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Political Participation in a Digital World

Digital technologies have brought instantaneous communication and made our work and lives more efficient. Can we use digital technologies to bring our government and policies into the 21st century?

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Some say the digital age will make our lives easier by offering online solutions to most offline problems. According to others, digital times will only get harder as intelligent technology replaces more jobs and people grow lonely while captivated by their smart communication devices. In both cases, the digital economy will be a global economy. While globalization started prior to the invention of the internet, it is modern information and communication technology (ICT) which has made the world truly global. Globalization triggered international trade and labor mobility already before the world became connected online. However, it is ICT that allows for worldwide communication in real time, at low cost, and broad scope. Both developments together have unleashed the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” that will continue to change the global business environment substantially. But globalization and digitalization also affect the way societies are organized – and the way individuals engage in politics. Understanding those political consequences is relevant, since international economic integration on- and offline is ultimately a policy issue. 

The Internet differs from other media in the way it disseminates information
Political Participation and the Internet
The rise of the Internet has decreased information and communication costs significantly. This has made it easier for firms to manage international operations and to outsource labor intensive production. While low wage countries in Eastern Europe or Asia have clearly benefitted from this development, the impact on high-wage countries like the U.S. or Germany is twofold: Firstly, consumers gain from more varieties at lower prices due to global competition. On the other hand, employment in the production of labor-intensive tradable goods decreased significantly since the 1990s and low-skilled workers face increasing job-insecurity. This development might well become amplified if the Industrial Internet also allows for the substitution of skilled labor with intelligent machinery. Although the economic impacts of globalization and digitalization are well researched, the question remains whether this development has political consequences—specifically since voters increasingly use the Internet to inform themselves on political issues.  
With the Internet, individuals can easily access a large pool of knowledge. If voters used this opportunity to better inform themselves on political issues, one would expect positive Internet effects on political participation. However, the Internet does not only provide information, but also consumption and entertainment opportunities. Thus with the new medium, users might also spend less time on informing themselves on political issues, leading to a decrease in political participation. Moreover, the Internet differs from other media in the way it disseminates information. While the editorial boards of traditional media outlets filter and condense information, it is up to the individual Internet user to collect and select information. Thus, Internet users might have a tendency to selectively consume information that matches their preconception, potentially leading to voters’ segregation and even polarization. Usually, users rely on search engines to surf the internet which filter news and search results to match personal tastes. This amplifies the risk of users getting trapped in a “filter bubble” that limits search results to information that neither changes their worldview, nor challenges their political stances. Consequently, the political effects of the Internet should largely depend on Internet users’ patterns of information consumption.
Research by Falck et al. (2014) reveals the demobilizing effect of the Internet. They find that the introduction of broadband Internet in Germany significantly decreased electoral turnout. The authors show that Internet users increase their entertainment consumption and decrease their TV-consumption, with TV-news being the main source of political information in Germany. This suggests that Internet users do indeed consume less information on political issues, decreasing their political knowledgeability and political participation as a consequence. There are, however, no specific Internet effects on the election results of single parties. This finding speaks against political polarization of Internet users, since one would otherwise have expected fringe parties to benefit from the new medium. 

New media attracted voters to political debates but they seem to benefit fringe parties with populist stances more than others

It is important to stress that Falck et al.’s (2014) results stem from the introductory phase of the Internet when users were not yet familiarized with the new medium. Moreover, at that time Social Media applications were only at the early stages of development. Both factors might contribute to the demobilizing effect of the Internet. First, users might have had to learn how to use online news outlets to get sufficiently informed. Second, Social Media might have helped to filter information in more recent years. Research by Campante et al. (2013) suggests that there have been such learning effects, facilitated by Social Media applications. Looking at the case of Italy, Campante et al. (2013) confirm the demobilizing effect of the Internet in its introductory phase. However, they also find evidence that this effect reverted in the web 2.0 era. They show that in the 2013 election in Italy, turnout increased due to Internet use. This effect relates to the success of Beppe Grillo’s five star movement that managed to attract former absentee voters by an intensive Social Media campaign. Apparently, social media applications can be an effective tool to further political participation. However, they seem to mobilize a selective group of voters such as disaffected individuals. Thus, new media attracted voters to political debates but they seem to benefit fringe parties with populist stances more than others.
Globalization and Voting Behavior
Generally, there seems to be increasing discontent with the development of the global economy in many Western democracies. Globalization and digitalization do not benefit everybody alike. This seems to raise suspicion and even opposition to economic integration and new technologies among the losers of this process. For instance, increasing trade with low-wage countries has led to labor market turmoil in many high-wage countries, where manufacturing employment decreased due to international competition. Additionally, digital globalization has opened the door for many small companies around the world to operate as exporters on e-commerce marketplaces. This development might well be amplified by the advancement of the Industrial Internet that further eases the global spread of manufacturing production. While some papers argue this development explains the increasing polarization of U.S. politics (Feigenbaum and Hall, 2015; Jensen et al., 2016; Che et al., 2016; Autor, et al., 2016), a recent paper by Dippel et al. (2015) looks at the case of Germany to examine the political consequences of labor market adjustments caused by international economic integration. 
Dippel et al. (2015) find that increasing exposure to trade with low-wage countries leads to job losses, which in turn affects voting behavior – but very selectively. Indeed, only right-fringe parties’ vote share is affected by international trade in Germany. They significantly gained electoral support in regions hit by increasing import competition. Moreover, it is particularly the low-skilled workers in tradable manufacturing sectors who turn to supporting fringe parties from the right. Apparently, right-fringe parties successfully captured the anti-globalization vote in Germany with their promise of a nationalist alternative to what is referred to as “predator capitalism with no nation-states” led by the “global dictatorship of big money” (Stöss 2010, pp.40-42). However, those parties’ campaigns often built on misinformation about the process of globalization and overemphasize its negative consequences, providing a skewed reality. As Dippel et al. (2015) point out, globalization has a twofold effect. While some regions face fierce competition from low-wage producers, others benefit from increasing export opportunities to new markets. Those export opportunities have positive employment effects and decrease fringe party support. Ultimately, international trade is supposed to have positive aggregate welfare effects. This raises the question how to prevent populist parties’ from exploiting individual fears to push their nationalist agenda, i.e. an agenda that would reduce welfare by reducing international economic exchange.

For policymakers, it is important to embrace the possibilities provided by new media to interact with voters

Voters’ Information is Key
Eventually, it is the voters’ choice to support parties and candidates promoting international economic integration in a digitalized world – or not. One concern is that voters dissatisfied with political developments either turn to consuming less information or to consuming biased information through media outlets that cater to their prejudices. This might indeed lead to ideological lock-ins, where individuals losing from globalization and digitalization might not face up to the arguments in favor of international economic integration. For policymakers, it is important to embrace the possibilities provided by new media to interact with voters and gain credence for their arguments, whereas Internet users must be made aware of the potential for biases in the information disseminated online. The latter involves measures to foster self-reliance among grown-up Internet users and especially children (Falck et al., 2016). If users learn to process information content of the worldwide web more efficiently, online-communication certainly provides the opportunities for a balanced debate on political issues. This should help to improve voters’ information and increase political participation. Nevertheless, policy will have to cushion the negative effects of globalization and digitalization, such as helping those who do not benefit from these developments. The positive effects of international economic integration on- and offline give leeway for such policies.
Autor, D., D. Dorn, G. Hanson, and K. Majlesi (2016). Importing Political Polarization? The Electoral Consequences of Rising Trade Exposure. NBER Working Paper 22637.

Campante, F., Durante, R., and F. Sobbrio (2013). Politics 2.0: The Multifaceted Effect of Broadband Internet on Political Participation. NBER Working Paper 19029.

Che, Y., Y. Lu, J. R. Pierce, P. K. Schott, and Z. Tao (2016). Does Trade Liberalization with China Influence US Elections? NBER Working Paper 22178.

Dippel, C., R. Gold, and S. Heblich (2015). Globalization and Its (Dis-) Content: Trade Shocks and Voting Behavior. NBER Working Paper 21812.

Falck, O., R. Gold, and S. Heblich (2014). E-lections: Voting Behavior and the Internet. American Economic Review 104(7), 2238–65.

Falck O., A. Heimisch, and S. Wiederhold (2016). Returns to ICT Skills. CESifo Working Paper Series 5720.
Feigenbaum, J. J. and A. B. Hall (2015). How Legislators Respond to Localized Economic Shocks: Evidence from Chinese Import Competition. Journal of Politics 77(4), 1012–30.

Jensen, J. B., D. P. Quinn, and S. Weymouth (2016). Winners and Losers in International Trade: The Effects on US Presidential Voting. NBER Working Paper21899.

Stöss, R. (2010). Rechtsextremismus im Wandel. Technical report, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

Robert Gold is a Post-Doc at the Institute for the World Economy, Kiel 
Stephan Heblich is a Reader (Associate Professor) at the University of Bristol