BLACKSBURG, Va. — For all the negative studies surrounding Facebook — it may make people feel more socially isolated, more stressed, and more anti-social — it turns out it might be actually quite healthy when it comes to government and politics.
A new study finds that the social network brings tremendous value in reducing government corruption, especially in countries where the press may not have the ability to investigate or even criticize state leaders. The study is the first of its kind that linked social media to corruption levels in more than 150 countries.
Researchers looked at data beginning in 2012 when social media was key in the organization of anti-corruption protests in India, where two of the co-authors were originally from. A year before, online efforts — especially on Facebook and Twitter — helped fuel what became known as the “Arab Spring,” the civil uprising that spread across the Middle East, leading to toppled regimes in Egypt, Libya, Syria, among several others.
“Our initial results were encouraging in that we found a significant, negative correlation between Facebook penetration and corruption across a small sample of countries,” says co-author Sudipta Sarangi, an economics professor at Virginia Tech and head of the department, in a university news release.
Sarangi and his co-authors used a “falsification test” that proved similar results could not be achieved in the same countries examined before Facebook existed, or in countries where social media was run by the government.
The value of Facebook in the launching of anti-corruption movements comes from individuals being able to dictate what they write and share among friends, and their ability to converse or build an even greater discussion, the researchers explain. Such a result couldn’t be established from the press, and governments aren’t able to control the actions of thousands of people railing against them online, especially with content being shared so rapidly — as opposed to perhaps being able to do so with the media.
The researchers found that because Facebook is such an important part of communication between one’s family and friends, movements are more likely to grow as people feel emboldened to support their loved ones and share their posts.
“This study underscores the importance of freedom on the internet that is under threat in many countries of the world,” says Sarangi. “By showing that social media can negatively impact corruption, we provide yet another reason in favor of the freedom on the net.”
Could the same effect happen against some of the world’s largest powers? Sarangi says we are already seeing it play out in major countries.
“Indeed, the role of social media and the internet in providing unbiased and independent news in several countries such as China, Russia, and Malaysia has widely been recognized by scholars,” says Sarangi.
In looking at their data, Sarangi and his co-authors determined Denmark was the least corrupt country and Somalia the most.
The study was published this month in the journal Information Economics and Policy.