Internet and the integration of immigrants in Germany and Israel. Characteristics and potentials.

Author:Weiskopf, Inna

1 Introduction

The ongoing development of new information and communication technologies is influencing and thus changing the way of life around the world. While the effects of technologies such as the Internet vary in detail from one country to another both politicians and citizens are generally confronted with the challenge to shape and to take part in this all-embracing development. As these technological innovations diffuse, gain importance and alter the public and private spheres, it can be assumed that the competence to use them increasingly determines the equality of opportunity and the level of societal integration. While this generally concerns all citizens, a case study of migrants is especially suitable to distinguish, what role these technologies, particularly the Internet, play in the integration of and into information societies.

In this chapter we first focus on the theoretical role of the media and especially the Internet for the integration of migrants and propose a model for the assessment of an online integration process. Then, we apply this model and compare the Internet use of migrants from the former Soviet Union in Germany and Israel in order to distinguish how their Internet use is linked to their integration. Finally, we discuss what our observations imply for societal integration of migrants in an environment increasingly characterized by information and communication technologies and whether there is need for political action to steer this development.

2 Theoretical Implications on Internet Use and Integration

Societies are ever more faced with the question how the Internet and its influence on many realms of life is establishing new conditions for the obtainment of equal opportunities. It is undeniable that the Internet can be not only an asset for the organization of many aspects of life but is increasingly a necessity (see Finaguina 2002). In many countries around the world, to be "online" is becoming central for one's knowledge about one's environment, for the retention of one's social contacts but also for the organization of one's life and the participation in society, as fields such as e-government, e-banking or e-commerce develop. Furthermore, competences using these technologies have become a precondition for many jobs in these information societies (see Korber/Schaffer 2002).

This is of course generally true for all citizens, but even more so for immigrants, who are especially in need of information on their new environment and who often rely on their new and old social networks in order to adjust to the foreign country (see Elias/Lemish 2008). The question of the use or non-use of the Internet therefore has serious consequences for disadvantaged or minority groups as it has the potential to improve their living conditions. As Fairlie concludes "future economic, education, community participation and political advancement for theses disadvantaged groups may depend on access to computers, the Internet and broadband technology" (2005: 9).

This topic has been embraced by the term "digital divide" which is often wrongly understood as referring to mere access and usage possibilities of the Internet (see Kubicek/Welling 2000). Recent studies have proven that such a divide in terms of mere access to the Internet does not exist in Germany. 65 Percent of the German population above 14 years of age use the Internet, while 66.8 percent of persons who migrated to Germany themselves and 75.3 percent whose parents came to Germany are online (see (N)Onliner Atlas 2008). Migrants in Germany are in fact quite Internet affine. In Israel 74 percent of the households have an Internet connection; while access of migrants to the Internet is estimated to be just slightly below that level (see TNS 2008).

But apart from these general facts regarding access, what is more substantial in terms of integration is how and why this technology is used and which gratifications are obtained (see Hwan/He 1999). In this sense, the actual and more comprehensive concept of the digital divide goes beyond access itself and encompasses the relevance of the Internet for the individual user to indicate how digital and societal divides are related. The German Enquete Commission on the Globalization of the World Economy drew attention to this social significance of digital inclusion, when it stated that today's digital divide can well be tomorrow's social divide (see 2002). This is due to the fact as more of society's processes are transferred to the Internet, its use will increasingly become a bottleneck for the participation and integration in society. While pessimists conjure that societal integration is therefore at stake, optimists promote the potential of this technology in various realms of society (see Buchstein 1996, DiMaggio et al 2001, MeKenna/Bargh 2004).

As far as migrants are concerned, Mehra et al. resume: "In casting the digital divide as an important national problem, scholars, policymakers and the public recognize the tremendous potential of the Internet to improve everyday life for those on the margins of society, and to achieve greater social equity and empowerment" (2004: 782). To stress the digital divide's importance and to illustrate that the way the Internet is used has consequences for societal and political conditions and processes Norris introduced the related term "democratic divide" (2001: 12).

The question of how the media effects societal developments and more specifically how it is involved in the integration of society and of immigrants has an extensive research tradition (see WeiB/Trebbe 2001, GeiBler/Pottker 2006). However, the existing literature mainly discusses the role of the traditional mass-media such as newspapers, radio and television. Neither has the question if the Internet can be framed in the same logic been intensively broached nor have existing models been adapted to the additional features that the interactive media "Internet" contains.

Traditionally, mass media's role in integration processes within a society is framed as supporting social homogenization. In this understanding the media transport information about the country, its norms and culture, its current events and general functioning to the recipients. This commonly shared experience of media reception as well as of the information transmitted has a harmonizing and thus integrating effect on the individuals within society and creates an inclusive public sphere (see Vlasic 2004). Central for this concept is the aspect of information, which is understood to be central for integration processes (see Esser 2001). This argument is criticized as it implies a homogeneous culture, which however does not exist in pluralistic societies (see De-ligoz 1999). However, disregarding the question of homogeneity, the general importance of information about the country of residence for the integration process of individuals is not disputed.

A second research approach focuses more on the aspect of communication. The classical mass media's role hereby is that of supplying the individual with information or with a media reception experience. The individual can then use this experience as a foundation for communication with other recipients (see WeBler 2002). Thus the traditional media's importance is that of setting the basis for subsequent communication ("Anschlusskommunikation"). Again, the relevance of communication in general for the integration process is common consent (see Kim 2001). However, the form of communication is more disputed, as the language used or the persons communicated with can moderate the integrating effect. While some see these effects only if communication is in the language of the country of residence and ideally with citizens of this country (see Esser 2001), others have found evidence that communication in the mother tongue or with other migrants might as well have a positive influence (see Jungk 2002; Hafez 2000). Additionally, the question has been raised whether (parallel) media consumption from and contact to residents of the country of origin or the reception of information about events from their influence the integration process positively or negatively (see Glick-Schiller/Basch 1995, Meier-Braun 2002).

All these issues can also be discussed regarding the use of the Internet by migrants. Firstly, the Internet's central characteristic is that of an information database that exceeds the informative potential of the classical mass media by far. Secondly, as to communication, this media also allows users to directly communicate with one another, which lets this media's relevance regarding societal communication become even more obvious and vivid than before (see Neverla 1998). Thirdly, this hypermedia's characteristics and possible uses exceed information and communication as it enables the direct participation in societal structures and groups online (see D'Haenens et al. 2007). Social and political participation is a third process that is generally seen as central for the integration of immigrants (see Diehl/Urbahn 1998).


These traditional theoretic aspects of media's role in integration (information and indirect communication) can thus be conveyed to the Internet and combined with its novel possibilities (direct communication and participation) to an encompassing grid for the empirical analysis of the Internet's actual role in integration (see Kissau 2008).

The question if and how the Internet influences the integration process of societies and specifically of immigrants cannot generally be answered, as the Internet does not just enfold its effect on the passive users: In line with the Uses and Gratifications-Approach the Internet has to be actively used by people and can in doing so fulfill their desires and goals (see Bonfadelli 2004; Hwan/He 1999). In the two case studies presented below the authors accordingly aimed to reveal the main gratifications sought...

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