How dangerous is digital media for democracy?

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 behavior. The empirical studies show that some effects may be beneficial for democracy. For example, digital media can increase political knowledge and diversity of news exposure. However, they can also have detrimental effects, such as fostering polarization and populism.

What’s more, the way effects such as increased political mobilization and decreasing trust in institutions play out depends largely on the political context. Such developments are beneficial in emerging democracies but can have destabilizing effects in established democracies. “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.

In their review, the researchers synthesize causal and correlational evidence from nearly 500 articles on the relationship between digital media and democracy worldwide. They structure their analysis along the 10 most researched political outcome variables: political participation, knowledge, trust, news exposure, political expression, hate, polarization, populism, network structure, and misinformation. “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. These include large-scale field experiments conducted on social media platforms and articles in which causal conclusions could be drawn due to factors such as data having been collected at different points in time.

The research findings can also help to clarify important issues in the young research field, such as whether the much-discussed phenomenon of echo chambers—in which people tend to encounter only like-minded people online—really exists. The results depend heavily on the digital media in question. There was no evidence of echo chambers in studies looking at news exposure, for example, but they do seem to emerge within social media networks.

“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. 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. “In short, 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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