Global conscience in the digital age

Global conscience in the digital age
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To decent human beings, death is a tragedy. To authoritarian regimes, it’s a strategy.

Among oppressive regimes in today’s world, only a few are as ruthless in using state sponsored violence as Saudi Arabia.  In addition to public executions, the regime also routinely tortures and kills in secret.

But in the case of Jamal Khashoggi, an operation to kidnap, or more likely murder, meant to be carried out in secret was brought to public attention worldwide through digital media. The resulting global outrage led Time magazine to suggest that the incident has the power to “upend the Middle East.”

This might indicate that digital natives have a lower tolerance towards human rights abuses. Social media has recently promoted global solidarity with women in Iran and Saudi Arabia. This suggests a trend toward greater support for people’s right to life and freedom of expression – both of which were flagrantly violated in Khashoggi’s case.

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The Internet’s power reflects its number of users and ability to channel and amplify public opinion – rapidly and sometimes on a global scale. Indeed, the Saudi regime’s bungling efforts to sell a series of shifting cover stories reflects a pre-digital mindset in one of the world’s most oppressive nations.

The incident also speaks to the power of narratives in today’s social media climate. This single incident made more of an imprint on the public conscience than the deaths of thousands of Yemeni civilians at Saudi Arabia’s hands. In today’s digital age, a single compelling story can gain enough traction to threaten a seemingly entrenched regime.

We tune out numbers and statistics – we hear them every day and they little affect us emotionally.

But now, once confirmed participants are boycotting the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh. The UK, France, Germany, and most prominent news outlets and major sponsors, including CNN, Bloomberg, the Financial Times, and the Economist, already have backed out of the so-called Davos in the Desert in a powerful show of global unity. Even U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has cancelled.

The global social currency that Saudi Arabia illegitimately gained through its “carwashing” (allowing women to drive while maintaining a roster of laws that ensured their continued oppression) looks like it might all be undone in one fell swoop. The Kingdom’s economic goals, resting heavily on this forum, might be in jeopardy.

The global response to the Khashoggi incident shows what is possible when the world rallies against human rights abuses.

Of course, not all companies are taking the side of justice, but it is heartening to see so many different voices around the world unite in horror against this assault on human life and dignity. 

Tolerating this sort of barbarism simply encourages more oligarchs to do the same – to the detriment of all humanity.

Matt Daniels, JD, Ph.D, is Chair of Law & Human Rights at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., and the creator of www.universalrights.comDoug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.