The internet has dramatically transformed the way individuals obtain, produce, and exchange information. There is a widespread belief that such a revolution is likely to have a profound impact on various dimensions of social life, not least on politics. In particular, deep transformations have been predicted for the ability to organise collective action. As stated by Kevin Werbach, “The Internet fundamentally lowers the barriers to organization [...] Like-minded souls no longer need painstakingly to build an organizational structure; a mailing-list is often enough to band together online” (The Economist 2013). Others have emphasised instead the possible perverse effects of the internet for democracy, stressing in particular the risks of polarisation or ‘cyber-balkanisation’ (Sunstein 2009; Putnam 2001), or that, overall, the “internet seems both good news and bad news for the political voice of the average citizen” (Hindman 2009, p.142).
With compelling arguments and anecdotal evidence supporting the different sides of this debate, much remains to be learned about the actual effect of the internet on political behaviour and outcomes. In particular, empirical research providing causal evidence is still limited, with mixed results based on a short-run window of events. For example, while Miner (2012) finds a positive impact of broadband internet on electoral participation in a weakly-democratic context (i.e. in Malaysia), Czernich (2012) and Falck, Gold, and Heblich (2012) show a negative effect of broadband availability in Germany up to 2008.
In a recent NBER working paper (Campante, Durante and Sobbrio 2013), we provide a broad perspective on this issue by looking at the impact of broadband internet on different forms of offline and online political engagement in the context of Italy, over a span of nearly two decades.
The Italian case is particularly well suited for studying this question, for several distinct reasons:
- Italy is a country with solid democratic roots but where traditional media are largely controlled by the government or by powerful private interests (Durante and Knight 2012);
Therefore, it represents a window into the role played by the internet as a potential tool to overcome possible distortions in traditional media sectors.
- Three parliamentary elections have taken place after this technology started spreading throughout Italy (i.e. after 2001);
We can thus study both its short-run and long-run impact on the dynamics of political participation.
- In 2013, the national two-coalition system, in place since the advent of the so-called ‘Second Republic’ in 1994, was shaken by the emergence of a new political actor, the Five Star Movement (M5S);
The M5S ended up as the top vote-getter, in the best performance for a newcomer party in national elections in postwar Italy. This stunning performance represents an important opportunity to assess the impact of the internet on politics, given that social media platforms have been among the cornerstones of the movement.
Exploiting the structure of the pre-existing telecommunication network
To identify the causal impact of the diffusion of broadband access, we exploit the characteristics of ADSL technology, which is by far the most important type of broadband technology in Italy. Specifically, diffusion to a given municipality is affected by its position in the pre-existing voice telecommunications infrastructure. We focus on the ‘backhaul’ infrastructure connecting a municipality with the upper level of the telecommunication hierarchical network (the ‘Urban Group Stage’). While in the voice telecommunication era this part of the network was connected using copper, ADSL-based internet services require costlier fibre-optical cables. Hence, we use the distance between a given municipality and the closest Urban Group Stage – a good proxy for the cost of connecting the municipality – as a source of exogenous variation for the availability of high-speed internet. As the pre-existing infrastructure was not randomly distributed, our identification strategy relies on interacting that distance with the time variation between the period before and after broadband became available, under the assumption that the correlation between distance and unobserved municipal characteristics did not change at that point in time, other than through the introduction of ADSL technology.
Short-run and long-run effects
We first show that the diffusion of broadband led to a significant decline in electoral turnout in national parliamentary elections between 1996-2001 and 2006-08. This decline, of the order of two to three percentage points associated with going from zero to at least 50% broadband coverage, was especially detrimental to ‘outsiders’, namely parties outside the two main coalitions. This is consistent with the diffusion of broadband having led to a particularly disenchanted part of the electorate dropping out of the mainstream electoral process.
At the same time, we find parallel evidence of a positive effect of broadband internet on other forms of political engagement. We collected a unique data set on the territorial expansion of local, grassroots protest groups on the online platform beppegrillo.meetup.com. These groups are especially interesting, because they eventually coalesced around the Five Star Movement, and we show that the diffusion of broadband was associated with their formation and growth. The same pattern holds for the electoral performance of the Five Star Movement: broadband access was positively associated with its presence on local election ballots, starting in 2008, and also with the results obtained by these Five Star Movement lists. This pattern suggests that political entrepreneurs eventually seized the opportunity of using the internet to mobilise different forms of political engagement.
Moreover, we show how this process reflected back onto mainstream electoral politics, taking advantage of the fact that the Five Star Movement was a major presence in the national parliamentary elections of 2013. The results point out that the negative causal impact of broadband access on voter turnout essentially dissipated over this new electoral cycle, a pattern that is associated with a positive impact of broadband availability on the electoral fortunes of the Five Star Movement and of other new, ‘web-friendly’ parties.
Politics 2.0: Exit, voice and loyalty in the age of broadband
Overall, our evidence shows ‘general-equilibrium’ repercussions of the change in media technology exemplified by the onset of high-speed internet. That shock entails a shift on the ‘demand side’ of the political process, as voters react to the new medium; this, however, is merely the first reaction in the more complex chain. Eventually, political entrepreneurs on the supply side take advantage of the opportunity presented by the initial demand-side movement, and also by the possibilities of the new medium itself, to enhance political mobilisation in ways that eventually feed back and alter the initial landscape.
We interpret this dynamic with reference to the classic ‘exit, voice and loyalty’ framework (Hirschman 1970) on the possible responses by citizens and consumers to decline in firms, organisations and states. Our study suggests that, by providing alternative platforms on which to express their discontent (e.g. blogs and other social media platforms), broadband internet at first represented an exit option for people dissatisfied with the mainstream political process. At the same time, loyalty has remained an important component linking citizens with public institutions. Indeed, as pointed out by Hirschman (1970), full exit from public institutions is close to impossible: a citizen remains affected by decisions on public-good provision, even if she decides not to take part in this decision process. This created a high potential for the emergence of new political movements exploiting the powerful mobilisation tools provided by this new technology to fish into the pool of demobilised voters.
In sum, our evidence of multifaceted effects of broadband internet is consistent with an interpretation where the initial demobilisation is just a short-run effect due to the exit of voters who were disenchanted but not apathetic with respect to mainstream politics. In turn, the long-run impact of the internet has favoured the emergence of new political actors, turning exit back into voice.
In 2004, Howard Dean, one of the candidates to the presidential primaries for the US Democratic party and a strong believer in the political potential of the internet, suggested that the internet community was still wondering what its place in the world of politics would be. Our evidence from Italy suggests that this role has been found first in new forms of political engagement in the online world. However, it has eventually facilitated the emergence of new political actors exploiting this technology to lower barriers to entry into political representation, and thus reflected back into the mainstream political process.
Campante, F, Durante, R, and Sobbrio F (2013), “Politics 2.0.: The Multifaceted Effect of Broabdband Internet on Political Participation”, NBER Working Paper 19029.
Czernich, N (2012), “Broadband Internet and Political Participation: Evidence for Germany”, Kyklos 65(1), 31–52, available at .
Durante, R and Knight, B (2012), “Partisan control, media bias, and viewer responses: Evidence from Berlusconi’s Italy”, Journal of the European Economic Association 10(3), 451–481, available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1542-4774.2011.01060.x/full.
Falck, O, Gold, R, and Heblich, S (2012), “E-lections: Voting behavior and the internet”, IZA Discussion Paper 6545.
Hindman, M (2009), The myth of digital democracy, Princeton University Press.
Hirschman, A O (1970), Exit, voice, and loyalty: Responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.
Miner, L (2012), “The Unintended Consequences of Internet Diffusion: Evidence from Malaysia”, Working Paper, New Economic School, .
Putnam R D (2001), Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York, Simon and Schuster.
Sunstein, C R (2009), Republic.com 2.0, Princeton University Press.
The Economist (2013), “Everything is connected”, 5 January.