Faster internet access has significantly weakened civic participation in Britain, according to a study which found that involvement in political parties, trade unions and volunteering decreased as web speeds increased.

Volunteering in social services dropped by more than 10% when people lived closer to local telecommunications clearinghouses and thus enjoyed faster web access. Involvement in political parties dropped 19% with every 1.8 km increase in proximity to a hub. In contrast, the arrival of fast internet has not had a significant impact on interactions with family and friends.

Analysis of the behavior of hundreds of thousands of people by academics from Cardiff University and Sapienza University in Rome found that faster connection speeds may have reduced the likelihood of civic engagement among nearly 450,000 people, more than double the estimated number of Conservative Party members. They found that as internet speeds increased between 2005 and 2018, time spent online “overwhelmed” other forms of civic engagement.

The study’s authors also speculated that the phenomenon may have helped fuel populism, as people’s involvement in initiatives for the “common good”, which they claim are in effect “schools of democracy” where people learn the benefits of cooperation, has diminished.

Other studies have shown that social media engagement has enhanced other types of civic engagement, such as helping to organize protests and fueling an interest in politics, even if it doesn’t manifest. in traditional forms of participation.

However, politics conducted online has proven to be more susceptible to ‘filter bubbles’, which limit participants’ exposure to opposing viewpoints and thus promote polarization.

“We observed that civic participation and the form of engagement in the activities of voluntary organizations and political participation decreased with proximity to the network,” said Fabio Sabatini, co-author of the study. “The fast internet seems to be crowding out this kind of social engagement.”

Face-to-face volunteering in the UK has been in decline for long periods in recent history. It fell from 2005 to 2011 and again in 2020 when Covid-19 hit, according to a separate analysis by the National Council of Voluntary Organizations.

The new study, published in the Journal of Public Economics, gathered information from communications regulator Ofcom on the location of local internet cable exchanges, which during the period studied were a key determinant of data speeds. He then cross-checked this with residents’ responses to the UK Household Panel Survey and the UK Household Longitudinal Study regarding their engagement with social organisations.

The combined effect on engagement with organizations such as political parties, unions and professional associations was a 6% reduction in participation from 2010 to 2017 for every 1.8 km closer to the exchange place where a person lived.

The largest impact was on the involvement of political parties, while the impact on trade unions was much smaller – a reduction of 3.6%. This is consistent with estimates of declining membership of the main UK parties over the period studied, except for a spike caused by an increase in Labor membership before the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the left in 2015.

The decline in the attractiveness of political parties when internet speed increases relative to unions may be due to the fact that “political parties only indirectly protect the vested interests of their supporters [while] unions have a stronger and more explicit commitment to defending… their members,” the study suggests.

The effect on volunteering with organizations that provide social care and environmental improvements as well as Boy Scouts, which have been defined by sociologists as instilling “habits of cooperation, solidarity and good citizenship”, was measured at a reduction of 7.8%.

“These types of organizations have been defined as ‘schools of democracy’ where people learn the benefits of cooperation,” Sabatini said, adding that involvement in such organizations also helps people to trust outsiders. .

“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 might be less able to interpret political phenomena and understand the complexity of management of public affairs,” Sabatini said. noted.

“While linking social capital [family and friends] seems resilient to technological change, bridging social capital [politics, volunteering, unions] proves to be fragile and vulnerable to the pressure of technology,” the study concludes.

“This result is worrying because it suggests that advances in information and communication technology can undermine an essential factor in economic activity and the functioning of democratic institutions.”