World Documentation Project" (archives of documents related to pre-industrial societies,

The contest for online minds

Members of a minority, as well as its supporters and allies, whether in the home country or abroad, can use the Internet to: (1) intensively liaise and network amongst themselves and with other friendly groups; (2) document their culture, language, history and achievements; (3) inform and educate the neutral sections of public opinion about their plight and grievances. Such networked information, like all Internet's information is available both locally and globally. Here digital involvements, unlike the traditional media, are remarkably productive and cost-effective. If an online document or message is able to inform adequately, say, 1 to 2 people, it has a potential - in principle at least - to reach and inform virtually the entire networked world.

Of course, all such publishing and liaising activities can be (and frequently are) countered and neutralized by those within their society (as well as outside of it) who are interested in maintaining the inequitable status quo. Their motives may vary.

Some of these adversaries might propagate interests of their own minority group. Others might be in the employment of a state which is keen to quash challenges to its ideology. Still, others might be hired by businesses seeking to silence opposition to their intended high-impact ventures (e.g. urban redevelopment, toxic waste dumps, forest logging, or hydroelectric schemes). This often leads to a situation where one or both sides could be tempted to use unethical methods of infiltration, info-pollution and paralysis of the other side's mailing lists and Usenet newsgroups. Virulent propaganda, hate mail, denial of history and disinformation campaigns is certainly common on the Net. Also, as in other areas of life, individuals as well as governmental agencies might resort to criminal activities as well. Indeed, the online world is awash with daily news of sabotage, "hacktivism", denial-of-service attacks, deliberate infection with computer viruses, and other forms of information warfare (Goldberg 2001). This is illustrated by a spate of 1999 and 2000 electronic attacks on the Falun Gong religious movement's web sites and email addresses in the US, Australia and the UK, with at least one hacking attempt that appeared traceable to the Chinese Public Security Ministry in Beijing. It is also illustrated by the alleged involvement of Burma's military junta in targeting the "Happy 99" e-mail virus at its overseas opponents active on the Net (Strobel 2000).

All these electronic activities, whether legal or nefarious, are invariably monitored and commented upon by a wide range of self-appointed online arbiters. Research sites tend to comment (e.g. via scholarly email lists, such as those catalogued in Kovacs 1999) on the truthfulness and accuracy of the electronic publications. At the same time international human rights watchdogs and NGOs that deliver humanitarian aid or work on resolution of ethnic tensions are likely to pay attention to the procedural fairness of relationships, on and off the Net, in the areas of their concern. In consequence, sooner or later, woe is to a server which errs deliberately or whose management sabotages the networked world. Indeed, on the Internet it takes months and years before a good name is earned, yet it can take a mere few hours to lose it entirely.

Naturally, all these unprecedented opportunities (as well as dangers) become a reality for all types of minorities only if they can secure at least minimal access to the Net. Such access, however, presupposes not only the presence of an adequate technological infrastructure, but also - above all - the absence of oppressive political controls and eviscerating regulations. To cite a computer expert with first-hand knowledge of life under a dictatorship, "the problem of the Internet in [my homeland] has never been technical or economic. As in any country, it's 70 percent political" (reported in Symmes 1998:188). Thus, it is not an accident that totalitarian states cannot tolerate the unfettered use of modern communications. There the citizens' access to the Net is either rationed, monitored and censored, or disabled altogether. Biannual statistics on the size of the Net in various countries (e.g. "Internet Domain Survey",, if juxtaposed with data on the countries' human rights record (e.g. "Human Rights Watch", make very instructive reading indeed.

T. Matthew Ciolek

See also
Culture: Minority Influences on the Majority; Equal Opportunity; Ethnic Conflict; Globalization and Minority Cultures; Human and Minority Rights Organizations; Languages, Disappearing; Minority Status and the State; Multiculturalism; Passing; Racist Political Parties and Movements; Shifting Minority Status; Stereotypes

Further Reading

Goldberg, Ivan, Information warfare, also known as I-War, IW, C4I, or Cyberwar, Institute for the Advanced Study of Information Warfare (IASIW), 2001:

Kahle, Brewster, personal communication, 6 Jan 2001,, unpublished results of a systematic survey by, 2001

Kovacs, Diane K., and The Directory Team, editors, The Directory of Scholarly and Professional E-Conferences, 1999:

Nielsen, Jakob, The Alertbox: Current Issues in Web Usability, 1995-2001:

Nua, Internet, How Many Online? 2000:

Rinaldi, Arlene H, The Net: User Guidelines and Netiquette, 1998:

Strobel, Warren P. "A glimpse of cyberwarfare: governments ready information-age tricks to use against their adversaries," US NewsWorld Report, 13 March 2000:

Symmes, Patrick, "Che is Dead", Wired, 6, no.2 (1998)

Topica, Inc. Liszt, The Mailing List Directory, 2000: (The site also publishes extensive catalogues of current Usenet newsgroups and IRC channels).

Zakon, Robert H., Hobbes' Internet Timeline v5.2, 2000:

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