A large-scale review of the evidence on digital media and democracy, has found online news and social media acts as a double-edged sword for democracy.
The study, by a team of international researchers, analysed nearly 500 studies of links between digital media and democracy, in a paper published in Nature Human Behaviour.
“The advantage of our systematic review—against the background of a divisive and often partisan debate—is that it allows objective conclusions to be drawn,” says author Philipp Lorenz-Spreen of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.
The evidence showed digital media can help foster political participation and a well-informed population, attributes considered beneficial for modern democracy. These positive effects were more pronounced in emerging democracies in South America, Africa and Asia.
Examples cited by the study include the Arab Spring, Fridays for Future and #MeToo.
Analysis also found online news and social media was sometimes connected to declining trust, increasing populism and polarisation, as well as misinformation. These negative effects were more evident in established democracies like Europe and the United States.
The attack on the US Capitol in 2021, was cited as an example.
“While the impact of digital media on democracy cannot be judged as simply ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ the results clearly show that digital media can have several negative effects on political behaviour,” Lorenz-Spreen says.
The findings were less clear on whether digital media supported citizens’ political expression. Research found while platforms enabled people to express their opinions, this was counteracted to some extent by the effect called the ‘spiral of silence’ where people’s willingness to express their political opinions online depends on the perceived popularity of the opinion.
Researchers set out to answer the question: “if, to what degree, and in which contexts, do digital media have detrimental effects on democracy”.
“Our results provide grounds for concern”, concludes the paper.
The analysis considered research looking at the relationship between digital media use and political variables, including evidence for both correlation and causation.
The ten most researched political variables included: political participation, knowledge, trust, news exposure, political expression, hate, polarisation, populism, network structure, and misinformation.
Digital media in the study was defined as “discussion forums or online communication hosted via the internet, including online news and social media platforms.”
While the study notes social media platforms themselves generally don’t create content, they provide an online public sphere and exert influence over the dynamics of information flow.