The Effects of the Internet on Politics

I’ve been buried in seclusion the last several days, trying to get a review article on the consequences of the Internet for politics (from a political science perspective) finished. Obviously, this is far too large an undertaking for a 12,000 word piece, so I’ve concentrated on two debates – arguments over the Internet and political polarization, and arguments over the putative role of the Internet in the Arab Spring. An initial draft is available here – comments and criticisms welcome (I’m already aware of, and planning to fix, the slightly ropy bibliography, the tendency to grossly over-use the word “plausibly” and the unexplained switch from discussion of ‘sorting’ in the opening section to ‘homophily’ in the main text). This is an area where there are a lot of literatures in political science, sociology, communications studies, and computer science that overlap without necessarily talking to each other that well. I’ve tried to gather as much as I can from across these disciplines, but am sure that there is plenty of material out there that I am unaware of.

4 Responses to The Effects of the Internet on Politics

  1. Kevin Donovan September 16, 2011 at 3:18 pm #

    It might be worth stepping away from ‘Internet’ as the reference since it is increasingly infused with other ICTs, especially mobiles, that don’t run on TCP/IP.

  2. Ion Marandici September 17, 2011 at 12:07 am #

    I have done more research on the so-called Twitter Revolution in Moldova and I was surprised to discover that most of the articles published on that topic were superficial. Starting with Morozov’s comments, who does not speak Romanian, so he was just guessing what the people were tweeting and ending with the article by Mungiu-Pippidi/Munteanu, who did not even cite clearly or follow the #pman hashtag used during the April 7th events. Basically the content of the messages was ignored with people focusing on other aspects.
    During the last ten years I observed Moldovan politics and even participated in several electoral campaign as a consultant. My first advice would be to look at the influence of the Internet over longer periods of time and not only focus on the organization of the protests. So, most of the people writing about the Twitter Revolution in Moldova don’t know much about the role the Internet played in Moldova before April 7th, 2009. My research indicates that while the quasi-authoritarian Communist government in the period 2001-2009 focused generally on censoring and controlling the traditional media space, the Internet was used by the Opposition forces. There were several attempts to control various forums culminating in the arrest of several bloggers and we know for sure that the government was monitoring the Internet sites were forums were open. So, before the 2009 elections most of the parties in the opposition constrained by the lack of access to the traditional media were driven to actively use the Internet to spread the anti-governmental message, while the incumbents basically ignored this tool. So, we should look at the impact of the Internet before the April 2009 elections in Moldova; focusing only on the revolutionary moment is a case selection bias. My conclusion was that the Internet offered the opposition the chance to spread its message – corroborated with the increasing number of computers and cell phones in use with Internet access, so structural factors (technology) clearly played a role.
    Secondly, Morozov and the rest look only at the role of Twitter in the protests (hence the need to disaggregate the Internet), but every Moldovan knows that the message to come in the main square on April 6th-7th was spread via Internet forums and from there it got into the traditional media.
    Thirdly, the protest itself was intended to be a flash-mob. Flash-mobs are by definition organized via Internet (Wasik organized the first one by email). So, to say that the Internet did not play any role in the initiation of the protest would be mistaken.
    Fourthly, I would say that too many researchers focused only on the organizational role of Twitter in Moldova. In my research, I highlight two other functions Twitter played in Moldova: the traditional media, both Romanian-language and Western, was following Twitter to get updates and spread the news. So it played a very important informational role. Secondly, on and after April 7th, the revolution continued on Twitter with hundreds of users planning strategically further actions. I spent some time reading those tweets in Romanian and I came to the conclusion that after April 7th, there were more users from Romania using the hashtag #pman trying to convince Moldovans to organize a revolution similar to the Romanian Revolution in 1989. Moreover it was from Twitter that I found out that the government was beating and arresting the protesters that night. So I guess if those caring about human rights would monitor the Twitter feeds more carefully, they would react faster and prevent torture or deaths (regrettably Twitter was ignored by the Moldovan and Western NGOs).
    Otherwise, I think it’s a useful review and the three causal mechanisms mentioned above (sorting, transaction costs change, and preference revelation) definitely can be traced in the Moldovan case. But as said in the Moldovan case, which I know better I think the Internet also changed the structure of the media landscape and contributed to deliberation. Of course, as mentioned Internet itself depends on the availability of certain equipment/gadgets. For ex. the Moldovan Twitter Revolution would not have been possible without a) one cell phone company deciding to offer cell phone Internet service to its subscribers and b) people who had a certain income, were Internet literate, and owned this expensive gadgets.
    I hope you find some of my remarks useful.

  3. Henry September 19, 2011 at 9:31 am #

    Ion, if you can give me a cite to your research on this, I’d be interested in reading it.

  4. Manuel September 20, 2011 at 8:22 am #

    Thanks for sharing this Henry!
    I found your article extremely interesting – and I agree with the view that the effect of the internet on politics is too broad to be studied on its own, and that, rather, the diferent mechanisms and areas where these are felt, should be studied separately.
    I am starting to build the basis for a comparative study of this, and also (a bit of self-promotion) have written on the case of Kenya and the impact of ICTs on civil society working on democracy promotion (I prefer this term for, like Kevin, I think “Internet” is only a subset of the former) http://fride.org/publication/924/supporting-africa%27s-new-civil-society:-the-case-of-kenya