The Other Facebook Revolution

How the Internet Makes People Unhappy With Their Governments

People use computers at an Internet cafe in Changzhi, north China's Shanxi province June 20, 2007.

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.

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