Is the Internet Changing Our Conception of Democracy? An Analysis of the Internet Use During Protests and Its Effect on the Perception of Democracy
26 Pages Posted: 16 Jul 2012 Last revised: 4 Jul 2014
Date Written: 2011
During 2010-2011 we have seen the rise of social movements around the globe. The student protests in UK, the Arab Spring in the Middle East, the Indignados in Spain, the student demonstrations in Chile and other Latin American countries, and the Occupy Wall Street movement – which has been replicated in different cities across the US and abroad. They represent different sectorial and political aspirations, but all of them relied heavily on the Internet to communicate and organise. This research analyses two specific contentious processes – the UK student protests and the Chilean environmentalist protests in 2010 - to assess the effect that the Internet may have had on the protesters’ perception of democracy. In both cases, protesters used Twitter and Facebook to communicate with other protesters and to transmit information to mainstream media. Through data gathered from online surveys, interviews, and the Oxford Internet Survey 2009, this article observes the effect of the Internet in two dimensions: support for democracy, and the protesters’ conception of democracy. The data is analysed using methodological triangulation. Several linear and logistic regression models are combined with a qualitative analysis of the interviews. The findings show that the Internet affects the way that people perceive democracy, especially in relation with the concept of democracy between protesters. The evidence points towards the Internet fostering a more horizontal concept of democracy, based on the idea of less hierarchical political organisation. In that regard, respondents tended to connect the use of the Internet with ideas such as referendums, equal participation rights and more horizontal relations between constituents and representatives. This article raises concern about the actual democratic capabilities of the Internet. The question is whether the Internet is inherently democratic or if the observed effect is just the result of a performativity process, fostered by the utopian discourse about the online world.
Keywords: Internet politics, protest, democracy, public opinion
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