How dangerous is digital media for democracy?

Systematic review shows significant impact on factors such as trust, participation, populism, and polarization

One of the most contentious questions of our time is whether the rapid global uptake of digital media is contributing to a decline in democracy. While the risks of social media are increasingly widely discussed by the politicians and the public, tech companies argue that findings are not conclusive. It would be mistaken to condemn social media in general. But they can certainly fuel polarization and populism—especially in established democracies. These are the findings of a team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, the Hertie School in Berlin, and the University of Bristol.

Some believe that digital media are a threat to democracy; others argue that they represent an opportunity for increased political participation. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, the Hertie School, and the University of Bristol have conducted a systematic review of studies investigating whether and how digital media impacts citizens’ political behaviour. To this end, the researchers synthesised causal and correlational evidence from nearly 500 articles on the relationship between digital media and democracy worldwide. Their review is published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

“The advantage of our systematic review—against the background of a divisive and often partisan debate—is that it allows objective conclusions to be drawn,” says author Philipp Lorenz-Spreen of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. At the institute’s Center for Adaptive Rationality, he studies how new technologies can help to promote participatory democracy online. While the impact of digital media on democracy cannot be judged as simply ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ the results clearly show that digital media can have several negative effects on political behavior, he continues.

Six key factors

Six key factors change particularly with the use of digital media and have a relevant influence on democracy: participation, political knowledge, trust, polarisation, populism, and echo chambers. The first two factors tend to have a positive effect: the possibility of political participation via online media promotes the mobilisation of voters and voter turnout, which strengthens the democratic legitimacy of governments and parliaments. In addition, digital media can increase political knowledge and diversity of news exposure. However, a smaller part of the studies also shows negative effects on political knowledge, for example through the news-finds-me effect: social media users tend to no longer actively seek out information, as they assume that important information will reach them automatically.

A large number of the underlying studies attest that the use of digital media damages trust in politics and in democratic institutions such as parliaments. Trust in classic media such as newspapers and TV stations is also declining. In addition, populism — in Europe especially on the right edge of the political spectrum— and polarisation in the population are growing. This is shown not only by correlation studies, but also by studies on causal relationships.

“When studying complex political and social phenomena, it is important to determine whether there is in fact a causal relationship,” explains author Lisa Oswald from the Hertie School in Berlin. With this in mind, the researchers focused on the subset of articles reporting causal evidence of a relationship between digital media and democracy. In the case of the phenomenon of "echo chambers",  where individuals are exposed only to information from like-minded people, it has been questioned whether these actually exist. According to the current study, the results strongly depend on the digital media in question. There was no evidence of echo chambers in studies looking at the internet alone, for example, but they do seem to emerge within social media networks where, through their isolation and possible radicalisation, they also have a negative influence on democracy.

Evaluation depends on the context

However, the evaluation of the factors heavily depends on the political context. “Our analysis covered studies conducted all over the world, allowing us to shine a light on how the effects of digital media differ across political systems,” says co-author Ralph Hertwig, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. What is potentially destabilising in established democracies can be beneficial for emerging democracy and strengthen the opposition in authoritarian regimes.

The positive effects of digital media on political participation and information consumption were most pronounced in emerging democracies in South America, Africa, and Asia. Negative effects—in terms of increasing populism and polarization and decreasing political trust—were more evident in established democracies in Europe and the United States, for example.

“The findings show that social media have a significant impact around the world, but that the effects are complex. Further research including synthesis and analysis of existing studies is thus required”, says co-author Stephan Lewandowsky, Chair in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Bristol. Already, though, research findings would reveal some clear trends and indicate that governments and civil societies need to take steps to better understand and actively shape the interplay of digital media and democracy.

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