Democratic Effects of the Internet: Latest Findings

Jacob Groshek from Iowa State University just published his large-N quantitative study on the “Democratic Effects of the Internet” in the International Communication Gazette. I’m particularly interested in this study given it’s overlap with my own dissertation research and recent panel at ISA 2009. So thanks to Jacob for publishing and to my colleague Lokman Tsui at the Berkman Center for letting me know about the article as soon as it came out.

Using macro-level panel data on 152 countries from 1994 to 2003 and multi regression models, Jacob found that “increased Internet diffusion was a meaningful predictor of more democratic regimes.” This democratic effect was greater in countries that were at least partially democratic where the Internet was more prevalent. In addition, the association between Internet diffusion and democracy was statistically significant in “developing countries where the average level of sociopolitical instability was much higher.”

The author thus concludes that policy makers should consider the democratic potential of the Internet but be mindful of unintended consequences in countries under authoritarian rule. In other words, “the democratic potential of the Internet is great, but that actual effects might be limited because Internet diffusion appears conditional upon national-level democracy itself.”

Introduction

While many like Al Gore have professed that information and communication technologies (ICTs) would “spread participatory democracy” and “forge a new Athenian age of democracy,” the lessons of history suggest otherwise. Media system dependence theory maintains that ICTs, “including the Internet, are unlikely to drastically alter asymmetric power and economic relations within and between countries specifically in the short term.”

Others counter that ICTs are “nonetheless vital to democracy and the process of democratization.”For example, both Jefferson and de Tocqueville remarked that a catalyst for American democracy was the free press. While most communication technologies over the last hundred years have failed to fulfill their predicted impact, the Internet is considered special and different. The Internet is “the most interactive and technologically sophisticated medium to date, which enhances user reflexitivity in terms of user participation and generated content and thus has a greater likelihood of affecting change.”

According to media system dependency theory, the framework used in this study, there are two scenarios in which media diffusion may demonstrate micro- and macro-level effects. First, the greater the centralization of specific information-delivery functions, the greater the societal dependency on that media. Second, “as media diffusion and dependency increase over time, the potential for mass media messages to achieve a broad range of cognitive, affective and behavioral effects [is] further increased when there is a high degree of structural instability in the society due to conflict and change.”

Data

The author selected 1994-2003 because “the public launch of the Internet is generally marked around 1994, following the introduction of the Mosaic web browser in 1993 and at the time of writing, 2003 was the latest available year for much of the data.”

  • Socio-political variables included population, urbanism, education, resources, media development, sociopolitical instability, accountability of governors (democracy), gross national income (GNI) and the Human Development Index (HDI), which was included to place countries in developmental categories. While other studies use gross national product (GNP) per capita, Jacob employs GIN per capita, “which is a similar but updated version of GNP that has become the standard for measuring countries’ wealth.”
  • For social instability measures, Jacob used the weighted conflict index found in the Bank’s Cross-Polity Time-Series Database, which represents “an index of domestic stress” used to “approximate domestric stress as a function of sociopolitical instaiblity. “In terms of this study, increased domestic stress was identified as one of the key sociopolitical conditions, namely instability, that might engender a greater democratic effect as a result of the increased diffusion of [...] media technologies.” This variable includes codings of assassinations, general strikes, guerrilla warfare, government crises, riots, revolutions, and anti-government desmonstrations.
  • The ICT variables included in the study were Internet diffusion per 100 and a combined figure of televisions and radios divided by popluation figures available from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The author did not include newspaper figures because “recent trends in declining newspaper readership suggest newspaper circulation figures may no longer accurately represent mass media development.”
  • The democracy data was drawn from the Polivy IV database, specifically the ‘Polity 2′ democracy score, which is “often recognized for its validity, sophistication and comprehensiveness.” Jacob also notes that factor analyses of the data showed that the Polity 2 scores “load highly (over .90 for all years in this study) with Freedom House (2005) government accountability figures, which have been used previously [...].” Note that Jacob used the Polity 2 score with a one-year time lag.
  • The 152 countries were chosen on the basis of their inclusion in many existing databases. The author omitted countries if 15% or more of the data was missing for any category or year. For countries included with missing figures, “mean substitution at the country level was used for each missing case per variable.” It would be helpful if Jacob had noted the number of countries for which mean substitutions was used.

Binary regional and time operators were also added as part of specifying fixed effects regression models.” Like several previous studies, the author did not include government control of the press because an important collinearity problem with democracy measures. “

Method

Jacob used multiple regression models to test his hypothesis that Internet diffusion has democratic effects.  a number of potential causal arguments. He also used fixed effects panel regression to control for time and region-specific effects, omitted variables bias and heteroskedasticity problems. “Specifically, the fixed effects models controlled for unobserved variables that differed across time but did not vary across state.”

Findings

The figure below fits a fractional polynomial (linear-log) regression line to a scatterplot of all countries for all years. Of the most non-democratic countries in 2003 (Belarus, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates), only Bahrain showed an increase in the Polity 2 democracy measure. In Belarus, the democracy measure fell dramatically during the 10-year time period despite the fact that the important increase in Internet users by 2003.

While Jacob doesn’t draw on the Open Net Initiative (ONI) research on censorship, the group’s 2008 empirical study “Access Denied” does demonstrate an important global rise in Internet filtering. In other words, repressive regimes are becoming increasingly savvier in their ability to regulate the impact Internet diffusion within their borders.

internetdemocracy1

When taken together, Jacob’s findings suggest that “the democratizing effect of the Internet is severely limited among non-democratic countries.” In addition, Jacob’s results suggest that higher levels of sociopolitical instability in “developing countries proved to be just as important in cultivating a democratic effect as the increased diffusion of Internet.” Another interpretation might be that, “sociopolitical instability may contribute to more apparent levels of Internet effects, even when presented with seemingly inconsequential levels of diffusion” that characterize developing countries.”

This is a surprising finding regardless of the interpretation. At the same time, however, Jacob should have noted that empirical studies in the political science literature have debated the destabilization effects of democratization. See Mansfield and Snyder (2001) for example. In addition, the political transitions literature does note the importance of mass social protests and nonviolent civil resistance in sustainable transitions to democracy. See Stephan and Cherdowith (2008) and my recent findings on the impact of ICTs on the frequency of protests in repressive regimes.

Conclusion

Jacob’s empirical research is an important contribution to the study of ICTs and impact on society, both from a development context—developing versus developed countries—and regime type—democratic versus nondemocratic.

Patrick Philippe Meier

4 responses to “Democratic Effects of the Internet: Latest Findings

  1. Pingback: culture, politics & the network environment « blah'g

  2. Pingback: Latest Empirical Findings on Democratic Effects of the Internet | iRevolution

  3. Pingback: Impact of Technology on Democracy and Activism: Findings from Multiple Statistical Studies | iRevolution

  4. Pingback: Conversation, discovery and reputation: navigating the age of abundance « Planning in High Heels

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s