With digital technology and connectivity being so ubiquitous, it is easy to take access to the Internet for granted. It becomes part of the background. But there are many people that do not have regular access to the internet – those that live in areas with poor connectivity; those that can’t afford broadband connection; or those with old devices that can’t run certain applications. What is the actual impact of poor access to the Internet?
Ryan Shandler, Michael L Gross and Daphna Canetti set out to quantify the effect of poor Internet access. They reported the results in a paper entitled “Can You Engage in Political Activity Without Internet Access? The Social Effects of Internet Deprivation”, which was published in Political Studies Review.
Shandler and his team conducted an experiment whereby two groups of participants had to conduct a series of tasks, namely:
– Task 1 – Expression: Express their opinion about a social or political issue, in order to reach a wide audience;
– Task 2 – Association: Ascertain the topic and content of a viral campaign
– Task 3 – Information access: Identify the names of individuals that started a particular initiative in parliament.
Both groups had to complete all tasks. However, while one of the groups (the control group) could use all the tools at their disposal to complete the tasks, the other (the treatment group) could not use the internet.
The authors found that lack of access to the internet substantially affected the treatment group’s ability to complete the tasks:
“Specifically, in the Internet access (control) condition, 61% of participants were able to successfully engage in expression, compared to only 29% in the no Internet access (treatment) condition. Similarly, 93% of participants were able to successfully exercise civic association in the Internet access condition, compared to only 47% in the no Internet access condition. And on the task reflecting access to information, 71% of participants were able to successfully complete the task in the Internet access condition, compared to only 44% in the no Internet access condition” (page 624).
After taking in consideration the effect of age, gender, level of education, political identification, family income, and average daily Internet usage, the authors concluded that access to the internet provided a 3 to 25 times increase in the likelihood of successfully completing basic civic tasks, particularly in terms of expressions and association. The effect was not significant for information – though, it should be noted that this experiment took place on a university campus where, presumably, students could easily access newspapers, official records and other information sources available in physical format. The effect might be larger for people that do not have easy access to a wealth of physical information.
The authors note that the advantage for the control group arises not only because it might be easier or faster to complete the tasks online, but also because the emergence of the Internet has led to the replacement of other mechanisms. For instance:
“Newspapers that have stopped printing physical editions cannot simply restart the printing press in the midst of an Internet shutdown. Government in dozens of countries have adopted e-government practices and have closed down in-person facilities for a host of services, vastly limiting the ability to access information in the absence of Internet” (page 627).
This short video summarises the results of the study:
While the paper is specifically about the impact of Internet access on civic participation, the findings are relevant more broadly. For instance, it impacts a student’s ability to attend classes, complete coursework or seat exams. It impacts customers’ ability to shop and access customer support. Or it impacts citizens’ ability collect travelling information, and book and pay for a ticket.
The funny thing is that I read this paper after a day when my phone had run out of battery because I was away from my desk all day, and I had used it to solve a variety of issues in my professional and personal life, conveniently, quickly, and discretely. So, I was feeling particularly aware, already, of the benefits of easy access to the internet. Nonetheless, it was sobering to see the benefit quantified, in this way.
What could you not do without the internet, these days?