In Digital Diasporas: Identity and Transnational Engagement, Jennifer M. Brinkerhoff explores the complex realm of CGOs (cyber-grassroots organizations) and their social and political effects on diaspora communities in the United States. Brinkerhoff focuses her analysis on diasporans from Afghanistan, Somalia, Egypt, Tibet, Nepal and the corresponding online organizations that have become hubs for interactions among members of these communities—Afghanistanonline, Somalinet, MyCopticChurch, Tibetboard and Thamel.com, respectively. By examining the structures of the online forums as well as the interactive threads, or comments, posted on these sites over time, the author assesses the ways in which these CGOs foster democratic values among community members, support integration into the host society, and contribute to security and socio-economic development in the homelands. She argues that when diasporans have a forum for expressing their hybrid identities within a host society, many problems and difficulties of migrant integration can be eased. In fact, Brinkerhoff challenges widely held assumptions that transnational IT poses security threats to nation states’ sovereignty and/or fosters increased terrorist activity, arguing instead that diasporans’ use of IT actually helps foster democratic policies and liberal values in the corresponding homeland communities.
Brinkerhoff begins her analysis by describing the recent history and political situations of the five countries in question. Thereafter, she examines the social interactions and online posts of users participating in corresponding diasporas CGOs, drawing connections between the content of these interactions, the debate-oriented frames created around important political issues, and the resulting social conclusions. With a heavy focus on the issue of identity-exploration, the author argues that diasporan interaction in CGOs contributes to the creation of “bonding social capital,” or positive inter-connectedness. By using the digital realm to explore questions of identity, participants in Afghanistanonline, for instance, foster empathy, understanding and pride among their fellow diasporans, thereby creating a social safety net and dissolving the “othering” process that they would otherwise typically experience. By contrast, the personal attacks and socially inflamed interactions that persist on Somalinet result in decreased bonding social capital and pride about the homeland (however, the author still argues that having a forum to express these feelings ultimately contributes to conflict mitigation within the Somali diaspora community).
While the author carefully and thoroughly explores the social interactions on all five websites, the larger question, which must ultimately be asked, has to do with the limitations of the digital realm. This brings up complex issues of anonymity and responsibility within CGOs and other online forums. While Brinkerhoff makes noteworthy observations about diasporan communities, identity exploration and political mobilization, her analysis is fundamentally limited to a superficial understanding of the users of the online forums in question because she was unable to track the actual lives, relationships and political behavior of the users. Hence, she is unable to quantitatively show what direct impact CGOs are having on real world behaviors.
Despite these limitations, Digital Diasporas: Identity and Transnational Engagement provides an excellent introduction to CGOs and the ways in which diaspora communities interact and function within the digital realm. Brinkerhoff’s conclusions about the ability of CGOs to promote and reinforce liberal values, and facilitate conflict resolution should be added to the ongoing discussion in public diplomacy about how diasporans are using technology to respond to social and political events in both their home and host countries.