Political inequality leads to digital inequality

A study by Professor Nils Weidmann, a political scientist at the University of Konstanz, questions the fundamental view of the internet as a “liberation technology”.

During the Arab Spring, the internet was frequently seen as a “liberation technology”. According to this view, it fosters political transparency, political rights and democracy. An interdisciplinary study led by Professor Nils Weidmann, a political scientist at the University of Konstanz, questions this assumption. With the help of a new estimation approach developed together with computer scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ), the study shows that politically excluded ethnic groups have far less access to the internet than included groups in the same country. Therefore, those societal groups who would benefit the most from modern ICT actually have lower levels of access. The study was published in the journal “Science” on 9 September 2016.

“Political inequality has an impact on digital inequality as it leads to digital discrimination”, says Nils Weidmann. The study investigated over 500 ethnic groups worldwide. To determine whether such an ethnic group plays a role in political power or not, the existing Ethnic Power Relations (EPR) dataset was used.

The key innovation in the study is a method for measuring internet density in the settlement regions of the individual ethnic groups. Together with computer scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ), Internet traffic observations of a major Swiss internet provider were analysed. From these data, it was possible to approximate internet penetration in the settlement regions of the different groups.

The study also reveals that if ethnic groups are excluded from power, their level of Internet connectivity suffers both in autocracies and democracies. However, in democracies there are comparatively few of these excluded groups, so that the digital discrimination found in the study is mainly a problem in non-democratic countries.

Digital discrimination can have implications for social movements. The success of these movements is fundamentally determined by the extent to which they are able to mobilize supporters. This is far more difficult if there is only limited access to the internet. “Our results question the assumption that the internet works in many cases as a liberation technology. “If the internet and social media are distributed very unevenly and follow existing political divisions, those groups which actually need the internet have only limited access”, explains Nils Weidmann.

The study suggests that the role of the respective governments must not be underestimated when thinking about whether and under what circumstances the internet can be a catalyst for political change. Only when digital inequality is alleviated, can the internet enable political and economic development. Lastly, the study warns against believing that the uneven diffusion of the internet across the globe can be remedied with economic incentives alone. Here too it is necessary to take into account whether the respective national political players are shaping this process or not.

Original Publication
Nils B. Weidmann, Suso Benitez-Baleato; Philipp Hunziker, Eduard Glatz, Xenofontas Dimitropoulos: Digital Discrimination Political Bias in Internet Service Provision across Ethnic Groups (http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaf5062

The study received financial support from the Sofja Kovalevskaja Award of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which Nils Weidmann received in 2012. The approximately 500 ethnic groups examined originate from 118 different countries. The project began in the autumn of 2012 and will run until the autumn of 2017.