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The internet is changing human migration patterns

It’s not exactly breaking news to say that the internet has changed the world. But just how many ways it has subtly, or not so subtly, done so is a bit more surprising.

In a new study from Montreal’s McGill University, the U.K.’s University of Oxford, and Italy’s University of Calabria and Bocconi University, researchers lay out a new theory: That the internet has directly impacted global migration. The TL;DR version: That countries in which there is a higher proportion of internet users also have more people who are willing to emigrate.

In the study, the researchers looked at internet usage and migration pathways using survey data from citizens in 160 countries. The data underlined how the internet can serve as an important information channel when it comes to migrants leaving their own country to look for opportunities elsewhere. Tools like social media allow people to compare themselves to others living in different, sometimes wealthier, countries — and prompt them to make the move.

In one example, the investigators found that the country of origin of migrants arriving in Italy strongly correlated with internet usage in those same countries of origin. On the level of individuals, the association between internet usage and an intent to migrate was stronger among women.

The internet shapes migration patterns

“To be fully honest, we had no clear expectations on whether the internet had a negative or positive role in affecting migration outcomes,” Luca Maria Pesando, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Center on Population Dynamics at McGill University, told Digital Trends. “As a matter of fact, the existing literature had hypothesized both a positive and a negative link between internet diffusion and the decision to migrate. However, those studies were mostly focused on single countries and on dynamics of internal — rather than international — migration. Therefore, we were generally surprised to find evidence in favor of a positive role of the internet in shaping both migration intentions and migration decisions across more than 150 countries.”

Pesando thinks this trend is only going to increase in the coming years as projects like SpaceX’s Starlink project, which aim to provide high-quality internet throughout the world, become a reality.

“I believe innovations such as Starlink will stimulate international migration toward high-income countries even further and make the whole world even more ‘mobile’ by providing access to information to even some of the most remote parts of the world,” he said. “The issue — especially across low- and middle-income countries — will become less and less [about] having access to this type of technology, but promoting adequate social development policies aimed at providing people with the adequate skills to leverage digital connectivity and the ability to filter right and wrong information.”

A paper describing the research was recently published in the journal Population and Development Review.

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