How to Decolonise the State of Policy in the Digital Space

In his latest editorial for Policy and Internet, John Hartley argues that a whole-of-humanity effort to meet the challenges of the ‘digital information space’ is impossible, unless we draw from those who have experienced colonialism.

In November 2023, the OECD convened a conference in Paris to ‘identify effective policy responses to the urgent challenges’ member countries face in the ‘information space’. It warned:

Today, less than a quarter of citizens say they trust their news media and a majority worry that journalists, governments and political leaders purposely mislead them. In this context, the instantaneous and global spread of information, targeted disinformation campaigns that deceive and confuse the public, and rapidly changing media markets pose a fundamental threat to democracies.

As the OECD recognises, ‘a new governance model is needed to establish a whole-of-society approach to fight mis- and disinformation and preserve freedom of speech.’ 

However, as I argued in a Policy and Internet editorial, a whole-of-humanity effort to meet these challenges is impossible to achieve through incumbent political arrangements. 

This quagmire is the result of the ‘information space’ of the Internet being riven by enmities and conflict. Purposeful opposition to this digital ‘New World’ is treated as criminal gangsterism. Anyone who is not one of ‘us’ must be one of ‘them’ – an enemy. As per Ronfeldt and Arquilla, there are plenty: China, Russia, Iran, Wikileaks, criminal cartels (hacking, fraud, ransom), along with religious and nationalist ‘terrorists’ (Palestinians, Kurds, or Kashmiri but not Israel, Türkiye, or India). Andreessen adds accelerationist activists for libertarian sovereignty, while Marwick and others include far-right populists and populism. 

However, an additional challenge impedes on universally-inclusive efforts. Namely, the privileged status of OECD countries and their nations that is currently being challenged. According to Frydl, people in OECD countries like to think of themselves as affluent, advanced, and mostly white. However, I argue, as life becomes increasing digitalised, these very people are beginning to learn what it feels like to be messed around, their lives harmed and resources farmed by unaccountable external agents that owe no allegiance to anyone. That is, citizens in OECD countries are somewhat learning what colonialism is through challenges to sovereignty and security delivered via the digital ‘information space’. More specifically, digital culture is privately owned, ‘the internet’ is intellectual property down to the molecule, and ‘sovereignty’ is exercised by companies (as in the imperial past with the British East India Company and Dutch VoC).

Nevertheless, as Greta Thunberg tells her 14.6M followers on Instagram, ‘in order to change everything, we need everyone’. How, then, can collective action be organised and coordinated, despite the hostile environment for citizen-to-citizen and culture-to-culture digital connectivity? 

An answer may emerge from the long history of those who have been on the receiving end of colonialism and imperialism since modernity first ‘opened up’ the world to global exploitation. Now that even affluent people distrust their own systems, finding that politics, commerce, and public policy are all suborned by hidden agendas and infectious hatreds, perhaps we can all learn from those who know how it feels.

In a yet to be published book, Dr Last Moyo advances a new approach to ‘decolonial cultural policy studies.’ It is an approach in which “there is always a possibility for revolutionary action by the Africans … the value of African cultures and national cultural policies can be reclaimed not only to reconstitute the cultural in the continent, but also to decolonize consciousness industries that are strategic in galvanizing Africa’s counter hegemonic cultural action”.

Thus, to move from enmity to amity, to take collective action at truly global scale, cultural policy needs to be recast: 

as a socio-political process by which a progressive postcolonial nation-state unthinks and rethinks the role of culture in constructing the kind of society they need for their people’s wellbeing.

In other words, national cultural policies in Africa must be central in building a deeply decolonial, but also democratic and cosmopolitan national culture and identity.

To change everything, we need everyone. Gathering everyone to act in a common cause requires both reconstituting the systems of the past and connecting with the agents of the future. This can only be achieved through multicultural intersectionality. Where Africa leads, the affluent countries had better follow. Otherwise, as Moyo asserts, everyone faces a future where their own “languages, cultures, value systems, beliefs, and cosmologies are delegitimized, de-institutionalized, de-centered and rendered invisible”

Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in Policy & Internet.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of Policy & Internet, nor the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney. 

For more information on Dr Mojo’s book, please refer to the following reference: 

Moyo, L. (2024) Cultural policy and cultural industries in Africa: From culture as a commodity to culture as praxis. New York and London: Palgrave-Macmillan.