Expert Commentary

Africa and Asia: Internet use and citizens’ demands for democracy

2012 study in the Journal of Communication about the relationship between Internet use and the development of greater democracy in Asia and Africa.

The global relationship between the Internet and democracy has become a subject of great scholarly interest and debate. Prior research has focused on national Internet penetration, usage rates, and changes in the way government works and how public institutions operate.

A 2012 study from Ohio State University and the University of Washington published in the Journal of Communication, “Internet Use and Democratic Demands: A Multinational, Multilevel Model of Internet Use and Citizen Attitudes about Democracy,” looks at this issue from the perspective of individual preferences and behaviors. The study analyzes survey data from nearly 38,000 people living in 28 African and Asian countries during the period 2006-2008.

In the study, the researchers also examine Internet penetration trends: “The number of Internet users in sub-Saharan Africa quadrupled between 2005 and 2009, an annual growth rate of 45%, with the total number of users (about 69 million) now larger than found in all Arab states combined, for example. In Asia, the number of Internet users more than doubled during the same five-year period at annual rate of 21%.” The study uses Freedom House’s democracy ratings to assess countries’ internal patterns.

The study’s findings include:

  • Citizens who use the Internet were more likely to demand democratic governance. However, overall rates of national Internet penetration did not correlate with more demand for democracy from citizens.
  • The research suggests that “Internet use may play a more meaningful role in strengthening and enhancing young democracies through impacting citizen attitudes rather than promoting outright democratic transitions among autocratic regimes.”
  • Across the 28 countries studied, the mean Internet usage rate was only 14%. Overall, “Internet use was also found to be more strongly associated with citizen demand in countries where the communicative potential of the Internet, in terms of number of users and broadband width, is greatest.”
  • “States that have a moderate to high level of Internet penetration, in which the population on average expresses a high demand for democracy, and enjoy at least a partly democratic political regime are contexts where increasing Internet use is more likely to promote democratic change. Kenya, Senegal, Singapore, and Zambia may be good examples of such a process.”
  • “Likewise, increased Internet use by citizens in countries such as Benin, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Thailand, countries with high level of Internet penetration, a moderate amount of demand for democracy, and some freedoms, are also more likely to experience political change as citizen Internet use deepens and expands.”

The researchers conclude that increased Internet adoption holds the promise of fostering greater democracy in countries with certain preconditions; however, those that remain “highly authoritarian, or not free, such as Vietnam or Zimbabwe, are likely to limit the democratic potential of the Internet regardless of the degree of Internet penetration or level of demand.” Despite this caveat, the study “supports the basic premise that the Internet may foster political change by socializing citizens into the political beliefs required for the democratic citizenship, and in turn promote successful and sustainable democracies.”

Tags: technology, Asia

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