Technology and Politics in Context

By Michael J. Jensen and Eva Anduiza

Digital media have greatly expanded the repertoires and channels of political participation, communication, and information. Below, Michael J. Jensen and Eva Anduiza argue that internet use may continue to play a particularly important role as it enables individuals to connect to a variety of communication flows that serve as alternative sources of information, organisation, and value structures.

For the last twenty years, we have been told that the internet is going to revolutionise every aspect of human affairs – politics, business, medicine, education, family life, etc. This argument takes the form that human life is organised through communication; therefore, if the prevailing means of communication in a society change, there are likely to be consequences in each of these fields of activity.

The analysis of this field is complex for four reasons. First, varied political activities connect persons to politics in distinct ways which belie generalisation across all forms of political engagement. Second, the diversity of digital spaces in which online political activity takes place make it at least as diverse as offline participation. Third, the boundaries between concepts such as information-seeking, communication, political discussion, and political participation have become more difficult to distinguish online. Digital media position information consumers with the capacity to be equally information producers and transmitters. In many non-democratic regimes, even information-seeking is a transgressive political act. Finally, there are a great deal of interdependencies between concrete political contexts and the transformative capacities of online political engagement.

Digital media have greatly expanded the repertoires and channels of political participation, communication, and information. The digital interfaces provided by email, blogging platforms, and online social networking sites simplify and facilitate creation and diffusion of political messages as well as political recruitment. Digital media enable the formation of ad hoc, flexible networks of political organisation and communication outside of traditional civil society networks and media centers. The digital platform positions individuals with the capacity to network with others and engage politics on their own terms rather than the often hierarchical institutionalised spaces of conventional partisan politics.

The digital platform positions individuals with the capacity to network with others and engage politics on their own terms.

The Puzzle

While in many cases the consequences of the expansion of digital media are stated in terms of potentialities, the most sustained empirical observation throughout the analyses carried out in Digital Media and Political Engagement Worldwide is that, despite all the nuances, there is evidence of a positive and significant effect of digital media on political engagement, regardless of the political context under consideration. Internet use is positively associated with a variety of forms of political engagement –both behavioral and attitudinal, in a variety of contexts ranging from electoral turnout in the 2008 US elections, to critical evaluations of the current regime in China. This effect holds even when taking into account the fact that politically involved citizens have been more likely to use the internet.

Even where institutions are closed to citizen politics, individuals are finding other spaces in which to participate politically, and this often occurs in digital domains. In these political systems, digitally-networked devices open channels of political information and communication that otherwise would not exist. One consistent finding across cases in the nondemocratic world is a relationship between internet use and support for greater democracy, however that is understood. The questions we tried to resolve in this volume were why and under what conditions?

The Political Context

“The internet” does not cause political engagement. However, the variety of communicative affordances materially created by digitally networked devices create many capacities for political organisation and engagement that otherwise did not exist but are nonetheless integrated within concrete political contexts. Therefore, the strength of an “internet effect” is not constant across countries or situations. A number of important nuances and qualifications are in order. At a national-level, three system-level factors  bear upon the consequences of internet-based communications for politics in countries. These included a country’s institutions, its media system, and the digital divide. The institutional environment sets parameters on the extent to which political speech is permitted and political organisations are free to form and exercise influence in policy making and implementation. The media system concerns the organisation of the broadcast media in a country through which governing and dissenting discourses are transmitted and mediated. Media systems may be regulated either by law or through market practice, creating or limiting opportunities for the expression of dissenting politics. Finally, the digital divide refers to the series of stratifications concerning access and skills in using the internet as well as its opportunities for use and integration into the daily life of a country and its politics. These contextual factors are fundamental aspects that condition these relationships, even in relatively similar cases such as Western European countries.

The digital divide plays an important role in the development of digital politics because it serves as a limiting constraint on the possibilities for digital politics within a political system.

The digital divide plays an important role in the development of digital politics because it serves as a limiting constraint on the possibilities for digital politics within a political system. We found generally that in countries with higher levels of internet access there are higher levels of online participation, as is to be expected. In general, the lowest levels of internet diffusion are found in the countries with more closed structures of political opportunity and this is not without consequences. In countries that are politically open and where there is widespread internet access and use, digital politics has reached a relatively high degree of normalisation, becoming integrated into government-citizen interactions and electoral politics. But our analyses also show that even in countries that rank amongst the lowest in internet use, there is nevertheless significant political activity making use of a range of digitally networked devices. In these cases, political interactions are often limited to a small, highly educated, and middle or upper class segment of the population –or aid in connecting individuals with individuals and organisations internationally. It is precisely in these contexts of low internet diffusion that online involvement may be more important in terms of its consequences even if restricted of a small fraction of the population.

However, the existence or absence of the digital divide does not explain, per se, the political use of those media. In countries where diffusion levels are similar, there are still significant differences in the amount of online political engagement. Thus, to understand the use of digital media, as well as its effectiveness, we turn to the political opportunity structures created by media systems and institutional environments.

In places like Egypt and Pakistan with strong government control, low levels of trust in broadcast media has given rise to amateur journalism amongst dissidents with internet access. In some countries dissidents often use online forums and blogs to voice political and cultural criticism. Correspondingly, they find that individuals who have access in each of these countries, apart from Pakistan which has the lowest levels of internet access, have much lower levels of trust in traditional broadcast media news. However in China, where a limited amount of criticism directed at political officials is permitted, online news consumption does not give rise to sentiments directed against the Party or regime which tend to be censored by filtering tools or human censors employed by popular microblogging sites. In cases where governments do not actively censor online information and without the threat of prosecution, the level of media professionalism and trust in broadcast media can influence reliance on internet sources. Despite Peru’s significantly lower levels of internet access, NGOs make extensive use of online diffusion mechanisms to spread information that is considered more reliable given the lack of independence between Peruvian broadcast media outlets and the government. By contrast, countries with high levels of trust in traditional media (such as the United States or Germany) may have less of a divergence between digitally-networked broadcast news sources.

The degree to which media systems are commercialised and revenue rather than public service driven can also influence online information-seeking. In countries like Spain, which has a mixed public and private media system, the public broadcaster is the primary outlet for news consumption, and others channels are constrained by a public charter. Hence, online sources are important channels of information regarding political causes that challenge dominant, narrower conceptions of political space. In highly concentrated media environment, such as the Italian one, opposition politics may depend greatly on digital media such as we saw with the Five Star Movement in Italy, but even also in the case of mainstream parties. In addition to the state-owned media outlets, the leader of the center-right coalition owns a significant portion of the print and broadcast media outlets. Hence, those who identify with the political left are more inclined to rely on political information from the internet and participate online.

Finally, the institutional and structural organisation vary across space and time in ways that implicate the opportunities for online politics. Perceptions of institutional responsiveness function both as a motivation for digital modes of participation and a consequence of digital information consumption. Where political institutions are seen as less responsive and levels of institutional trust are low, digital media are often used to circumvent these institutions or involve other actors which can bring effective pressure to bear. In Spain, where levels of institutional trust and confidence in parties is particularly low for a consolidated democracy, there are lower levels of direct contact with political officials and higher levels of horizontal connections with the political community via blogging. There are also connections between internet use and extra-representational forms of participation though not formal modes of political participation.

Political events such as elections or political crisis produced by revolutionary moments and other moments when the political system is under intense stress can create openings for rapid, highly flexible, and scalable political mobilisation online. Such capacities can be decisive in the outcome of a situation – particularly for those who do not occupy formal positions of political authority. The Indonesian case is paradigmatic in this respect: people’s online engagement contributed largely to the fall of Suharto’s dictatorship and the subsequent democratisation, but after the transition, engagement via digital media dropped dramatically. It seems clear in this case that the rise of online participation was mainly explained by the mobilisation of opposition political parties and organisations, which used these technologies in the absence of other institutional channels for voice, something that was not necessary after the change of the regime.

More recently, social media communications have figured prominently in movements against the leaders of Turkey and Ukraine: two cases in which these media were used to communicate and develop and sustain a common political consciousness regarding the direction and future of the country when other organising channels were limited and the opposition media blocked. Each case is different and vast online mobilisation is not a guarantee of political success. Nevertheless, internet use may continue to play a particularly important role as it enables individuals to connect to a vastly wider array of communication flows that serve as alternative sources of information, organisation, and value structures than are otherwise available. At a higher level of abstraction, these communication and information practices facilitate the invention of new political identities not linked to local institutions or civil society but oriented towards the advancement of political projects which link individuals to emergent collective identities.

About the Authors

Michael J. Jensen’s research spans the subdisciplines of political communication, social movements, political participation, and political campaigning and elections. In the last few years, he has worked particularly with the analysis of social media data and other digital artefacts, contributing to the emerging field of computational social science. Dr. Jensen is currently a Research Fellow at the ANZSOG Institute for Governance (ANZSIG). Prior to his position at ANZSIG, he was Juan de la Cierva Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science and a researcher at the Institute for Government and Public Policy at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and has been a visiting scholar at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute in Barcelona as well as the New Political Communication Unit at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Eva Anduizahas been associate Professor at the Department of Political Science of the UAB since 2003. She holds a degree in political science and sociology from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, a postgraduate diploma on social science data analysis from the University of Essex, and a PhD in political and social sciences from the European University Institute in Florence. She has taught political science at the University of Salamanca and Murcia in Spain. Her main fields of research are political participation, political attitudes and elections. Among her most recent publications are “Mobilisation through online social networks: the political protest of the indignados in Spain”. Information, Communication & Society (with Camilo Cristancho and Jose Manuel Sabucedo) and Digital Media and Political Engagement Worldwide: A Comparative Study (an edited volume with Michael J Jensen and Laia Jorba) published by Cambridge University Press.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.