There is little empirical research on the effects of digital technology on politics, so the article on the democratic effects of the Internet in the International Journal of Communication by Iowa State University’s Jacob Groshek is a welcome addition to the field, though Groshek’s conclusions may be premature.
The paper (PDF), ably summarized on Patrick Meier’s iRevolution blog, used a time series of 72 countries, beginning in 1946 or 1954 and ending in 2003. Groshek generated statistically-forecasted democracy values for each country using pre-Internet indicators from the 40 years before 1994. The actual democracy scores of each country for the years 1994 to 2003 were then compared to the forecasted value. In most countries, the presence of the Internet did not correlate to a level of democracy greater that the forecasted value. According to Groshek:
These results are consistent even in countries where the Internet was more widely diffused, which suggests that Internet diffusion was not a specific causal mechanism of national-level democratic growth during the timeframe analyzed. Thus, based on the results of the 72 countries reported here, the diffusion of the Internet should not be considered a democratic panacea, but rather a component of contemporary democratization processes….
He acknowledges that “this finding, of course, does not rule out the possibility that there may be national-level democratic effects related to Internet diffusion in the future….”
That future may be now. According to the Global Digital Activism Data Set (GDADS), the Meta-Activism Project’s open collection of 1,005 digital activism cases from 114 countries, real growth in the use of digital technology for campaigning and public political speech did not see a significant increase until 2006. While part of this jump may be due to increased reporting of digital activism, rather than increase frequency (the citizen media aggregator Global Voices Online was born the year before) , anecdotal evidence also supports the conclusion that online political activism did not come into its own until after 2003. The major social media platforms used for activism, like YouTube (2005), Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006), were founded after that date. In addition, even in advanced democracies like the United States, political action online began in the mid-200o’s, with key expansions during the 2004 presidential election (remember Howard Dean meet-ups?), the rise of flash-mobs in 2003 and the international anti-FARC rallies organized on Facebook in 2008.
Of course, it is possible that the Internet could somehow affect democracy through non-political activities, like increasing economic development and the rise of a middle class, but it seems pre-mature to claim that Internet diffusion does not correlate with democratic growth if the period of greatest online political action is excluded. Clay Shirky makes a good point in his article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, stating that we are not likely to see the the democratizing effects of the Internet in the short term, but rather that “the potential of social media lies mainly in their support of civil society and the public sphere — change measured in years and decades rather than weeks or months.” It is too early to discount the Internet, since its effects are just beginning to be felt.