These days, every time a large political demonstration takes place somewhere in the world, it seems to set off a discussion of the Internet's role in facilitating it, whether by allowing protesters to rally support from both domestic and international sources, report developments from the ground, communicate their demands to government leaders, or document police abuses. What tends to be overlooked, however, is the Internet's other role in political movements of this sort—that is, its effects before protestors ever take to the streets. The Internet has quietly but profoundly shifted citizens’ desire to act or organize politically in the first place by influencing their perceptions of their government’s performance.

The Internet, together with related technologies, has been revolutionary for information distribution. It has drastically and rapidly transformed how information is packaged; how quickly and at what cost that information can be transmitted; and which networks have the power to determine who can send and receive that transmitted information. This has resulted in the most rapid democratization of communication in history.

It has also had profound effects on how citizens make political judgments. The Internet primarily influences the public's evaluations through two mechanisms, which I call mirror-holding and window-opening. Mirror-holding describes how the Internet, by providing a larger and more diverse array of local political information than traditional media, enables users to better discern and reflect on the quality of their governments. Window-opening, by contrast, pertains to the global nature of the Internet, which gives users a better understanding of political conditions in other countries, particularly the advanced democracies that are most visible on the Internet. This provides users with a realistic scale by which to make comparative evaluations about how well their own government functions.

Empirical testing confirms that the Internet has clear and consistent influence on how citizens feel about their governments. As one might expect, the mirror-holding and window-opening mechanisms boost public satisfaction with government in advanced democracies and public dissatisfaction in nations with weak democratic practices. However, research also demonstrates that the Internet’s effect is neither automatic nor uniform—one democratic gain, such as more critical evaluations of poor-performing governments, does not automatically set off a domino effect of entirely pro-democratic gains in citizens’ attitudes and behaviors.

Take Tanzania, for example, where I conducted a randomized field experiment to test the effect of Internet use on evaluations of the 2010 general election. Although the Internet offered plentiful information about the questionable integrity of a then-upcoming national election, the results of the experiment revealed that Tanzanians with access to that information also became less likely to vote. After all, the belief that an election would not be fair can produce two very divergent responses—although some people may feel inclined to respond by taking to the streets, others may simply throw up their hands and stay home.

Meanwhile, another randomized field experiment that I conducted in Bosnia and Herzegovina revealed that Internet users there who became more dissatisfied with the quality of democratic practices in their country also became more likely to consider alternative forms of government as preferable for their country. Taken as a whole, then, this research reveals that the Internet’s influence is complex, and that in some instances it will have ambiguous effects for democracy and democratization.

The effects of Internet use on political evaluations tend to be particularly profound in hybrid regimes—governments that, despite being firmly authoritarian, allow some form of so-called elections for various offices. In many cases, such elections are exercises in futility, the outcome already determined by the ruling party regardless of what the ballots say. Although outsiders may take for granted that these elections are largely shams, however, citizens living in these countries often invest significant value in them. This was demonstrated in the build-up to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, during which a segment of the public that was originally angered by police brutality became further incensed by ostensibly rigged parliamentary elections, eyewitness accounts of which were amplified by videos uploaded and distributed online. It wasn't long before citizens began expressing their discontent by protesting in the streets and demanding a change in the regime.

Moreover, even in instances that do not result in tangible political activity, the effects of Internet use on political evaluations and satisfaction have important implications for the day-to-day business of governance. Quite simply, governments—democratic, democratizing, and nondemocratic alike—are aware that they have lost some degree of control over information compared to what they enjoyed in the era of traditional media. As a result, they know that there is greater potential for their decisions and actions to be broadcast on the national, and even international, stage, a venue and context that they have diminished control over. Thus, leaders are forced, to varying degrees, to consider the potential activation of latent public opinion when making political decisions in ways that they never had to previously.

It is regrettable, if not entirely surprising, that, aside from a handful of notable exceptions, scholars and other political observers mostly failed to anticipate the Arab Spring. Many tried to make up for it by focusing renewed effort on the role played by the Internet in the wave of political upheaval that subsequently swept across the Middle East and North Africa. But they would be wise to focus on what has largely remained a blind spot in scholarly research: the effects of Internet use on the very political evaluations that can, and sometimes do, precipitate political action and organization.

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  • CATIE BAILARD is Assistant Professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.
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