Are digital media bad for democracy?

Digital media impact democracy, but their effects vary, says PhD researcher Lisa Oswald in a co-authored study in Nature Human Behaviour.

Do digital media support democracy – or rather erode it? Both, say Hertie School PhD researcher Lisa Oswald and co-authors Dr Philip Lorenz-Spreen, Professor Stephan Lewandowsky and Professor Ralph Hertwig in a study that explores the role of social media in democracy. The study, “Digital Media and Democracy: A Systematic Review of Causal and Correlational Evidence Worldwide”, was published in journal Nature Human Behaviour

Almost 500 studies worldwide surveyed

The authors used data from nearly 500 academic articles published between 2001 and 2021 from around the globe on the link between digital media and ten political variables such as political participation and misinformation to draw a more complete picture of the complex relationship between different forms of digital media and democracy. The overarching aim of the research was to advance the scientific and public debate on the relationship between digital media and democracy with an evidence-based approach.

"Our review clearly shows how different data types, like social media comments and social network data, may lead to different conclusions,” says Oswald. “For example, the phenomenon of the much-discussed ‘echo chambers’ appears much more pronounced in studies looking at social network data where people are connected to like-minded others. On the other hand, people's media diets through web browsing and survey data look quite diverse as they are regularly exposed to cross-cutting content.” This shows why it is necessary to examine various types of data to understand how digital media affect democracy, she says.

Digital media: More detrimental in established democracies

According to the authors, “digital media are a double-edged sword, with both beneficial and detrimental effects on democracy”, depending on the respective political system. Especially in the emerging democracies and authoritarian regimes, the study shows, digital media often showed a link to increased political participation and news consumption, which was also linked to progress toward a more democratic society. Another beneficial effect included increased political knowledge and news exposure. For example, Facebook use had positive effects on interethnic attitudes and knowledge of current political events in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

In established democracies, on the other hand, the data show that digital media can have a more detrimental effect, particularly in eroding trust in political institutions, and were also connected to the spread of hate, polarisation, misinformation and populism in these societies. For instance, in Germany, increased media use to support for the far-right populist party AfD, and parallels were found in Austria, Sweden and Australia. Related to this, when it comes to news consumption, while several of the surveyed articles showed that social media and search engines do diversify people’s news diets, the reviewed articles consistently showed clusters of likeminded users in social networks.

"Perhaps one of the most important contributions of our review is that it clearly describes the state of the research field, which has comparably little causal evidence, is heavily US-based, and especially relies on correlational evidence on media use and self-reported political outcomes,” says Lisa Oswald. According to the author, that makes it hard to say “why” digital media use is associated, for instance, with higher political polarisation. Is it that more extreme people are the most active on social media or because social media makes people more extreme? “Even though the field is far from being in the dark about the links between digital media and democracy – something major social media companies like to claim, more evidence on these why-questions is sorely needed,” she adds.

You can access the full text via Nature Human Behaviour.

The Hertie School is not responsible for any content linked or referred to from these pages. Views expressed by the author/interviewee may not necessarily reflect the views and values of the Hertie School.