Campaigns and elections

Internet Cynics and Enthusiasts Both Have it Right

May 11 '11

Despite featuring the most competitive electoral race in years—including a five-day recount demanded by the opposition—incumbent Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete won a second term with nearly 62% of the vote.   According to the official report published by the Tanzania Election Monitoring Commission, the 2010 election included relatively peaceful campaigns.   Nevertheless, there were also reports of physical conflict between supporters of different parties, voters’ names excluded at polling stations, insufficient voting materials, and inequitable campaign spending and leveraging of other advantages on behalf of the incumbent.  In sum, although a vast improvement over previous elections, the 2010 election still fell decidedly short of the threshold to be deemed a fully free and fair election.

 

By means of a randomized field experiment in Tanzania — mentioned briefly in my last post — I tested whether the Internet influenced individuals’ perception of the fairness of the election and recount.  The history of protests, riots, and revolts precipitated by contested electoral results in nations transitioning to democracy make this important when considering the Internet’s capacity to alter citizens’ satisfaction with their government.

To conduct the experiment, my research assistant and I recruited subjects at several congregation points throughout the community of Morogoro, including professional and trade schools, secondary schools, the main bus station, hair salons, and markets.  We then randomly assigned individuals to either the experimental group (i.e. Internet group) or control group.  The Internet group was then given 75 hours of Internet time at a local cafe (pictured above).  By employing random assignment, this experiment can ascertain the causal influence of Internet use on political evaluations. By conducting this experiment in the field in a developing democracy in the months leading up to an actual election, this approach makes the experiment’s setting more realistic.

While Tanzania’s traditional press is relatively more unfettered than most African countries, there is still ample room for improvement.  Reporters without Borders ranks Tanzania’s degree of press freedom as 41st out of 178 countries.  Freedom House still designates (pdf) Tanzania as “partly free” (as opposed to “free”).  The Internet should thus provide participants with more critical information regarding the election compared to Tanzania’s traditional press.  Thus, I predicted that the Internet would encourage individuals to evaluate the fairness of the Tanzanian presidential election and recount more critically than their peers in the control group.

The experiment’s findings confirmed this prediction.  Members of the Internet group were 15 percentage points less likely to believe that the election was conducted fairly and impartially.  They were also 12 points more likely to believe that the recount was conducted unfairly when compared to the control group.  However, relative to the control group, members of the Internet group were also 11 points less likely to vote.

This suggests that—although the Internet may have provided better information about the integrity of the election—this supposed democratic boon may carry a negative side effect.  In this case, it appears that Internet users who became more aware of electoral abuses, seemingly also became less likely to believe that their vote mattered.  After all, the belief that an election is not being conducted fairly can produce two very divergent responses: some people may respond by protesting and taking to the streets, while others may simply throw up their hands and stay home.  Perhaps, then, both Internet cynics and enthusiasts have it partially right.