Democracy's Double-Edged Sword: How Internet Use Changes Citizens' Views of Their Government

  • Published

Democracy's Double-Edged Sword: How Internet Use Changes Citizens' Views of Their Government, Catie Snow Bailard. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014, 162 pp.

Catie Snow Bailard provides an exceptional, experimental look at how Internet access provides a causal linkage to popular satisfaction within democratic governments. Her research explores a quantitative basis behind the social dynamics evident within the Arab Spring uprisings, the Crimean crisis, and Middle East insurgencies. Any world event over the past 10 years involves populations connected through the global cyberspace commons. Social media changes everyone's world lens by transmitting definitions for ourselves and others. Bailard demonstrates how Internet access defines government success within our interdependent world. Her work illustrates how Internet access accentuates both the positive and negative impressions citizens carry regarding their government. The first half of her text expresses the theory and assumptions underlying her core experiments, while the second half provides two sets of experiments through a global community and focused field tests.

Democracy's Double-Edged Sword reveals two sharp, analytic edges: mirror-holding and window-opening. Both capabilities depend on the studied society possessing Internet access. Mirror-holding describes how Internet access allows users to discern how either democratic practices or general governance functions internally to their society. Window-opening allows those same individuals to form perceptions regarding how external governments conduct their activities. Both traits assume the Internet provides increased information volume with more diversity than any previously available media sources. Bailard relies on congruence theory illustrations to explain how democratic participants' satisfaction within their democracy can be evaluated by their perception of democracy. Without the Internet, some people may never realize the repression under which they suffer.

Bailard does identify several core limitations dulling the identified capabilities—with government censorship forming the largest item. If a government can effectively block the Internet, no amount of mirror-holding or window-opening will increase one's access or broaden one's experience. Similar factors emerge from either state-sponsored cyberwarfare branches or distributing government propaganda. Both seek to negate the effect gained by free and open access to external media. Another assumption pair addresses the economic sufficiency point where the Internet becomes widely accessible and whether mobile phones offer Internet access. Some regions still experience minimal Internet penetration, and thus, Bailard views their data transport activities as a two-step process. This process first obtains information through a personal source such as a phone viewing a web site and then disseminates through one's own social connections through talk or text. Social media and mobile phone Internet access help speed the process by decreasing the overall time required to obtain information. Finally, her last assumption considers whether too many online choices serve to dilute popular perceptions and prevent either edge from being effective. Bailard contends that some people may avoid making distinctive online choices, but enough people will examine available options to prove the suggested causal links. One potential disagreement with Bailard's assessments occurs within the limitation chapter. Over several pages, the work contends that state-run media—for example, propaganda—must be less efficient than truthful information because producing and sustaining nonfactual data is more difficult. Bailard argues truth is easier to produce and distribute because one can more easily verify truthful sources. All state-run media is portrayed as misinformation or propaganda, which is by her definition inefficient and unwieldy. At a certain point, the scales within state-run media production may tip toward inefficiency, but historic information-warfare campaigns are usually based on at least partial truths. The current media campaigns presented within the Islamic State's propaganda or Sony Entertainment's difficulties with The Interview provide a significant counterpoint to the work's assumption. The ability to quickly disseminate social media through Twitter-type forums undermines the effort perceived necessary to distribute false information through cyberspace. The limitation returns to demonstrate where state-distributed or malicious propaganda reduces Internet effectiveness to mirror-holding or window-opening, it potentially prevents causal linkages.

The work evaluates two experimental methodologies with previously assessed surveys to identify whether democratic satisfaction rates correlate to Internet penetration within specified areas. The first study examines the percentage of citizens who express satisfaction in government as compared to their Internet access from 2004 to 2008. The second study examines individual responses from various countries to evaluate similar effects within a region. In both cases, nations with strong democratic practices increased satisfaction rates concurrent with their Internet penetration rates, while nations with weak democratic practices experienced less satisfaction with similarly increased penetration. Numerous statistical evaluations demonstrate the causal relationship between Internet usage and democratic satisfaction throughout the chapter. Bailard's careful analysis ties statistics to regional democratic practices. These answers lead to her next study with field research within contained environments.

Bailard controlled variability by conducting experiments on democratic satisfaction rates in Bosnia and Tanzania. In both cases, she offered free and uncontrolled Internet access for limited times, while utilizing surveys to examine satisfaction rates between a control and an experimental group. Both smaller sets of results mirrored her larger tests. One unusual result within the Tanzanian group was fewer Internet-access group members actually voted than had planned to vote during the initial survey. The link between satisfaction and Internet use remained clear, however, some smaller behavior elements were not demonstrated as directly linked. The work also notes cultural differences may be more influential directing certain behavioral elements than merely Internet access and participation within the timespan.

Bailard makes some critical initial steps about demonstrating causal linkages between Internet use and government satisfaction rates. At the same time, her work points to where more work may yet be accomplished. The growth of social media means most world crises require one to engage while facing rampant information proliferation of varying degrees of accuracy and truthfulness in order to understand potential impacts. In Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's Libyan operation, and current actions against the Islamic State, social media is essential in communicating messages from, within, and across all sides. Bailard's work helps operators understand the causal links between various factors. At 162 pages, it is a quick read and highlights some essential information operations elements, and every strategist should add the work to their reading list.

Lt Col Mark Peters, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."