As we finally exit Iraq, we are leaving some soldiers behind, but what we are leaving behind that is really important is the internet, because studies have shown that there can be no modern democracies without it.

As the last combat troops withdraw from Iraq, the country’s citizens are left to sort out their future. New research shows that digital media, such as mobile phones and the Internet, have become all but essential in building democracies. We saw for ourselves every night on the TV news how close cell phone videos came to bringing down the current government in Iran. We’ve also seen how countries like China censor the internet, because they fear its power.

Phillip N. Howard says, “The Internet has played a key role in nearly all democratic transitions in the last 15 years. Countries with high rates of technology diffusion are most likely to develop strong democratic institutions. The recipe for democratization 50 years ago had other ingredients such as radio, television and newspapers. Today, the recipe must include the internet.”

Globally, one in 10 internet users is a Muslim living in a populous Muslim community. Often young and digitally savvy, these users spread information independently of governments and beyond manipulation by cultural and religious elites. Day-to-day civic discourse, not cyberterrorism, is the most important political aspect of the Internet in Muslim countries, the researchers found. They also found that the Internet is helping societies get better at running elections, providing civic services and exposing corruption.

Howard and his team studied information and communication technology in 75 countries, finding that technology that is modernizing society and driving economic growth is also enabling growing numbers of journalists, non-governmental organizations and ordinary citizens to find and publicize information unsanctioned by dictators or the ruling elite. By building Internet ties both inside and outside their countries, the researchers found, these people are creating sturdy avenues for change.

Howard says, “Dictators around the world bet they could get the economic benefits of a modern, Internet-enabled economy without the risks. They’re losing the bet.”

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