Internet Access Boosts Political Participation In Tanzania But Seems To Depress Engagement

Caitie Bailard wanted to better understand what impact using the Internet more might have on citizens of developing country like Tanzania that has a mixed record on freedom of the press, so she did this experiment:

To conduct the experiment, my research assistant and I recruited subjects at several congregation points throughout the community of Morogoro, including professional and trade schools, secondary schools, the main bus station, hair salons, and markets. We then randomly assigned individuals to either the experimental group (i.e. Internet group) or control group. The Internet group was then given 75 hours of Internet time at a local cafe (pictured above). By employing random assignment, this experiment can ascertain the causal influence of Internet use on political evaluations. By conducting this experiment in the field in a developing democracy in the months leading up to an actual election, this approach makes the experiment’s setting more realistic.

The results are a bit funny. The Internet group seems better-informed and less under the thumb of the quasi-free established press: “Members of the Internet group were 15 percentage points less likely to believe that the election was conducted fairly and impartially. They were also 12 points more likely to believe that the recount was conducted unfairly when compared to the control group.” On the other hand, the upshot of this isn’t that they turned into committed reformers. Instead they were 11 percentage points less likely to vote.

Of course when you think about the United States, lots of people vote here. And whyever it is that we do it, it’s not because we’re responding to accurate information in a narrowly instrumental way. If you want people to vote you have to make them feel good about participating in the process, not increase their cynicism.