How the Internet Has Changed Democratic Attitudes Throughout the World

Catie Bailard’s new book examines the digital age’s effect on citizens and their governments.

October 13, 2014

Catie Bailard

SMPA Professor Catie Bailard published "Democracy's Double-Edged Sword: How Internet Use Changes Citizens' Views of Their Government."

School of Media and Public Affairs Professor Catie Bailard spent almost 10 years building data sets, updating test models and writing the manuscript for her new book, “Democracy's Double-Edged Sword: How Internet Use Changes Citizens' Views of Their Government,” which critics have called one of the first comprehensive analysis of how the Internet affects political outcomes worldwide. 
Dr. Bailard conducted two randomized field experiments—one in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the other in Tanzania—and pored through data at the national level in 73 countries and data at the individual level in 47 countries. Her results show that because the Internet has changed the quantity and range of information available to citizens, it directly influences how societies evaluate government performance—in all parts of the globe.
“The most compelling thing I took away was citizens’ deep-felt and enduring desire for access to political information that, before the Internet, simply was not available,” she said. “A lot of Western scholars initially had a difficult time believing that citizens in developing countries had any interest in using the Internet to access political information. Being in the field really highlighted to me just how misguided a lot of those initial assumptions were.”
Dr. Bailard spoke with George Washington Today reporter Julyssa Lopez about the findings in her new book, her research and what areas scholars can further examine to understand the full effects of the digital world.
Q: What led you to examine the Internet's impact on democratic attitudes? 
A: I began researching the effect of the Internet on democratic attitudes as a political science Ph.D. student back in 2005. I was a teaching assistant for an Introduction to Communication class, and, as part of the class, students read a paper theorizing about the effects that Internet use would have on citizens in advanced democracies. This inspired me to start thinking about how the effects might be similar and, also, different across less democratic and non-democratic countries.
By the time the book was published this year, I had rewritten the manuscript from scratch multiple times, built completely new and updated data sets and conducted new sets of test. The book is very different, much more sophisticated and in-depth than the first paper I wrote in 2005. Nevertheless, sometimes I do reflect—in moderate disbelief—on the fact that this book really is the culmination of nearly a decade of work.
Q: So how has the Internet altered individuals' relationships with their governments?
A: Well, first and foremost, it has altered the informational relationship between governments and their citizens. Briefly, the Internet has quickly, drastically and simultaneously changed three properties of communication systems: how information is packaged, how that information can be physically transmitted and the networks that determine who can send and receive those transmissions.
This has meant the largest decentralization in communication capacity and increase in expressive capacity that we have ever seen in human history—particularly in nations where access to political information tended to be very limited, often due to strict government censorship of traditional media. Thus, the expansion of the Internet has significant ramifications on the amount and type of information that individuals use to evaluate their governments.
In the book, I offer the theories of mirror-holding and window-opening as the mechanisms that drive the effect of Internet use on individual’s evaluations of their government. Through mirror-holding, the Internet provides a larger and more diverse array of political information than the traditional media system could provide, enabling users to better discern and reflect on how democracy—and governance more generally—actually functions in their own country. According to window-opening, the global nature of the Internet opens a larger window for individuals to better view how governments function in other countries, particularly the advanced 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 how well their own government functions. 
As a result, the Internet is playing a central role in shaping the political evaluations and resultant satisfaction that citizens have toward their governments. This is significant because the impetus to act politically—from day-to-day civic activities to the more extreme cases of protest and revolution—begins in the minds of men and women.
Q: Did you find the Internet influenced individuals differently country-to-country? 
A: Yes—the primary finding of my research is that the Internet’s effect on satisfaction is conditioned by the actual quality of democratic practices available in that country. This means that Internet use will increase satisfaction with democracy in nations boasting high-functioning democracies, but it will depress satisfaction in nations with weak democratic practices.  
The results of the field experiments also substantiate the Internet’s capacity to influence a broad range of meaningful political evaluations, including trust in government, how individuals conceptualize democracy and evaluations of the integrity of a contested election. However, these results also reveal that one democratic gain, such as more critical evaluations of poor-performing governments, does not automatically set off a chain of entirely pro-democratic gains in citizens’ attitudes and behaviors. Rather, the Internet’s influence on evaluations and, subsequently, behavior is a complex, contextually dependent process that in some instances will prove a double-edged sword for democracy and democratization.
Q: What other areas do you think can still be explored using the foundation you've offered in your book?
A: I think there is just so much to still unpack, test and understand about the effect of the Internet. It is really limitless in some ways. I see the Internet's effects as being highly context dependent. The effects are likely to vary across individuals, across political and social contexts, across countries and across time. 
There also remains much work in identifying and testing the factors that determine when and where evaluations derived from Internet use will actually produce tangible political activity, organization and outcomes. As part of this effort, it is important that researchers acknowledge that the seeming boon of more informed and critical evaluations of poor-performing governments does not mean that all other political evaluations that follow will automatically and invariably be pro-democratic in nature. Rather, as revealed by this research, in different instances, the full range of the Internet’s effects on evaluations and, thus, activity will likely confirm the predictions of both the Internet’s optimists and skeptics.