The US State Department and the UN are spending big bucks to support the internet as a boon for democracy. But new research shows just providing access isn’t enough.
The irony of internet freedom was on full display shortly after midnight July 16 in Turkey when President Tayyip Erdogan used FaceTime and independent TV news to call for public resistance against the military coup that aimed to depose him.
In response, thousands of citizens took to the streets and aided the government in beating back the coup. The military plotters had taken over state TV. In this digital age they apparently didn’t realise television was no longer sufficient to ensure control over the message.
This story may appear like a triumphant example of the internet promoting democracy over authoritarianism.
Not so fast.
In recent years, Erdogan and his Justice & Development (AKP) Party have become increasingly authoritarian. They have cracked down heavily on internet freedom. Erdogan even once called social media “the worst menace to society.” And, ironically, restoration of these democratic freedoms was one of the stated motivations of the coup initiators.
This duality of the internet, as a tool to promote democracy or authoritarianism, or simultaneously both, is a complex puzzle.
The US State Department has allocated tens of millions of dollars to promote internet freedom, primarily in the area of censorship circumvention. And just this month, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution declaring internet freedom a fundamental human right. The resolution condemns internet shutdowns by national governments, an act that has become increasingly common in variety of countries across the globe, including Turkey, Brazil, India and Uganda.
On the surface, this policy makes sense. The internet is an intuitive boon for democracy. It provides citizens around the world with greater freedom of expression, opportunities for civil society, education and political participation. And previous research, including our own, has been optimistic about the internet’s democratic potential.
However, this optimism is based on the assumption that citizens who gain internet access use it to expose themselves to new information, engage in political discussions, join social media groups that advocate for worthy causes and read news stories that change their outlook on the world.
And some do.
But others watch Netflix. They use the internet to post selfies to an intimate group of friends. They gain access to an infinite stream of music, movies and television shows. They spend hours playing video games.
However, our recent research shows that tuning out from politics and immersing oneself in online spectacle has political consequences for the health of democracy.
The power of distraction
Political use of the internet ranks very low globally, compared to other uses. Research has found that just 9% of internet users posted links to political news and only 10% posted their own thoughts about political or social issues. In contrast, almost three-quarters (72%) say they post about movies and music and over half (54%) also say they post about sports online.
This inspired our study, which sought to show how the internet does not necessarily serve as democracy’s magical solution. Instead, its democratic potential is highly dependent on how citizens choose to use it.
The study was situated in two nondemocracies, Russia and Ukraine. The two share a common history, geography and culture. Both rank well above the global average of 48% of internet penetration. More than 70% of Russians and 60% of Ukrainians reportedly use the internet.
The results of our study revealed the internet’s double-edged sword. Citizens who used the internet for news and political information were more likely to express greater criticism about their country’s autocratic political institutions and leaders. As a consequence, they were more likely to demand greater democratic reforms.
But, when used differently, the internet can actually harm democratisation efforts. Those who spent more of their online time engaging with entertainment content were more satisfied with living under autocratic conditions. These users were happy with the authoritarian elites who oversaw them and were uninspired by the prospects of greater freedom. In other words, online political use enhanced democratic attitudes, while online entertainment use entrenched authoritarian ones.
And it gets worse.
Tamping down political interest
It seems the world’s most shrewd authoritarian leaders have predicted these consequences. They have implemented policies that greatly restrict the internet’s political benefits while enabling a rich entertainment culture that carefully sidesteps political issues.
For example, since 2012, Russia has precipitously increased its censorship of political opposition websites and has recently engaged in consultations with Chinese censorship experts to curtail it even further. In China’s tightly controlled online environment, even entertainment content is carefully screened for subversive messages. Unsurprisingly, both Russia and China did not support the UNHRC human rights resolution guaranteeing citizens unfettered access to the internet.
However, censoring political content is only part of the authoritarian’s “online toolkit.” As we have discussed previously at The Conversation, authoritarian governments seek to create a “psychological firewall” that paints the internet as a scary world full of political threats. This rationale increases threat perceptions among the public. This, in turn, increases the public’s support for online political censorship. These threat perceptions also further motivate audiences to seek “safe” entertainment content rather than “risky” news and information.
When this approach proves unsuccessful, authoritarian regimes instead turn to even more overt scare tactics. Under Erdogan, the Turkish government has created an aggressive programme of legal, political and economic intimidation targeting not only journalists but also average citizens. As a consequence at least one-third of Turkish internet users are afraid to openly discuss politics online. This trend will likely only become worse as the Turkish government carries out its purge of political opponents in the wake of the failed coup.
The final component of the authoritarian toolkit is propaganda and disinformation. Such efforts limit the ability of citizens to separate truth from fiction, demobilise citizens and “undermine the self-organising potential of society” to pursue democratic change.
The internet freedom advocacy challenge
Ensuring citizens have access to the internet is not sufficient to ensure democracy and human rights. In fact, internet access may negatively impact democracy if exploited for authoritarian gain.
The US government, NGOs and other democracy advocates have invested a great deal of time and resources toward promoting internet access, fighting overt online censorship and creating circumvention technologies. Yet their success, at best, has been limited.
The reason is twofold. First, authoritarian governments have adapted their own strategies in response. Second, the “if we build it, they will come” philosophy underlying a great deal of internet freedom promotion doesn’t take into account basic human psychology in which entertainment choices are preferred over news and attitudes toward the internet determine its use, not the technology itself.
Allies in the internet freedom fight should realise that the locus of the fight has shifted. Greater efforts must be put toward tearing down “psychological firewalls,” building demand for internet freedom and influencing citizens to employ the internet’s democratic potential.
Doing so ensures that the democratic online toolkit is a match for the authoritarian one.
Elizabeth Stoycheff is assistant professor of political communication at Wayne State University and Erik C. Nisbet is associate professor of communication, political science and environmental policy and faculty associate with the Mershon Center for International Security Studies, The Ohio State University