Despite the vast amount of information available on the internet, broadband access is decreasing voter turnout
From newspapers to radio to television, each new arm of the media has changed the way people understand the world and altered their voting behaviour. Over the last 15 years, the availability of high-speed broadband connections has grown significantly, and the internet has come to dominate many people’s leisure time.
But despite the internet’s wealth of information, a gradual decline in voter turnout has accompanied the spread of broadband connections. Understanding how the internet is changing political engagement is the focus of recently published research conducted by myself, Alessandro Gavazza from the London School of Economics, and Mattia Nardotto from KU Leuven.
Examining how the internet affects political participation is difficult due to the lack of available data. Elections are not a frequent occurrence and identifying the effects of the adoption of broadband internet is a challenge, but there are some extraordinary data sets available in the UK.
In areas with greater broadband proliferation, councils are cutting funds to social services and reducing council tax rates
We based our research on data from Ofcom, the UK communications watchdog, which details the availability of broadband local internet connections in the UK from 2005 to 2010. This was a particularly important time as broadband adoption more than doubled over the period, and Ofcom’s data details connection information down to individual buildings. We compared this to the results of local government elections in the UK over the same period. Given the frequency of local elections, we were able to assemble a data set with more than 10,000 observations, allowing us to conduct a meaningful statistical exercise.
The results are quite intriguing.
No room for local news
Once all outside trends are controlled for (such as overall political engagement and the closeness of a political contest), as broadband internet availability has spread voter turnout has decreased. The results showed a 10 per cent increase in internet penetration ultimately reduced voter turnout by 3.5 percent. To find such a meaningful impact at the relatively low-profile level of local elections is something we did not expect.
Those who are not politically engaged are ultimately being ignored by political parties
As broadband availability spreads, the internet is displacing older forms of media as a source of information and entertainment. National and local newspapers, both of which are highly informative at a local level, experienced a significant decrease in circulation during the period we examined. Advertising resources also shifted online to the detriment of traditional media.
The internet is, in principle, also informative at a local level, but it has a far greater amount of other, less informative content more readily available. People who use the internet as their source of information and leisure are drawn to this content, and become less politically engaged as they lose touch with what is happening locally.
Notably, we found the impact of broadband internet was not the same across all demographics and was driven by age, wealth and level of education. People who are older, more educated and wealthier did not display any change in terms of political engagement; they were still voting as much as before the internet arrived. It is people who are young, poor and uneducated who are more affected by the internet and driving the decreasing rate of voter turnout, ultimately changing the demographic of the median voter.
A 10 per cent increase in internet penetration ultimately reduced voter turnout by 3.5 percent
Tax on the young, poor and uneducated
As a second step of our analysis, we also looked at how this is affecting the policies in local elections. While this is more challenging due to data availability (since policies are enacted at the level of local authorities and thus we had far fewer observations), we observed that, in areas with greater broadband proliferation, councils are cutting funds to social services and reducing council tax rates.
Cuts to social services hurt poorer people, and cuts to council tax rates benefit homeowners, who are typically older and wealthier. In a sense, the internet has become a penalty on part of the population; those who are not politically engaged are ultimately being ignored by political parties. They forget about the politicians, and the politicians forget about them.
Our research only looks at the results of local elections but compares to figures regarding national elections as well, with turnout among young people generally lower than other demographics. The British Election Study’s face-to-face survey found that, in both the 2015 and 2017 UK general elections, turnout among the youngest people eligible to vote was between 40 per cent and 50 per cent, while those aged over 60 posted a turnout of 80 per cent. Had young people voted in the same numbers as older demographics, the results of these elections could have been very different.
The internet has changed the way we live in many ways. Reflecting its commercial nature, it has reduced search costs, created new markets, and found all sorts of clever uses. The situation is less rosy when it comes to politics: people get information, but as they read fewer newspapers and listen to the radio less, they are no longer acting on issues that directly affect them. Despite internet access being touted as a great equaliser, this is not translating to an increase in political engagement.
This article draws on findings from “Internet and Politics: Evidence from U.K. Local Elections and Local Government Policies”, published in The Review of Economic Studies, and authored by Alessandro Gavazza (London School of Economics), Mattia Nardotto (KU Leuven) and Tommaso Valletti (Imperial College Business School).