Faster internet access has “significantly” weakened citizen participation in Britain and may have fueled populism, a new study suggests after it found that involvement in political parties, trade unions and volunteering declined as internet speeds increased.
Volunteering in social care fell by more than 10% as people lived closer to local telecom hubs and thus had faster internet access. Political party involvement decreased by 19% with every 1.8km increase near a hub. In contrast, the advent of high-speed internet had no significant impact on interactions with family and friends.
The behavioral analysis of hundreds of thousands of people led by academics from Cardiff University and the Sapienza University of Rome found that faster connection speeds may have reduced nearly 450,000 people’s chances of civic engagement – more than double the estimated membership of the Conservative party. . They found that, as internet speeds increased between 2005 and 2018, time online “crowded out” other forms of civic engagement.
The study’s authors speculate that the phenomenon may have fueled populism as people’s involvement in “public good” initiatives, which are essentially “schools of democracy” where people learn how good collaboration is, has declined.
Other studies have found that social media involvement has enhanced other forms of citizen engagement, for example by helping to organize protests and arousing interest in politics, even if this is not reflected in traditional forms of participation.
Politics conducted online, however, appears to be more susceptible to ‘filter bubbles’, which limit participants’ exposure to opposing views and thus promote polarization.
“We saw that civic participation and the form of involvement in the activities of voluntary organizations and political participation decreased as the network got closer,” said Fabio Sabatini, co-author of the study. “Fast internet seems to displace this kind of social engagement.”
Face-to-face volunteering in the UK has been declining for significant periods in recent history. It fell from 2005 to 2011 and again in 2020 when Covid-19 hit, according to a separate analysis by the National Council of Voluntary Organizations.
The new study, published in the Journal of Public Economics, gathered information from communications regulator Ofcom about the location of local Internet cable exchanges, which were a major determinant of data rates during the period studied. It then referred to survey responses from residents of the British Household Panel Survey and the UK Household Longitudinal Study on their involvement in civil society organisations.
The combined effect on engagement with organizations such as political parties, trade unions and professional associations was a 6% reduction in participation from 2010 to 2017 for every 1.8 km closer to the local exchange where someone lived.
The biggest impact was on the involvement of political parties, while the impact on trade unions was much smaller: a reduction of 3.6%. This is in line with estimates of declining membership of major UK parties over the period studied, with the exception of a spike caused by a rise in Labor membership before the election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader in 2015.
The decline in political party appeal when internet speeds increase compared to unions may be because “political parties only indirectly safeguard the specific interests of their supporters. [while] unions have a stronger and more explicit commitment to advocating for… their members,” the study suggested.
The effect on volunteering with organizations providing social care and environmental improvements, as well as the Scouts, which have been defined by sociologists as instilling “habits of cooperation, solidarity and civic sense”, was measured at a 7.8% reduction.
“These types of organizations have been defined as ‘democratic schools’ where people learn the benefits of collaboration,” said Sabatini, adding that involvement in such organizations also helps people trust strangers.
“The rise of populism has been associated with a decline in interest in public affairs, and we thought that because people were less politically and socially active, they might be less able to interpret political phenomena and understand the complexity of the world. management of public affairs,” said Sabatini. said.
“While Social Capital Connects” [family and friends] appears to withstand technological change and bridges social capital [politics, volunteering, unions] appears to be fragile and vulnerable to the pressures of technology,” the study concluded.
“This result is troubling because it suggests that advances in information and communication technology can undermine an essential factor of economic activity and the functioning of democratic institutions.”