Does The Internet Improve Democracy?

There is often much discussion about how the internet and social media is affecting modern-day politics and political events. These discussions have been driven from a range of events, including the Arab Spring and the role Twitter played in organizing protests, to the importance of Donald Trump’s tweets.

In theory, the internet has the capabilities of increasing accountability and facilitating citizen participation, engagement and collective action due to its highly networked nature. Thus, we would hope that its ever expanding prominence across the world would lead to more vibrant and active civic societies in democracies, and aid those protesters in autocracies at achieving democracy.

Unlike one may assume, research has found that there has not been a dramatic increase in political knowledge for the general US public. Instead, there is increased knowledge inequality. Those who are politically interested are more informed than in the past and those who are not, are less informed than in the past. This is because the internet and the control it affords people regarding what media they consume, and the decline in traditional medias such as TV, in which you may end up watching things you did not choose to, means people can effectively “tune out” unwanted material. This is a rather sobering result, for while the internet certainly has the capabilities of increasing citizens’ knowledge, making them more informed voters and active members of society, it does not ensure that citizens’ knowledge will increase. You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Social media is often suggested to have a role in politics. Claims during the 2016 US election that Google could influence the voter are not completely unfounded. Research has shown that Google search result rankings can alter voter preferences of undecided voters. Equally, studies have illustrated how Facebook banners showing that your friends have voted can make individuals more likely to vote as well. Similarly, companies such as Cambridge Analytica claim to have contributed to the success of the campaigns of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump by designing adverts that cater to individuals personality types, thus having a greater effect on them. Lastly, many fear that we are stuck in ‘echo chambers’ in which social media only allows us to interact with news and information that is in line with our ideologies, thus not allowing people to be exposed to ideologically diverse news, which leads to further political polarisation. Although, it should be noted that research has emerged that suggests the effects of these “echo chambers” are not as drastic as many fear. So, it seems the internet can influence our political participation without us even knowing. This may be scary to many, as it suggests private firms have a dangerous amount of control over voting and possibly other preferences in society.

Lastly, the internet has proved instrumental in protests movements across the world such as the Arab Spring, Gezi Park protests in Turkey, and the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong. The internet and social media has allowed groups to organize and spread knowledge far easier and allowed them to reach large audiences. Equally, the internet has been instrumental in allowing citizens in countries, such as in the Arab Spring, to access information that is not censored via the state-controlled media outlets. Though, just as the internet can prove to be so beneficial to democratic values, it can just as easily be used for tyranny when in the hands of authoritarian regimes. China, for example, has invested heavily in internet censorship to construct the “great fire wall.” When in the hands of such regimes, the internet is an extremely dangerous tool, as it allows ever greater forms of surveillance and control.

So, the internet is but an instrument. It can be used to better democracies and also maim them. While, there were plenty of utopian dream at the internet’s inception or dreams of mass information and freedom, the realities remain that for such dreams to be achieved they must be done through investment in education and effective governments that promote peace and political inclusion.