Faster internet access has significantly dampened civic engagement in Britain, according to a study that found participation in political parties, trade unions and volunteering has declined as web speeds increase.
Welfare volunteering fell by more than 10% when people lived near local telecom exchanges and thus enjoyed faster access to the web. Participation in political parties decreased by 19% with each increase of 1.8 km near the center. By contrast, fast internet access had no significant effect on interactions with family and friends.
An analysis of behavior among hundreds of thousands of people led by academics from Cardiff University and Sapienza University in Rome found that faster communication speeds may have reduced the likelihood of civic engagement among nearly 450,000 people – more than double the estimated membership of the Conservative Party. They found that as internet speeds rose between 2005 and 2018, time online “displaced” other forms of civic engagement.
The study’s authors also speculated that this phenomenon may have helped fuel populism as people’s participation in “common good” initiatives, which they say are “schools of democracy” they say, are declining in people learning the benefit of cooperation.
Other studies have shown that social media engagement has fostered other types of civic engagement, for example by helping to organize protests and fueling interest in politics, even if it does not manifest itself in traditional forms of participation.
However, politics conducted online has been found to be more prone to “filter bubbles”, which limit participants’ exposure to opposing viewpoints and thus reinforce polarization.
“We observed that civic participation and the form of participation in volunteer organization activities and political participation declined with proximity to the network,” said Fabio Sabatini, a study co-author. “It seems like the fast internet is crowding out this kind of social sharing.”
Face-to-face volunteering in the UK has experienced a prolonged decline in recent history. It declined from 2005 to 2011 and again in 2020 as 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, collected information from telecom regulator Ofcom about the location of local Internet cable exchanges, which during the studied period was a major determinant of data speeds. She then compared this with population questionnaire responses from the British Household Panel Survey and the UK Longitudinal Study of Households on their involvement with social organisations.
The combined effect on engagement with organizations such as political parties, unions, and professional associations was a 6% decrease in participation from 2010 to 2017 for every 1.8 kilometers near the local exchange that someone lived.
The biggest impact was on political party participation, while that on trade unions was much smaller – down by 3.6%. This is consistent with estimates of the decline in membership of major parties in the United Kingdom during the period studied, except for the rise caused by the increase in Labor Party membership prior to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader in 2015.
The decline in the attractiveness of political parties when internet speeds increase compared to unions may be because “political parties only indirectly protect the private interests of their supporters.” [while] The study suggested that trade unions have a stronger and more visible commitment to championing… their members.
The impact of volunteering with organizations providing social welfare and environmental improvements as well as Scouting, defined by sociologists as inculcating “habits of cooperation, solidarity, and public spirit,” was measured at 7.8%.
“These types of organizations have been defined as ‘schools of democracy’ where people learn the benefit of cooperation,” Sabatini said, adding that partnering with such organizations also helped people trust strangers.
“The rise of populism has been associated with a decline in interest in public affairs, and we thought that because we are less politically and socially active, people may be less able to explain political phenomena and understand the complexity of managing public affairs.” He said.
“While connecting social capital [family and friends] It appears resilient to technological change, bridging the bridges between social capital [politics, volunteering, unions] proves its fragility and vulnerable to the pressure of technology,” the study concluded.
“This finding is troubling because it indicates that advances in information and communication technology can undermine a key factor in economic activity and the functioning of democratic institutions.”