Faster internet access has “significantly” weakened civic participation in Britain, a new study suggests after it found involvement in political parties, trade unions and volunteering fell as web speeds rose.
Volunteering in social care fell by more than 10% when people lived closer to local telecoms exchange hubs and so enjoyed faster web access. Involvement in political parties fell by 19% with every 1.8km increase in proximity to a hub. By contrast, the arrival of fast internet had no significant impact on interactions with family and friends.
The analysis of behaviour among hundreds of thousands of people led by academics from Cardiff University and Sapienza University of Rome found faster connection speeds may have reduced the likelihood of civic engagement among close to 450,000 people – more than double the estimated membership of the Conservative party. They found that, as internet speeds rose between 2005 and 2018, time online “crowded out” other forms of civic engagement.
The study’s authors have also speculated that the phenomenon may have helped fuel populism as people’s involvement with initiatives for “the common good”, which are effectively “schools of democracy” where people learn the benefit of cooperation, has declined.
Other studies have shown that social media engagement has strengthened other kinds of civic engagement, for example by helping to organise protests and fuelling an interest in politics, even if it does not manifest in traditional forms of participation.
However, politics conducted online has been found to be more susceptible to “filter bubbles”, which limit participants’ exposure to opposing views and so foster polarisation.
“We observed that civic participation and the form of engagement in the activities of voluntary organisations and political participation declined with proximity to the network,” said Fabio Sabatini, co-author of the study. “Fast internet seems to crowd out this kind of social engagement.”
Face-to-face volunteering in the UK has been in decline for substantial periods in recent history. It fell from 2005 to 2011 and again in 2020 as Covid-19 hit, according to separate analysis by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.
The new study, published in the Journal of Public Economics, gathered information from the communications regulator Ofcom about the location of local internet cabling exchanges, which during the period studied were a key determinant of data speeds. It then cross-referenced this with residents’ survey responses from the British Household Panel Survey and the UK Household Longitudinal Study about their engagement with social organisations.
The combined effect on engagement with organisations such as political parties, unions and professional associations was a 6% reduction in participation from 2010 to 2017 for each 1.8km closer to the local exchange someone lived.
The biggest impact was on political party involvement, while the impact on trade unions was far smaller – a 3.6% reduction. That chimes with estimates of declining membership of the main UK parties over the period studied, with the exception of a spike caused by a surge in Labour membership before Jeremy Corbyn’s election as party leader in 2015.
The decline in political parties’ appeal when internet speeds rise compared with unions may be because “political parties only indirectly safeguard their supporters’ particular interests [while] trade unions have a stronger and more explicit commitment to advocate for … their members,” the study suggested.
The effect on volunteering with organisations that deliver social care and environmental improvements as well as the Scouts, which have been defined by sociologists as instilling “habits of cooperation, solidarity, and public-spiritedness”, was measured at a 7.8% reduction.
“These kinds of organisations have been defined as ‘schools of democracy’ where people learn the benefit of cooperation” Sabatini said, adding that involvement with such organisations also helps people to trust strangers.
“The rise of populism has been linked to a decline in interest in public affairs and we thought that, being less politically and socially active, people may be less capable of interpreting political phenomena and understanding the complexity of the management of public affairs,” Sabatini said.
“While bonding social capital [family and friends] seems resilient to technological change, bridging social capital [politics, volunteering, unions] proves fragile and vulnerable to the pressure of technology,” the study concluded.
“This result is disturbing as it suggests that progress in information and communications technology can undermine an essential factor of economic activity and the functioning of democratic institutions.”