What would happen if someone who did not have Internet access suddenly got it? Would they become more interested in politics, learn more about it and even feel more able to influence the political world?
It’s certainly plausible that the answer is yes. The Internet would seem to put lots of information about politics at your fingertips. And some academic research suggests that the Internet can make us better “digital citizens” — despite the possibility that people might simply bypass online political content in favor of entertainment like sports.
In our new study, we come to a less optimistic conclusion. We based this study on a rare opportunity: to observe directly what happens when people are given Internet access for the first time.
In 2008, the American National Election Studies conducted its usual presidential election year survey of Americans. Part of the sample was asked to take the survey over the Internet. For anyone who lacked Internet access, the survey firm, Knowledge Networks, provided them Internet access for free. Thereafter, these new Internet users were included in Knowledge Networks’ polls through June 2010. We can thus track the downstream consequences of getting Internet access.
In particular, we compared two groups of people who received Internet access. The first group received Internet access and a Web-enabled device in January 2008. The second cohort did not get it until nine months later, in September 2008. Both groups were recruited in nearly identical ways and filled out surveys monthly until June 2010. This nine-month delay is crucial. It’s analogous to a medical experiment in which one group got a new drug for an extra nine months, while the other group had to wait.
We found that, as of September 2008, the group that had had Internet access for nine months was not more interested in or knowledgeable about politics, compared to the group that had not yet received access.
We also followed both groups all the way to June 2010. Again, very little changed. Neither group became more interested in or knowledgeable about politics. Neither group came to feel more capable of influencing politics.
Why do these findings differ from some previous research? One possibility is just that typical survey data makes it difficult to tell whether any correlation between Internet usage and political attitudes suggests actual causation. Perhaps people who are already interested in politics tend to look for political information online.
Another possibility is that Internet usage may simply substitute for offline sources of political information. For example, if new Internet users read the same story online that they would otherwise have read in the newspaper, then we wouldn’t expect Internet use to increase knowledge.
The third possibility is information overload. The complexity and volume of content on the Internet make actually learning difficult — at least about politics.
This isn’t to suggest that the Internet could never make us better citizens. But we would argue for very qualified expectations about how much the Internet can increase how much we care or know about politics.
Sean Richey is an associate professor of political science and Junyan Zhu is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at Georgia State University.