The role of the Internet in pathways to democratization: A Critical Survey of the Literature

by Kitaw Yayehyirad KITAW (Yayeh KITAW)
PhD Fellow in Governance and Policy Analysis

Introduction: The debate around the Internet and Democratization

Since the late nineties, scholars, policymakers, media professionals have strived to untangle the puzzle of the relationship between the use of the Internet and democratization. Relying on statistical as well as qualitative methods, these scholarly endeavours investigating how the use of the Internet and democratization interrelate have failed to yield consistent and conclusive results. Indeed, new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) present both opportunities and threats for democracy (Horrocks and Pratchett, 1995). In particular, the Internet, following its global growth over the last two decades, has been increasingly expected to become a liberating technology as well as a threat for autocratic regimes (Hellmeier, 2016; Howard and Parks, 2012; Diamond 2010; Groshek 2009).

Since the globalization of the Internet, researchers have been puzzled about its effects on political institutions and their operation as well as on democratic values and processes (Best & Wade, 2009; Howard, 2010; Groshek, 2011; Meier, 2012). This bewilderment has led to a burgeoning literature on the probable effects of emerging ICTs on democratic processes (Weare, 2002) and an understanding that democracy and democratization can no longer be effectively studied without some attention paid to the role of digital information technologies as they are bound to be used for good or ill (Lidén, 2015; Meier, 2012).

Amidst the debate concerning the liberalizing or repressive effect of the Internet, present-day research shows that the Internet’s impact on the democratization of authoritarian regimes is at best limited (Rød and Weidmann, 2015). Among the reasons forwarded is that autocratic governments take control and actively censor online content (Greitens, 2013; Hellmeier, 2016), prosecute dissident online activists, use the Internet for the purpose of spreading propaganda (Kalathil and Boas, 2003; Morozov, 2011), and strengthen their authoritarianism by promoting Digital Government while censoring the Internet (World Bank Development Report, 2016)

Following Groshek (2010) who notes that “Technological developments, especially communicative ones, have long been romanticized as powerful instruments of democracy, Kalathil and Boas (2010:10) assert that the Internet has helped authoritarian regimes rather than harmed them. Kalathil and Boas (2010) further argue that the Internet’s net impact on authoritarian rule has often been obscured by the conventional wisdom that the Internet is inherently of a democratic nature and inexorably undermines authoritarian regimes.

Furthermore, when carefully examining the full range of Internet use under eight authoritarian regimes, Kalathil and Boas (2010) justify their choices of a regional approach to the selection of cases from Southeast Asia and the Middle East mentioning the lack of data and underdevelopment of the Internet for cases in Africa. They note, however, that a large concentration of authoritarian regimes is in Africa and Central Asia and that as more data becomes available, research examining such cases would emerge and fill the gap.

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