Online and Engaged

New research analyzes the role of the Internet in political participation

May 7, 2013
by Doug Gavel

How has the evolution of high speed connectivity impacted political participation?  That question is the inspiration behind a new Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Working Paper co-authored by Associate Professor Filipe Campante.  In "Politics 2.0: The Multifaceted Effect of Broadband Internet on Political Participation," Campante and his fellow researchers examined data from recent elections in Italy to measure the effects of Internet access on citizens' voting patterns and other forms of political engagement over time. 

"The idea that the Internet has profound effects on society and that it brings substantial economic benefits is widespread both among experts and in public opinion," the authors write.  "The Internet is also often mentioned as a powerful political tool that can contribute to overcome collective action problems and foster political change.... Yet, despite this perceived importance of the Internet for politics, business and the public sector, much remains to be learned about its effects." 

The researchers focused on Italy due to its standing as a democratic country with solid democratic institutions and also because the nation's mainstream media is largely controlled by the government and powerful business interests.  They focused on a 17-year period during which Italy held five national legislative elections. 

Campante and his co-authors found that while broadband Internet had a substantial negative effect on turnout in parliamentary elections between 1996 and 2008, it eventually had a positive impact on other forms of online and offline political participation, such as the spread of local online grassroots protest groups. What is more, that decline in turnout was essentially reversed in the recent 2013 elections, when the local grassroots movements coalesced into the Five-Star Movement (M5S) electoral list. The researchers also show that the electoral performance of the M5S, which was the top vote getter in the Lower House elections, was indeed strengthened by the diffusion of broadband Internet, as was that of other newcomers into the political scene. 

"Our findings are consistent with the view that: 1) the effect of Internet availability on political participation changes across different forms of engagement; 2) it also changes over time, as new political actors emerge who can take advantage of the new technology to tap into the existence of a disenchanted or demobilized contingent of voters; and 3) these new forms of mobilization eventually feed back into the mainstream electoral process, converting 'exit' back into 'voice,'" the authors conclude. 

Filipe R. Campante is associate professor of public policy. He is interested in political economy and economic development, with special emphasis on understanding the constraints that are faced by politicians and governments beyond elections and formal "checks and balances". His research has focused on the constraints imposed by the spatial distribution of population, the media, political protest, lobbying, and campaign contributions, and their effects on corruption, governance, polarization, fiscal policy, and political instability. 

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Filipe Campante

Associate Professor Filipe Campante

"The Internet is...often mentioned as a powerful political tool that can contribute to overcome collective action problems and foster political change.... Yet, despite this perceived importance of the Internet for politics, business and the public sector, much remains to be learned about its effects."