Is the internet bad for democracy?

Alex Verkhivker | Sep 18, 2018

Sections Economics Public Policy

Collections Politics

Governments have pursued policies to democratize access to the internet, often with the intention of reducing economic and social inequality. But increasing internet access can have the unintended effect of crowding out established news media and depressing voter turnout, according to London School of Economics’ Alessandro Gavazza, Catholic University of Leuven’s Mattia Nardotto, and Imperial College London’s Tommaso Valletti.

The researchers studied political engagement in local elections in England, comparing voting, budgeting, and other metrics for 1996 to 2000 with those from 2006 to 2010. The share of English households with broadband internet increased from 6 percent in 2003 to 74 percent in 2011, according to the research.

Ofcom, the UK’s media and telecommunications regulator, collects and tabulates statistics on broadband internet service for UK households. The researchers matched up the Ofcom data with local-election results for England’s 7,707 electoral wards. They also analyzed tax and spending data for 103 of England’s 125 local authorities.

As the share of households with broadband grew, voter turnout declined, the researchers find. Every 10 percent increase in broadband subscriptions correlated with a 3.5 percent decline in voter turnout in local elections. However, the impact of the internet’s rise on political participation wasn’t the same for everyone. Those who were financially well-off, had a college degree, and were 65 or older didn’t change their voting behavior, the study finds.  

Among the young and less well educated, however, voting fell as internet penetration increased. The researchers argue that the internet not only crowds out informative media such as newspapers, television, and radio but also delivers greater volumes of other, less useful content. The young and less well educated, disproportionately drawn to the internet for information and pleasure, become less engaged politically.   

The researchers also studied how the rise of the internet affected local policies in England. To do so, they took advantage of differences in broadband’s penetration in London and other metropolitan areas. 

They find suggestive evidence that groups that didn’t go to the polls were less represented in local policy decisions, and that local district policies favored those whose electoral participation didn’t change with expanded internet access. For example, younger and less-educated voters tend to support spending on education and protections for vulnerable populations. In areas with greater broadband penetration, there was no change in funding for education, but district councils cut funding for social services and housing, disproportionately hurting the poor, the study finds. Meanwhile, the resulting lower taxes in those districts benefited older, better-educated, and wealthier homeowners.

“Our results show that participation in local elections has dramatically declined in recent years,” write Gavazza, Nardotto, and Valletti, “in part as the internet has displaced other media that provide greater local news content, thus questioning the accountability of these decentralized governments.”