Internet and Democracy: A New Perspective by Political Economy
The linkage between liberation technologies and democracy is increasingly studied by many disciplines of academia. The study involves specialists in politics, sociology, technology, and communication all contributing the perspectives from their field. The literature is still in its infancy as gauging the effects of the information revolution are just starting provide a body of data from which research can ascertain the effects of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on politics and society. However, much of the research fails to include another perspective that could be important to understanding how ICTs play a role in our world. The perspective that political economists can offer brings in another perspective that often attempts to discover how interconnectedness through trade effects political decisions. While the effects of such liberation technologies are often compared to the effects of the first mass media production machine, the printing press, understanding how the Internet and its associated communication technologies relate to the effects of trade would add to our understanding of the application of technology.
This review of the literature of previous studies seeking to ascertain the effects of the technology on politics will be divided into two parts. The first will outline the findings of the major works on quantitative study, while the second will provide qualitative analysis on the dynamics of the intersection between technology and democracy. Following this review, a section dedicated to the links between the internet and trade will be explored in order to add another frame of reference for the analysis of ICTs. In the future, this paper as a whole will then be incorporated into a large body of work that seeks to determine the effects of increased usage of ICTs on the African continent. Thus acting as a precursor to that study, this paper will seek to explore and outline the literature that my work will build upon.
ICT and Development
Before placing technology in the framework of democracy and trade, the developmental effects should briefly summarized so that the political and economic effects of the power of interconnectedness through communications and information systems is overtly apparent. A Harvard Business Review publication from 1993 by an Indian-American telecommunications entrepreneurs placed the power of technology in very exact terms. The businessman called information technology a “great social leveler”, one that can “raze cultural barriers, overwhelm economic inequalities, even compensate for intellectual disparities.” The ability to become the more “democratizing tool ever devised” is what draws my current interest into the topic. In a world where development plans have failed to bridge the gap between rich and poor countries and the populations in developed countries rises rapidly, the search for the tool to equalize the playing field is extremely attractive. There is the fear of falling for the traps of technological determinism, the is the belief that our technology will drive the development of our society and values, as most academics today reject this assumption and rather presume that it is society that constructs the ways innovations will be implemented by the human race. However, the effects of technology cannot be disputed when the recent body of study shows how information and communication systems are part of the programs that see rapid development occurring in countries that have seen stagnant growth and instability since the decolonization movement in the middle of the 20th century.
The areas of e-government, e-education, and e-health are the three areas that get the most attention from aid organizations and multinationals that seek to implement development. E-government usually entails plans that assist in the provision of government services through technology, or involve programs that help improve governance through anti-corruption schemes or programs that increase participation in government consultation. Increases in transparency or the decrease in bureaucracy are often measures of success. E-education is easy to see in the distant learning programs that have been developed in places like Mexico where grade school classes are beamed over television waves, or even in a developed country where the Khan Academy has gotten significant interest from American state schools systems. Increased literacy or higher trained labor are often measures of successful e-education plans E-health entails the uses that technology can play in getting medical services out to a wider range of people, or equipping health workers with more processing power and information. The outsourcing of chart reading, the use of SMS to remind patients to take their medication, and the use of databases to track health records would all fall under the e-health banner. The lowering of deaths related to preventable diseases is often targeted by e-health because of the ease of curing these diseases once the infrastructure that supports health plans is set up to support nation or region wide efforts. ICTs are also said to help improve the poor’s access to market, financial services, and employment in the economic side of development (Governance and Social Resource Centre).
ICT and Democracy
With my future research concentrated on the macro-level of democracy on an entire continent, the limited research that has been done in this field should be analyzed to understand the trends it finds and see what limitations are presented in their analysis. An analysis of their math will not be undertaken due to the lack of understanding by this author, however, how they approach their models and data will be outlined so as to help plan future marco-level research.
The first generally recognized work done on the linkages between ICTs and democracy is Kedzie in 1997. His findings were that the internet was a stronger predictor of democracy than traditional predictors such as literacy. However, the data he uses only reaches 1993 as the most current information. Due to the infancy of the penetration of new media and the Internet, it is difficult to use these findings in the current environment based on the innovation that has taken place in the mean time. Additionally, Kedzie combined both democratic and autocratic states, thus not allowing for the ability to filter out results of whether the Internet simply reinforced democratic tendencies that already existed, or whether the Internet brought ‘freedom’ to the repressed.
The second major work done on the democratic effects of the internet was conducted by Best and Wade in 2009. They employ various statistical methods to conclude that while there is no impact of the Internet on democracy between 1992 and 2002, there is a strong impact in the last year of their data. Their data is a limiting, just like Kedzie’s because it ends in 2002. Also, the data does not take into consideration mobile phones, though based on their dates of study, this may not have been necessary and like Kedzie (1997) their aggregates include both democracies and authoritarians.
Finally, the last comprehensive review of the Internet and democracy is conducted by Grosheck in 2009 and 2010. His two studies find differing results. First, he says that the Internet is a weak but meaningful predictor of democratic regimes by using a multi-regression analysis, though he like Best and Wade (2009) do not use mobile phone data and limit his data to 2003 and earlier. His second study, where he cuts the total number of his sample countries from 152 to 72, and runs a time-series regression analysis, he concludes that the Internet has no impact on democratic growth.
The limitation that comes through in many of these studies is their lack of analysis after 2003. With many technological tools that political activists use becoming mainstream after 2003, these studies may not provide any significant understanding into today’s media landscape due to the prevalence of many social media tools and the near universal coverage of mobile phones and the increasing extent of mobile broadband networks. Thus the challenge for my study will be to gather Africa-specific information that includes mobile phones in the data set and data that is more recent that 2003.
A dissertation by Meier (2011) focused on the term ‘liberation technologies’ that Diamond (2010) coined. Meier looks at whether increased ICT usages predict political uprisings. He data leads him to investigate Egpyt and Sudan as his case studies. His econometric analysis used data that stretched to 2007, which makes it noteworthy on that basis alone. His counterfactual findings are useful for my studies because he finds that there is a negative relationship between mobile phones and protests. Meier says that the explanation for this eludes social science and believes some of the data is skewing the results. He speculates after analyzing his models that the difference between the internet and mobile phones is perhaps relevant in this finding saying “mobile phones connect people in dyads while the Internet allows for those dyads to cluster in groups, and in turn allows groups to connect with other groups in a highly scalable manner.” He also explains that media bias may play a part in the number of reported protests, and that those countries that see large numbers of protests, such as Iran and China, are very technologically capable regimes that may not be susceptible to protesters uses of ICTs. My view is that these countries also have high levels of suppression technology at their disposal, and are perhaps able to use it in ways that other less advanced countries find out of their reach. His final conclusion is that “that number of mobile phone users is not positively correlated with anti-government protests in authoritarian states.” His research follows on that of Eyck (2001) and Miard (2009) who looked at linkages between ICTs and protests. This makes sense from the perspective of ‘liberation technologies’ because they are seen as aiding and abetting the actual movements of pro-democracy groups. Could there be a way to explore the overall improvement of democracy/freedom as an indicator?
Shirazi (2008) conducts an empirical analysis of ICT data in ten Middle Eastern countries. His regression found that increased ICT penetration led to a closing of the digital divide and had a positive impact on democracy and freedom in the region. Shirazi links this to the economic liberalization that occurred in the region. He claims his study shows that there is a strong association with civil liberties and political rights based on the two ICT indicators of the internet and mobile phones. His regression model is of particular interest because it seems to lend itself to duplication.
Shirazi does not look at political unrest as his indicator of democracy, instead he relies on the rankings provided by Freedom House that are found in their Political Rights and Civil Liberties indices. He also added a Press Freedom and Education index. While indices have their inherent biases, I find that replicating this model will allow me to make a broad conclusion on their interaction between ICTs and democracy in Africa. The previous studies by Kedzie, Wade and Best, Grosheck, and Meier seem to leave much desired in the conclusions of their data because of the results that are found. The anecdotal data would seem to suggest that technology is at least providing an impetus to democracy movements and thus it would be very surprising if no causality is found when using more current data sets.
The other perspective that my study will require is the exploration of micro level data to understand the conceptual frameworks that have been established to explain how technology is effected by human agency. Meier’s dissertation explores this widely, but breaks down the different aspects very concisely based on the framework of McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald (1996). There are three structures that these scholars say explain the “emergence, development, and outcomes of social movements”: mobilizing structures, opportunity structures, and framing processes. The first, mobilizing, describe the ways that allow for the organization of movements and their collective action. The second, opportunity, is the environment that is conducive to the activity of social movements. Finally, framing, is the competitive nature of constructing of changing the narrative of a movement. These factors are broken down further by the authors and are linked to ICTs in obvious ways. ICTs affect participation due to increased ways of communication, affect the ability to access the political structures, and affect how movements can publicize themselves locally and internationally.
ICT and Trade
With the perspective of political economy added to the mix, we can examine some of the more roundabout ways the Internet can affect democracy by examining what economic effects more ICT and more connectivity can create. This was spurred by Shirazi’s inference that that opening of telecommunications and ICT policy allowed for the populations of the Middle East to interact more with the outside world and that a domino effect occurred. What if not directly causing democracy, the Internet and ICTs create an economic environment that leads to democracy or the increasing of rights and freedoms for the population?
To determine if this long causality link exists, what kind of effects does the Internet have on the economy in countries that would be in my study, specifically those in the developing world? Clark and Wallsten (2006) find results that suggest access to the internet improves the performance of developing country’s exports. Additionally, the ‘stimulation’ that they say the internet provides an increase in north-south trade specifically. They speculate that because of the lower penetration rates of connectivity in the developing world, the competitive advantage that the increased flows of communications bring are more relevant to exporters than to the domestic market. Their analysis controls for endogeneity of Internet use but do not rule out that causation could run the other way. Their findings build on the work of Freund and Weinhold who found in 2004 that the Internet stimulates trade to the effect of .2 percentage point increase in export growth for every 10 percent increase in the growth of web hosts in a country. These same authors explored the trade in services in a 2002 paper, writing that because the Internet provides a medium of exchange that formerly could only have been conducted through person to person contact, the Internet is overcoming historical barriers to trade in many services, making the costs for transport from an impossibility to nil. This same sort of approach is discussed in Grossman and Rossi-Hansberg (2008) where they discuss the theory of offshoring and the benefits that it can bring. Due to the recent innovation in the ability to trade for services, new benefits are being gained that were previously unimaginable due to technological limitations.
To complete this long linkage, what are the studies that link trade or economic growth to increased democratization. If the internet has been shown to increase trade of exports, can economic growth be shown to increase democracy on its own? The debate on which way causality runs, growth leading to democracy or democracy leading to growth is an unsettled discussion. However, a recent study by Narayan et al (2011) that specifically address this question in Sub-Saharan Africa will be extremely pertinent to my study.
This study, Does democracy facilitate economic growth or does economic growth facilitate democracy? An empirical study of Sub-Saharan Africa, runs a Granger causality test on this question of which factor triggers the other, growth or democracy? While their data is far above the ability of this scholar to critique, their findings support the Lipset hypothesis that “economic growth results in more demands for political freedom”. However, this was not a continental truth, this finding was supported in countries such as Botswana and Niger, and limited support in three other countries, but no support in the rest of the subcontinent. In fact, in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Nigeria with certain data sets they found that read GDP growth causes democracy in the long run. What will be interesting for future research is how ICTs are perhaps tied to different sets of results. If ICT usage, penetration, or capabilities could be found to differ along the same lines as the directions of causality, perhaps there would be a case to be made for types of ICTs that foster development of the economy first rather than the political environment, or vice versa.
Much like there is the democratic peace theory, and the evidence that supports a lowering of belligerence between nations as the ratio of trade between them increases (Polachek and Seiglie), a relationship between trade and democracy could exist. At least in policy circles, the belief that trade and economic integration can help spur civil and political liberties through the opening of a society to ideas and technology through increased communication. This economic liberalization counters any government power and gives space for civil society according to a publication from the Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies.
Thus while the ability to prove the connection between the Internet, trade, and democracy is beyond the scope of this paper, the idea that it could exist has been posited and supported by some of the latest research in these fields. More historical analysis will not doubt be needed for my study, especially those that have been peer-reviewed and found to not have any of the flaws that those this paper has analyzed no doubt have, but are above the abilities of this writer.
This paper sought to outline the major studies that sought to determine the linkage between the internet and freedom. While the studies each sought to determine the concept of freedom using different indicators, no comprehensive studies were quite conclusive due to limitations on the availability of data or the exclusion of certain ‘liberation technologies’ such as mobile phones. Thus a new approach to finding the linkage between information and communications technologies and the increase in democracy and freedom was put forth. That approach took the political economy perspective that trade strengthens democracy through the building of trading relationships and increased connectedness through the trade, facilitated by the internet, could in fact be a causer of democracy. This was indicated as a possible route by Shirazi who explained his findings as the liberalization of telecommunication policy allowed more information to filter into the economy and society thus leading to political change.
With studies showing the the Internet is a clear stimulant to trade, the connection between the Internet and Democracy can perhaps be linked by trade. Proving this through quantitative analysis will no doubt be difficult because of the causation issues that will arise, but as far as my research has shown, no scholar has yet made this A=B, B=C, thus A=C deduction in this regard. The realm of economics is often discounted by those who cannot process the math, and thus developmental and communication studies often lack the quantitative backing that political economy could bring. Political Science could use more infusion of modern day political stimulants and tools, such as the Internet, into the field so as to make sure their research is relevant to a large sector of the population that is increasingly communicating with their government over devices and networks that were previously unimaginable to the generation before. Future work in attempting to bring the knowledge and research from these sometimes disparate fields together is necessary and my coming thesis will attempt to do this while assessing the effects of technology on the levels of freedom and democracy on the African continent.