Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty, and the Internet Worldwide


Work data:

ISBN: 9780521002233

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Type of work: Book


Development | Digital Divide


Since the mid-1990s the explosion of the Internet has prompting intense speculation about its ultimate impact upon the economy, society and politics. Many hope that the Internet will be a powerful new force capable of transforming existing patterns of social inequality, strengthening linkages between citizens and representatives, facilitating new forms of public engagement and communication, and widening opportunities for the development of a global civic society.

But will the Internet transform conventional forms of democratic activism, or only serve to reinforce the existing gap between the technologically rich and poor? Will it level the playing field for developing societies, or instead strengthen the advantages of post-industrial economies? Will parties, interest groups, and governments use the Net to encourage interactive participation, or will the technology be used as another form of ‘top-down’ communications?

This book sets out to understand these issues, drawing upon worldwide surveys of public opinion, systematic content analysis of web sites, and case studies of online civic engagement. Much existing research on the Internet is based upon the situation in the United States, but it is not clear how far we can generalize more widely from this particular context. Democracies offer citizens different structures of opportunity to participate in their own governance. Based upon an examination of OECD countries, this book argues that the political role of the Internet reflects and thereby reinforces, rather than transforms, the structural features of each country’s political system. In some, voluntary organizations and community groups mobilize people into politics. In others, citizens often become active via strong mass-branch party organizations. In yet others, grassroots social movements involve people in protest politics, such as direct action to protect the environment. The Net becomes a common resource which different agencies can use in the attempt to generate public support and to influence the policy process. The Internet thereby alters the mobilizing structure, providing new points of access into the political system, creating new possibilities for collective action, organizational linkage across distances, and informal networks.

The comparative framework for book adopts a ‘most similar’ comparative research strategy by focusing upon democratic states sharing similar economic and political backgrounds, comparing advanced post-industrial (OECD) societies. There are significant variations within this universe in terms of the Internet, such as the costs and ease of access, the availability of online newspapers and television, and the structure, availability and organization of political web sites. The last section of the book focuses on the United States and the 15 member states of the European Union, drawing on public opinion data from the American National Election Study, the Pew Center on the People and the Press, IRIS surveys of Internet users, and the European Commission.

Part I of the book sets out the theoretical framework in the Internet Engagement Model which suggests that use of the new technology can be understood as the product of resources (like time and money), motivation (like interest and confidence) and the structure of opportunities (such as how social networks and political actors use the Internet). The introduction locates the discussion within broader theories of social communications and civic engagement. The book distinguishes the global divide meaning inequalities of Internet access between countries, the social divide between groups within societies, and the democratic divide between those online who do, and do not, use political resources on the Internet. Chapters 2 and 3 then discuss the trends in global access to the internet and the social divisions in the online community, including gaps of gender, class and generation.

Part II compares the structure of opportunities for political use of the Internet, in terms of the news environment, political parties and campaigns, civic society and the government.

Part III then examines the impact of attention to the Internet for news and political engagement, considers the major explanations of net civic engagement, and evaluates the main policy options for reducing the digital divide.

The conclusion draws together the major findings and considers their implications for democracy.