Digital technology was dreamed of as the ultimate connector and leveler, the ideal destroyer of borders and boundaries. The digital community that assembled itself around this summer’s FIFA World Cup shows one example of a true global village, in which people share the same obsessions on the digital planet. That’s a significant contrast to the online communities leaning toward nativism and anti-globalization.
But that’s not the only split in what was imagined as a link to a true global community. In our multi-year study of digital evolution around the world, “The Digital Planet,” my collaborators and I identified divisions among internet users in different countries – largely mirroring differences in economic development. More digitally evolved nations, like those in Western Europe, North America, Japan, Singapore or New Zealand, are in what we called the “Digital North.” Russia, China, India and others in South East Asia, Africa and the Middle East or Latin America are in what we called the “Digital South.” We found that the Digital South, broadly speaking, not only has greater momentum, in terms of embrace of digital technologies, but also greater trust in these technologies.
Some recent studies of users point to three emerging trends driving a deeper wedge between the North and the South.
Privacy concerns are rising
Around the world, people are more worried about privacy – which isn’t surprising, given the stream of revelations relating to Facebook users’ data and commercial security breaches. More than half of global internet users are more concerned about their online privacy this year than they were a year ago – including threats from cybercriminals, governments and social media companies.
Yet privacy concerns climbed much higher in Digital South countries than they did in the Digital North. For example, 58 percent of internet users in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa were more concerned now than a year ago; in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, only 43 percent were more concerned in 2018 than they had been in 2017. Part of this is because the Digital North already had a higher level of concern about privacy – the South is clearly catching up.
Trading data for services
Perhaps related, a recent Asia-focused survey found a clear divergence on the issue of users giving up their personal data in exchange for convenience and free digital services. People in China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand – all part of the Digital South – tend to be more willing to let companies collect and aggregate their data as part of using online services. In the Digital Northern countries of Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and Australia, however, people are less willing to make that trade-off.
In fact, 94 percent of Chinese customers said they would agree to let businesses share or reuse their personal data. But only 60 percent of New Zealanders agreed. Of course, many of those who say they wouldn’t share their data in exchange for online services are doing so – just less willingly.
Shifting attitudes toward news on social media
Beyond concerns about their own data are worries about truth and accuracy in online information. People in wealthy countries tend to get more of their news online more frequently than people in poorer nations. And more than half of all people agree or strongly agree that they are concerned about what is real and what is fake online.
Yet only 23 percent of those surveyed say they trust news they get from social media. And people in both the Digital North and the Digital South are equally likely to get news from social media. That’s partly a result of decreasing social media use for news in the Digital North, as well as a rise in news on social platforms like WhatsApp and Instagram in many parts of the developing world.
The emergence of these new platforms is creating a host of new problems – which, in many ways, are more devastating than the problems created in the Digital North. For example, in India, rumors carried over WhatsApp have given rise to a spate of lynchings. Users in the Digital South are new to such media and have not yet had the opportunity to make distinctions between what is real and what is false. Because WhatsApp messages are encrypted, it is harder to track and control how these malicious forms of fake news spread. That comes with a real human cost: At least 25 people have reportedly been killed across India since May by mobs encouraged by rumors over WhatsApp.
Collectively, these emerging trends suggest the Digital South’s online use is developing and evolving very differently from the path the Digital North has taken. The digital fervor around the recently concluded World Cup reflects this: The national soccer team of Peru, a part of the Digital South, had more Facebook profile likes, comments and shares per post than any other World Cup team. And the Facebook and Twitter profiles of Digital Southerner Mohamed Salah of Egypt had the most fan engagement among all the players. And neither Peru nor Egypt is a top-ranked team on the soccer pitch.
Then consider China and India, neither of which had a team in the World Cup. A quarter of active internet users around the world planned to watch the World Cup online – but that number was nearly twice as high among internet users in China and India. That’s the scale of change coming as the Digital South continues to come online.