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Will the Internet Make Citizens Love Democracy?

- May 12, 2011

Protests across the Middle East and Northern Africa have reinvigorated discussion of the Internet’s potential as a tool for political organization.  However, how much the Internet actually influences political behavior, organization, and outcomes remains widely debated—largely due to the paucity of actual causal tests of the Internet’s influence.  However, this is beginning to change.  The rapid diffusion of information and communication technology into regions that were previously nearly devoid of such capabilities offers researchers a rare opportunity to study how these technologies are altering the informational landscapes in developing nations—and how those evolving landscapes then interact with the political realm.


In my previous two posts, I described a field experiment in Tanzania that provided internet access to a randomly selected group of people, and thereby influenced their evaluations of an election and their willingness to participate in an election.  This experiment, and the one I describe below, also enable exploration of the two primary mechanisms through which the Internet may alter such evaluations, which I term mirror-holding and window-opening.  Mirror-holding happens because the Internet provides a broader and more extensive array of information, thereby “holding up a mirror” that allows users to better discern and reflect on how their government is actually performing.  Window-opening means that the global nature of the Internet opens a window for individuals to better view how democracy functions in other countries, particularly the high-functioning democracies that are most visible on the Internet.  This provides users with a more realistic and globally-consistent scale by which to make comparative evaluations about their own government’s performance.

In a second randomized field experiment, conducted in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I tested whether the Internet influenced participants’ evaluations of the strength of democratic practices in their nation.  As in the experiment in Tanzania, this experiment also gave a randomly selected group access to the Internet via an Internet cafe (picture above).  Did this matter?  Yes.  After two months of Internet use, the participants that had been randomly assigned to the Internet group became increasingly critical of the poor-performing Bosnian government.  Specifically, relative to the control group, members of the Internet group became 5 percentage points more dissatisfied with how democracy functioned in their nation.  They expressed less favorable evaluations of their nation’s democracy and were less likely to trust the Bosnian government as well.

Before conceding the debate to Internet enthusiasts, however, these more critical evaluations of a poor-performing government did not necessarily translate into uniformly pro-democratic gains.  In this instance, relative to the control group, members of the Internet group were 13-percentage points more likely to agree with the statement, If our present system cannot produce results soon, we should try another form of government.”

Thus, at first glance the Internet’s capacity to make citizens more critical of a poor-performing government seems a boon for transparency and accountability—integral components for building a robust democracy.   But rather than encourage individuals to press their government to adhere to higher democratic standards, in this case disaffected individuals became increasingly willing to consider alternative forms of governance.  This suggests that exposure to the Internet may prove a double-edged sword for democracy and democratization.