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• April 06, 2012 • 10:29 AM

Despite the fervent hopes of its boosters, the Internet by its lonesome doesn’t drive democratic change, but it can reinforce existing impulses.

It’s tempting to think of the Internet as the world’s best weapon against authoritarianism. Where it goes, democracy will follow, if we can just figure out how to strategically drop enough thumb drives, cell phones, and “shadow” technology.

But, of course, the relationship between the Internet and democracy is much messier. And what we are now beginning to understand about it – with scientific rigor, that is – suggests that the laws governing this latest technology are not so different from its predecessors like radio and TV.

“The Internet can play a role and facilitate things,” said Erik Nisbet, an assistant professor of communication at The Ohio State University. “But like all media, whether that’s mass media or the Internet, it often reinforces change. It doesn’t drive change.”

Nisbet has published a new study that underscores this in a special edition of the Journal of Communication devoted to the role of the Internet in democratization. His findings hearken back to a pair of essays Miller-McCune.com published last year in the early days of the Arab Spring warning against the impulse to overstate the importance of shifts in technological innovation.

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Nisbet and colleagues Elizabeth Stoycheff and Katy E. Pearce set out to examine the relationship between the Internet and citizens’ attitudes about – and demand for – democracy in 28 countries. Most research on the subject focuses on the top-down impact of the Internet on government institutions.

“But what about the attitudes of citizens about democracy?” Nisbet asked. “Democracy requires democrats. For democracy to be sustainable and successful, you need a population and institutions both that value democracy and believe democracy is the only game in town.”

The researchers relied on existing survey data from 35,000 people from African and Asian countries with a range of open-to-authoritarian government policies and varying Internet penetration.

“The more people use the Internet, regardless of how much, regardless of how authoritarian or free the country is, how much Internet penetration there is, the Internet is associated with a greater demand for democracy,” Nisbet said. “But what we’re seeing is that the influence of the Internet might be amplified or dampened depending on certain country-level contextual factors.”

The researchers found that the Internet is most likely to play a role in democratization in countries that already have modest or good Internet penetration and partly democratic political regimes. In other words, the further on its way to democracy a country already is, the more the Internet may be able to help.

The inverse scenario is probably of more interest to Internet activists: The Internet can only catalyze so much change within severely authoritarian countries. And these are the outposts in which we’d like to think a few well-placed portals to the open Internet could promote democracy when its advocates have no other influence.

This model suggests the Internet can’t do much (for now at least) for countries like Vietnam or Zimbabwe. But it might spur more democratization in countries that are already modestly connected to the Internet, with some liberalizing government institutions in place – like, well, Egypt circa two years ago.

“People think of Egypt as authoritarian, but relatively speaking it was actually a partly free country,” Nisbet said. “It was a one-party state, but when it came to press freedom, it was moderately free. It did have some elections. It was one of these hybrid type countries and wasn’t completely authoritarian, like Syria or Yemen.”

To explain exactly what might be taking place in countries like Egypt, Nisbet points to other research suggesting the Internet can promote democracy by giving people greater access to information about their own governments to police them, and about foreign governments to compare their own. The Internet also enables citizens to connect better to each other to network, grouse, and mobilize (this also helps to explain why the Internet is most democratizing when a large share of people has access to it).

All of this may disappoint anyone counting on the transformative power of the Internet. But Nisbet points to the mixed role it has played even in the United States.

“A lot of the predictions about the Internet revitalizing civic engagement in the U.S. have not come true,” he said. “So why should we expect the same thing to happen overseas?”

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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