The role of the Internet in pathways to democratization: A Critical Survey of the Literature

by Kitaw Yayehyirad KITAW (Yayeh KITAW)
PhD Fellow in Governance and Policy Analysis

Introduction: The debate around the Internet and Democratization

Since the late nineties, scholars, policymakers, media professionals have strived to untangle the puzzle of the relationship between the use of the Internet and democratization. Relying on statistical as well as qualitative methods, these scholarly endeavours investigating how the use of the Internet and democratization interrelate have failed to yield consistent and conclusive results. Indeed, new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) present both opportunities and threats for democracy (Horrocks and Pratchett, 1995). In particular, the Internet, following its global growth over the last two decades, has been increasingly expected to become a liberating technology as well as a threat for autocratic regimes (Hellmeier, 2016; Howard and Parks, 2012; Diamond 2010; Groshek 2009).

Since the globalization of the Internet, researchers have been puzzled about its effects on political institutions and their operation as well as on democratic values and processes (Best & Wade, 2009; Howard, 2010; Groshek, 2011; Meier, 2012). This bewilderment has led to a burgeoning literature on the probable effects of emerging ICTs on democratic processes (Weare, 2002) and an understanding that democracy and democratization can no longer be effectively studied without some attention paid to the role of digital information technologies as they are bound to be used for good or ill (Lidén, 2015; Meier, 2012).

Amidst the debate concerning the liberalizing or repressive effect of the Internet, present-day research shows that the Internet’s impact on the democratization of authoritarian regimes is at best limited (Rød and Weidmann, 2015). Among the reasons forwarded is that autocratic governments take control and actively censor online content (Greitens, 2013; Hellmeier, 2016), prosecute dissident online activists, use the Internet for the purpose of spreading propaganda (Kalathil and Boas, 2003; Morozov, 2011), and strengthen their authoritarianism by promoting Digital Government while censoring the Internet (World Bank Development Report, 2016)

Following Groshek (2010) who notes that “Technological developments, especially communicative ones, have long been romanticized as powerful instruments of democracy, Kalathil and Boas (2010:10) assert that the Internet has helped authoritarian regimes rather than harmed them. Kalathil and Boas (2010) further argue that the Internet’s net impact on authoritarian rule has often been obscured by the conventional wisdom that the Internet is inherently of a democratic nature and inexorably undermines authoritarian regimes.

Furthermore, when carefully examining the full range of Internet use under eight authoritarian regimes, Kalathil and Boas (2010) justify their choices of a regional approach to the selection of cases from Southeast Asia and the Middle East mentioning the lack of data and underdevelopment of the Internet for cases in Africa. They note, however, that a large concentration of authoritarian regimes is in Africa and Central Asia and that as more data becomes available, research examining such cases would emerge and fill the gap.

A Multi-Disciplinary Review of the Literature

The following strands of literature are surveyed for this research: democratization, authoritarian stability and consolidation, internet studies focusing on democratic governance (debate concerning the liberalizing or repressive effect of the Internet) and the rise of internet filtering.

An in-depth look at the strand of internet studies, a new meta-field of research, strongly characterized multidisciplinary perspectives (Comunello & Anzera, 2012), uncovers quantitative and qualitative studies dealing with complex relationship between digital technology and contemporary society. They often rely on conceptual frameworks and empirical methods originating from social/political science and integrating insights from technology-oriented disciplines, such as computer and network sciences. (Handbook of Internet Studies, Consalvo and ESS, 2011). In particular, the strand on Internet and democracy uncovers competing schools of thought, several methodological approaches, perspectives and theoretical frameworks that will be reviewed in this section.

Indeed, the rise of the Internet has led to a burgeoning literature on the probable effects of emerging ICTs on democratic processes and political institutions (Best & Wade, 2009; Weare, 2002). Academic interest has flourished alongside the public discussion on the role of Internet (and social media) in global politics which has gained attention in recent years (Greitens, 2013).

Moreover, recent research on democratization has moved beyond the focus on economic, cultural, or elite-based theories to examine new variables, including the relationship between exposure to information communication technology (ICT) and democratization (Vanderhill, 2015)

There are presently several theories concerning how the Internet affects democracy (and democratization), such as the dictator’s dilemma theory (Kedzie, 1997) and the political disengagement theory (Nisbett and Scheufele, 2002). Kedzie’s (1997) dictator’s dilemma is a democracy-enhancing theory of the Internet whereas the political disengagement theory (Nisbett and Scheufele, 2002) is a rather an anti-democratic one, hence representing examples that illustrate the two broad schools of thoughts in the literature.

On one hand, optimistic scholars see the Internet as an online public sphere, a source of alternative information, a medium supporting the organization of activists that promotes liberalization, if not democratization (Vanderhill, 2015; Greitens, 2013; Faris, 2008; Rahimi 2011; Zhang and Zheng 2009).

Going further in their positiveness, some enthusiastic technological determinists argue that the Internet and social media have played (and should play) a critical causal role in undermining authoritarian regimes through mobilization and revolutions (Weare, 2002; Bellin 2012; Howard 2010; Howard et al. 2011) . What is puzzling for proponents of the democratizing influence of the Internet are cases where a relatively unrestricted ICT environment coexists with an autocratic regime (Vanderhill, 2015) which corroborates findings of scholars nuancing or rejecting the democracy-enhancing theses.

On the other hand, a growing body of research has challenged this optimistic and romantic cyber-utopianism, cautioning that the correlation between connectivity and political freedom does not imply causality (Kedzie, 1997). Possible reverse causality has also been forwarded, suggesting that political change determines levels of the use of Internet rather than the other way around (Norris, 2012).

In essence, the social shaping advocates rather emphasize on existing social, political and institutional conditions arguing that the Internet’s impact on the democratization of authoritarian regimes is at best limited (Boas, 2006; Göbel, 2011; Greitens, 2013; Kalathil & Boas, 2003; Rød & Weidmann, 2015; Weare, 2002). The zero-sum duel between authoritarian regimes and prodemocracy protesters is subject to other factors beyond ‘just technology’ (Diamond, 2010).

Several scholars (e.g., Barney, 2000; Kalathil & Boas, 2003; Mazrui & Ostergard, 2002; Murdock & Golding, 2004; Strienstra, 2002; Webster, 2002) have argued that the Internet (like other ICTs) is not promoting democratic change in authoritarian political systems but is rather strengthening their rule as it is acting on behalf and an extension of the ruling elite (Weare, 2002). Weare further advances that the Internet is neither sufficient nor necessary to bring about changes to systems of governance while Bremmer states that the Internet is “value neutral” and not “inherently pro-democratic” (Bremmer, 2010).

Propositions about the Internet and authoritarian persistence provide hypotheses for why the Internet has a limited influence on democratization pointing namely to the greater capacity of regimes for repression and ability to control the Internet and the often low degree of “human skill and facility in using the networks” to influences outcomes (Vanderhill, 2015). Vanderhill stretches further linking the Internet’s confined effect on democratization to multiple theories about the persistence of authoritarianism focusing on coercive capacity, ruling party strength, and elite cohesion (Way, 2010; Hale, 2005, Vanderhill, 2015).

Amidst these debates regarding the liberalizing or repressive effect of the Internet between ‘cyber utopians’ and ‘cyber sceptics’, other scholarship have shifted towards identifying precise mechanism through which the growing use of ICTs affect a range of political outcomes (Aday et al. 2010, 2012), whether those outcomes are prodemocratic or not (Greitens, 2013).

How autocrats can use the Internet to strengthen their regime has not been studied systematically (Göbel, 2013). Likewise, if, how and under what conditions the use of Internet accounts among the factors for transitioning to democracy in autocratic states remain unanswered. Authoritarianism studies in the aftermath of the Arab Spring thus struggled to reconcile its elite and institution centred focus with the breadth of societal mobilization previously thought impossible.

In summary, scholarly studies, since the early nineties, examining the relationship between the use of the Internet and democracy (Best & Wade, 2009; Groshek, 2011; Meier, 2012; Stodden & Meier, 2009) have not yielded consistent results and remain inconclusive. [1] We can broadly categorize them chronologically into the three ages of Internet Studies similarly to eras identified by Wellman (2004, 2011).

The three ages in three decades

During the first age (1995–1998), cyber-pessimists or dystopians were arguing that the Internet would rather socially ‘disconnect’ people and have no effects offline while the cyber-optimists or utopians saw the Internet as a technological wonder that would ignite socio-political transformations and democratic mobilization in the world. Early commentators did not hypothesis a connection between the online and offline world (Comunello & Anzera, 2012) and nor did they use empirical research drawn from social and political science scholarship.

Much of the literature then was driven by the revolutionary developments of the Internet through their potential capacity to transcend the time and space delimiters of modernist organisation of society as they facilitate the emergence of new forms of human interaction through what was becoming known as cyberspace. John Perry Barlow’s ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ narrates a world in which revolutionary politics are assumed to be immanent in the machines that structure and enable networked communication. Ten years after its original publication, the Declaration is both widely reprinted and increasingly mocked: its language has become commonplace and its idealism has come to seem absurd (Morrison, 2009). Morrison further recalls that Barlow as well as academic commentators were subscribing to fundamental tenets, which were not empirically proven nor politically tenable and were instead promoting an ‘impossible future’ that is blind both to the history of its underlying technologies and to the politics on which it claims to base itself.

During the second age (1998–2012), empirical research led scholars to recognize that ‘neither the utopian hopes nor the dystopian fears’ reflect the evolving and more complex uses of the Internet witnessed in those years (Wellman, 2004; Comunello & Anzera, 2012).

By 2009, it was obvious to note that online interactivity resembles neither a digital gulag of governmental interference and surveillance, nor an inter worked activism against authoritarian regimes, bodiless utopia free from the constraining influence of history, politics of nation states.

Scholarly research examining the relationship between the Internet and democratization started employing large cross-national time series data sets that inquire for correlation between Internet penetration[2] and institutional indicators of democracy from Freedom House or Polity IV democracy rating projects (Best & Wade, 2009; Groshek, 2011; Howard, 2010; Nisbet, Stoycheff, & Pearce, 2012). Most of this research has found a positive relationship between Internet penetration and democracy, though with some nuances by region and regime type (Best & Wade, 2009). The speed of internet diffusion in many authoritarian countries has tremendously increased since the last year of these cross-country panel data (2003). Moreover, the advent of Social Media Platforms since 2008 remain uncounted for. The impact of these statistically significant increases suggests a renewed investigation. Underlying mechanisms remain unexplained and the fuzzy conclusions contradict the current narrative on the rise of authoritarianism in the digital age through a third wave as accounted by ratings on Variety of Democracy (V-Dem)[3]. None have considered the purpose of use of the Internet in their measurements (leisure vs civic actions), overlooked other intermediary variables and did not consider explicitly Social Media Platforms.

During the third age (2012-today), the literature has shifted from documentation to deeper analysis (Wellman, 2004, Comunello & Anzera, 2012) with more strengthened empirical research on the relationship between the use of the Internet and democracy, in general less and less considering the online and offline spheres as hermetically separate. Many of the quantitative studies focus predominately on the use of the Internet by individuals (prior to the advent of Social Media Platforms) and institutional structures of democratic governance, arguably coming to a consensus that, depending on the context, the Internet can be either a boon to democracy or a tool of oppression that stabilizes or consolidates authoritarianism. Whilst the precise effects of the Internet on democratization are still a matter of dispute, there is no solid evidence for no effect of the Internet on democratization and authoritarian stability.

More recently, the rise of Frontier Technologies such Artificial Intelligence (AI) using Big Data has opened avenues for new threats to democracy’s future through misinformation, echo chambers, targeted manipulation and propaganda as well as new means of surveillance and control. These developments present new challenges for policy makers and research areas for scholars when addressing the risks and new opportunities of such technologies for democratic institutions and processes. Authoritarian regimes are swiftly mastering the use of surveillance technology, artificial intelligence and mass data to nurture their resilience in order to gain domestic control and even to erode democratic societies abroad.

Overall, scholarship studying the relationship between the Internet and democratization remains inconclusive, at best showing the relationship to be contingent on regional, political, economic, or social contextual factors that remain unclear. The research community continues to explore it, with renewed interest in the wake of ‘the third wave authoritaranism’ world wide[4]. Indeed, with the exception of two puzzles (Malaysia and Ethiopia), the 2018 Freedom in the World annual report highlights a global retreat of democracy (and democratization) underlining that the current authoritarian resurgence actually began as early as 1994 which suggests this wave of ‘autocratization’ is far longer than previously imagined and might be correlated with the growing use of the Internet [5].

Reports abound about Social Media Platforms amplifying the spread of misinformation, echo chambers and propaganda, thereby possibly contributing to rising populism and the polarization of democratic societies. Signs of the first-age utopian and dystopian approaches towards digital technology are resurging in recent day scholarly studies found for example in the widespread dichotomous interpretations of the relationship between social media and the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ or even elections in consolidated democracies (Brexit, 2016 USA Elections).

Empirical studies with nuanced evidence based explanations on underlying mechanisms of such relationships are still missing, with many understudied regimes, unexplored relationships with intermediary variables related to citizens’ attitude and attention to restrictive measures on the Internet by authoritarian regimes.

Use of the Internet could possibly be only one of many drivers of democratization, and authoritarian states are able to mobilize such technologies to their own end. Interactions between the Internet and political outcomes in non-democratic contexts (democratization, authoritarian stability or consolidation) occur simultaneously on multiple levels. As individuals and groups attempt to employ the Internet for political advantage, public and civil society actors are making decisions that further or hinder these efforts, and the changes induced by the Internet on the media landscape may be altering the very directions in which the polity moves.

Consequently, the larger debate over the eventual effects of the Internet on democratization cannot be addressed by narrow studies focusing on a single causal relationship to changes in institutional structures but through the examination of the conditions and mechanisms under which the use of the Internet leads to a political outcome, prodemocratic or otherwise. Furthermore, it cannot ignore to empirically examine the effects of the Internet use on Intermediary variables leading to these outcomes.

Taking advantage of the growing volume of Internet related data (on Internet Filtering and big data generated by Social Media Platforms), exploring intermediary variables on citizens attitude towards democracy, with an informed interpretation based on how they are shaped in social and political contexts, this research will provide a better understanding from the findings of the quantitative analysis and exploratory case study outlining specific causal mechanisms.

Theoretical Perspective and Analysis Framework

Scholars who enter the Internet and democratization debate encounter a dense thicket of theories and propositions that attempt to decipher the complex relationships between technology and politics (Weare, 2002). Theories of mobilizing agency (Rosenstone & Hansen, 2003) has been applied to explain the relationship between the Internet and Democratization, emphasizing that the use of networks as important preconditions for reaching citizens with information and for inducing them to participate in civic events (Rosenstone & Hansen, 2003). Additionally, the Diffusion Theory, a theory originally applied to the study of how new technologies spread, was used to examine the role of social media in the diffusion of ideas during the Arab uprisings (Rane & Salem, 2012). But by-and-large, the dictator’s dilemma theory remains the most referred one in the literature, that I will critically examine to support my working theory and assess whether it is as naïve as its critics claim.

Kedzie’s theory of the “dictator’s dilemma’

In the early years of the Internet, the theory of the “dictator’s dilemma,” (Kedzie,1997) which posits that the very presence of the Internet is a boon to democracy (Best & Wade, 2009), is referred to by a number of empirical studies. According to Christopher Kedzie, the phrase was coined by the Larry Press in reference to former Secretary of State George Shultz’s comments in a 1985 Foreign Affairs article. In short, it refers to the balance between authoritarian governments’ use of information communication technology for economic development with their need to control the democratizing influences of this technology as Media and Communication tool across society and other roles.

Adapted from Communication Participants (Kedzie, 1997)
In the democratization literature, Dahl’s concept of “inclusive hegemonies”
exists in the bottom right-hand corner and “polyarchies” in
the top right-hand corner.

Kedzie approaches Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in terms of numbers of message originators and recipients and links his theory to the literature in political science on democratization. He argues that the ‘dictator’s dilemma’ displays important similarities with the schema proposed by Robert Dahl in his theory of ‘polyarchies’ on democratization (Dahl, 1998).

The literature on democratization offers broadly three main paths of transitioning to democracy 1) Modernization Theory which links democratization to modernity and wealth production, essentially codified within democratization studies by Seymour Martin Lipset (1959) drawing on a mix of Weberian notions of the ‘modern’ state describing the social transitions — from feudalism to capitalism, from traditional to modern; 2) Historical Sociology Theory (also termed structuralism), a macro history approach in which history is the instrument by which structures are discovered and shape institutions and organizations which leads to democratization; 3) The transition approach (at times termed as the agency approach) which sees democratization as created by conscious and committed actors willing to compromise.

The transition approach is where the creation of a ‘political democrats’ (polyarchy according to Dahl) may coexist with varying degree of democratization in the economic, social and culture spheres. This school of thought argues that both modernizationists and structuralists see the economy, history and development as overdetermining political outcomes (Grugel, 2002).

It is with this transition approach in the democratization literature that Kedzie’s sees similarity with the theory of the dictator’s dilemma. The formation of ‘polyarchies’ suggested by Dahl through public contestation which relies on the ability to originate messages and degree of inclusiveness (participation)[6] as shown in the diagram on Communication Participants adapted in the Social Media era. Potentially important `variables’ are related to communications infrastructure, which allows for rapid diffusion of ideas and information across and within borders, perhaps enhancing the prospects democratization (Diamond, 2008).

Also, Dahl previously observed that telecommunications technologies have a key role in making possible the advanced democratic country, where policy is firmly anchored in the judgment of the “demos”. In his list of the procedural minimal conditions that must be present for modern political democracy to exist, Dahl thus argues that citizens should have alternative sources of information (Dahl, 1998; Stodden and Meier, 2009), which the Internet provides.

Kedzie claims that this diagram on Communication Participants (Kedzie, 2009) shares important similarities with the schema proposed by Robert Dahl in the ‘polyarchies’ theory commonly cited in the literature of democratization. Dahl’s concept of “inclusive hegemonies” exists in the bottom right-hand corner and “polyarchies” in the top right-hand corner.

However, when critically examining this resemblance, because of the emphasis on elites by the agency-centered transition perspectives, this similarity implies that we can not ignore the role of activism, civil society and political struggles in democratization (Grugel, 2002) which is corroborated by empirical evidence. Grugel points out that the transition approach through its elite perspective separates democratization from its essential meaning as a transition towards rule by the people, consigning the mass of the people to a bystander role contrary to the abundant evidence of role of popular support for democracy and struggles in unleashing democratization in the first place. In authoritarian contexts where there is growing use of Social Media Platform and a high popular support for democracy, the formation of an elite based polyarchies (in Dahl’s agency based theory) can be an imposed outcome of an Internet supported popular struggle as evidenced recent cases like Malaysia and Ethiopia.

Some have dubbed such a theory as a false dilemma because it naively underestimates the restrictive capacity of authoritarian regimes on new technologies such as the Internet. They argue forwarding reasons is that autocratic governments take control and actively censor online content (Greitens, 2013; Hellmeier, 2016), prosecute dissident online activists, use the Internet for the purpose of spreading propaganda (Kalathil and Boas, 2003; Morozov, 2011), thereby their democratization effect is at best limited (Rød and Weidmann, 2015). Even Kedzie nuances his proposition on the dictator’s dilemma noting that technology remains a maddeningly neutral tool, as it has been since man discovered that fire could preserve life or destroy it (Kedzie, 1997).

Indeed, a number of case studies from around the world show that authoritarian regimes are finding ways to control and counter the political impact of Internet use (Kalathil and Boas, 2003; Morozov, 2011). While the long–term political impact of the Internet remains an open question among scholars, there are propositions that these strategies for control may continue to be viable in the short to medium term.

Moreover, governments around the world are tightening control over citizens’ data, suppress online dissent, eroding trust in the internet as well as the foundations of democracy, according to the 2018 Freedom House Report[7] and the 2019 V-Dem New Democracy Research[8]. Despite the current wave of digital authoritarianism, predictions on the length of the surge and the long-term effects of the Internet on democratization remain unassertive.

Other theories

The literature also reveals several theories linked to technology diffusion and democratization. These include theories of mobilizing agency (Rosenstone & Hansen, 2003) to participate to civic events, the diffusion theory to spread ideas (Rane & Salem, 2012), and Steel and Stein’s (2002) amplification theory.

Previous scholarship has demonstrated that media use in transitioning or democratizing societies encourages citizen demand for democracy by teaching citizens about democratic norms, values, and practices and by creating spaces for open political expression (Mattes & Bratton, 2007; Nisbet, 2008; Schmitt-Beck & Voltmer, 2007). For example, mobilization theory argues that media pluralism furthers citizen political knowledge, which in turn increases both cognitive and behavioural political actions (Newton, 1999). Scholars have also found that the Internet as a media furthers civic and political education (Norris, 2000; Scheufele, Hardy, Brossard, Waismel-Manor, & Nisbet, 2006). Norris (2009) found a robust relationship between both mass media and citizen demand for democracy across 42 countries using sample countries in Western Europe and North America.

In essence, present day society-wide cross class mobilization that characterizes uprisings in authoritarian contexts can not be properly understood without paying attention to the role of the Internet and Social Media Platforms.

In addition, some scholars have cited the Internet as key to the recent rise of democracy movements in the Middle East (Howard & Hussain, 2011). Survey evidence from Egypt, collected by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2007, supports this assertion, as Egyptian Internet users express a greater demand for democracy than nonusers (Nisbet et al., 2012)

Other scholars also embrace the Internet’s capacity to promote political change by serving as a pluralistic media platform (Bratton et al., 2005; Groshek, 2009; Lei, 2011). Bratton and colleagues (2005) argue that Internet use in transitioning or emerging democracies ‘‘expands the range of considerations that people bear in forming their political and economic attitudes,’’ which promotes democratic citizenship and greater demand for democratic processes and reform (Bratton et al., 2005, p. 209).

Dahl also address the ‘I’ in ICT by explaining how the availability of alternative sources of information also contributes to “enlightened understanding” of democratic principles and values. If citizens are able to obtain information from a source other than the government, they are able to effectively act and demand democratic reforms to influence the public agenda.

Employing fuzzy modeling, Howard identifies a robust online civil society as a significant factor in promoting democratic transitions among authoritarian regimes, while democratic entrenchment results from high levels of national information infrastructure.

Overall, the collective evidence backed theories so far confirm the positive role that the Internet plays in promoting democratic transitions or deepening democracy in democratizing regimes, contrary to the current narrative of the third wave of authoritarianism in the digital era and to critics dubbing it as a naïve, utopian conventional wisdom.

Popular support for democracy vs Institutional democratization

The analysis framework for this research is drawn from a review of the democratization and related literature with a view to analyse the impact of the Internet on actors and processes using the scholarly works of Dahl (1998), Grugel (2002), Tilly (2003) and Morlino (2011) which broadly share the view that democratization depends, in part, on public demand for democratic institutions (Nisbet et al, 2012).

For nondemocratic regimes to transition to democracy, and for young democracies to consolidate and stabilize, a large portion of citizens need to be committed to democracy as their preferred form of government (Bratton, Mattes, & Gyimah-Boadi, 2005; Mattes & Bratton, 2007) without which the formation of an elite based polyarchies, necessary to transition, is unlikely.

An elevated ‘degree of popular support to democratic governance’ (also referred as ‘democratic aspiration’ or ‘legitimation of democracy’ in authoritarian regimes’ context) is consistently mentioned as a pre requisite for authoritarian regimes prospects to transition to democracy, hence its use as a variable for this research.

In summary, the theory of the dictator’s dilemma, considered in a critical, nuanced and conditional approach, supports one of the working theory of this research considering that use of the Internet by individuals, by virtue of granting increased access to diverse information and views, may strengthen popular support for democracy. Furthermore, it solidifies popular struggles through protests as the determining element in the onset of democratization.

Authoritarian regimes will censor critics, produce propaganda and prosecute online dissent, but such restrictive measures will yield growing costs as use of the Internet by individual provokes pervasive attitudinal effects on citizens. The conditions under which such processes occurs needs evidence based exploratory study that the case study will undertake.

In contrast to most studies, which examine similar relationships (Best & Wade, 2009; Stodden & Meier, 2009; Howard, 2010; Groshek, 2011), this study’s theoretical framework has broken up the causal chain into various steps, enabling a thorough investigation into the internet’s role in different stages of the process. Rather than looking for a static effect of Internet Use under authoritarian regimes across time, the framework acknowledges that the Internet’s role is dependent on various conditions, paying explicit attention to the level and type of state repression, as well as the rise of Social Media Platforms.


Despite the vast quantity of potential variables involved, their contentious definition and measurement and the associated analytic hardships, the research community continues to explore how the Internet and democracy interrelate. (Best and Wade, 2009). Scholarly studies on the relationship between the Internet and democratization have yielded inconsistent results and been inconclusive with many understudied regimes and regions due to lack of data and the quantity of nuanced variables to examine. Scholarship in the area has arguably coming to a consensus that, depending on the context, the Internet can be either a boon to democratization or a tool of oppression that leads to authoritarian consolidation.

Among scholars studying democratization (Huntington, 1993; Dahl, 1998; Grugel, 2002; Tilly, 2003; Morlino, 2011), two analytically distinct determinants emerge. One involves political institutions and processes; the other relates to citizen attitudes towards democracy, often referred as popular support for democracy or legitimacy of democracy as a regime. To shed new light on the debate concerning the liberalizing or repressive effect of the Internet, a first point of entry of this study is to investigate the effects of the Internet on the degree of popular support for democracy as an intermediary variable before the onset of democratization. To what extent popular support of democracy is affected by the use of Internet has not been empirically studied all over the globe.

The advent of Social Media Platforms has been also overlooked when exploring the relationship between the use of the Internet and democratization. Furthermore, little attention has been paid to jointly examine the use of and restrictions on ICT (such as Internet Filtering) and trace causal pathways in which the use of the Internet leads towards democratic transition or authoritarian consolidation.


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[1] These quantitative cross-country inquiries used macro-level panel data before 2003, prior to the availability of Big Data from Social Media Platforms and did not consider the effects of restriction of the Internet (for which there are more fine-grained data nowadays than in 2003) which clearly calls for a more thorough re-investigation.

[2] Internet Penetration is usually defined as the percentage of the population who are Internet users

[3] The State of Global Democracy Today is Even Worse Than It Looks: V-Dem’s New Democracy Research (April, 2019)

[5][5] The Internet as a mainstream communication tool and its world wide spread started around 1994

[6] (Kedzie,1997) The theory is presented in Dahl (1971). See specifically page 7. The ordinate, liberalization (public contestation), relies on the ability to originate messages and the abscissa, inclusiveness (participation), corresponds with the notion of message receipt.

[7] Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism

[8] The State of Global Democracy Today is Even Worse Than It Looks: V-Dem’s New Democracy Research (April, 2019)

[9][9] Sustainable Development Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels



Born & raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, MBA in Management of Tech from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), PhD Fellow. More

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Kitaw Yayehyirad Kitaw

Born & raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, MBA in Management of Tech from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), PhD Fellow. More