Democracy Promotion in the Age of Social Digital Media: Challenges and Opportunities

This project examined the impact of new social media on people’s political attitudes and behaviour. The focus lies on individual citizens and the way in which Internet use and social networks shape their political orientation and participation. Furthermore, the project analysed the potential of digital technologies to promote democracy.

Project Lead:
Anita Breuer

Time frame:
2011 - 2014 / completed

Project description

Over recent years, political scientists have become increasingly interested in the political significance of digital social networking. The prominent role of social media in political events of such diverse nature as the 2008 U.S. presidential election and the ouster of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, has spurred a controversial discussion on the effective impact of these tools on the democratic process. On the one hand, a cyber-optimistic view places high hopes on the capacities of social media to engage citizens more deeply in the political process and to foster democracy enhancing features such as social capital, political information, or corruption monitoring. On the other hand, critics who adopt a more sceptical position consider the influence of social media on civic engagement as marginal. Instead, they point to the diverse political risks involved by the growing popularity of social media such as for example the potential abuse of freely available personal data for intelligence purposes by authoritarian minded governments or the political disengagement of citizens owing to an overflow of low quality entertainment products. Given this background, this project focused on the following two goals:

a) An empirically grounded assessment of the effective impact of social media on individual level political participation. To this purpose, large scale preference surveys analysing citizens’ choice and use of social media and their political behaviour online and offline, were conducted in both democratic and non-democratic contexts.

b) The development of a differentiated conceptual framework for the analysis of digitally based strategies of democracy promotion. To this end, the project combined in-depth investigation of political events that were decisively shaped by the intervention of social media networking with the analysis of existing programs of media assistance in development cooperation.