University Research Shows Internet Users Alienating From Politics
Ever since its conception, the internet has been used and abused by thousands of users.
With billions of websites, posts, videos, and images, the internet hosts answers from simple and innocent to dangerous and threatening.
In fact, there have been instances of people doing crazy and fatal things, with the help of the internet.
But cyberspace is also a wellspring of useful information and a tool for democracy and social justice.
The Arab Spring, a series of democratic uprisings that spread around the Arab regions, had help from “We Rebuild”, a team of hackers who made it possible for the activists to plan protests and spread their rallies online through social media, at the time that Egypt’s government had shut off internet access.
But what about those users who don’t use the internet to learn about political events happening around the world?
Researchers studying Russian and Ukrainian internet users found that what people do on the internet influence how much – or how little – they demand democracy for their country.
Those who read the news and articles about politics and social issues demanded more democracy, while those who used the internet primarily for entertainment (shows, music, GIFs) already believed that they had a lot of democracy.
This study, co-headed by Erik Nisbet, an associate communication professor at the Ohio State University, said,
“In our study, people who used the internet for entertainment actually thought they had more democracy than they did. That means they actually showed more support for the authoritarian leaders in their country.”
Nisbet’s co-author, Elizabeth Stoycheff, a graduate of Ohio State University, and now an assistant professor of communication at Wayne State University, said,
“Just like any other form of communication, the internet isn’t inherently good or bad for democracy. It all depends on how people choose to use it.”
Nisbet and Stoycheff, together with Dmitry Epstein from the University of Illinois, Chicago, conducted the study on 593 Ukrainian and 506 Russian internet users in 2013.
The countries were chosen because Russia had an authoritative government, while Ukraine had a stalled transitioning democracy, and the researchers wanted to see whether their internet usage and activity influenced what they thought about their democracy and their government.
They were asked how democratic they thought their government was, how satisfied they were with their democracy, and what they felt towards their government leaders.
They were also asked how often they used the internet to read news or posts about political events.
The results, published in an issue of Communication Research, showed that the increasing and tempting number of entertainment choices “allows citizens to further alienate themselves from political affairs.”
Perhaps this was also why so many people took to the streets during the Arab Spring when their internet access was cut off – they felt lesser freedom, their choices (for internet use) having been taken away.
According to the results, how the respondents used the internet affected how much democracy they think they had, thereby also affecting how much democracy they wanted for their country.
“Entertainment internet makes citizens less critical and more pacified with how their authoritarian governments are operating,” Stoycheff said.
Nisbet expressed interest in conducting the study in other countries like Turkey and Iran.
He also said,
“Research shows that watching TV entertainment leads to more conservative, authoritarian attitudes in democratic countries like the United States, so the question is open on how the consequences for using the web mostly for fun may impact democratic beliefs and values in established democracies.”
Internet indeed, is a tool for both good and evil.
It is, therefore, up to content creators and sharers to encourage people to read more about social and political concerns and to inspire proper learning about important topics or issues.