Can Online Civic Education Promote Democratic Values in New Democracies?
A recent academic study and a USAID Civic Education Primer demonstrate ways forward for civic education in the digital environment
Democratic political culture matters. Democracies thrive when citizens believe in democracy as the best form of government, when they believe in democratic values such as political trust and tolerance, and when they feel empowered to engage with the political system. But how can a democratic political culture be instilled among citizens? One way is through civic education, which consists of programs or curricula that are designed to promote political knowledge, engagement, and support for democratic norms and values among ordinary citizens. Civic education is a mainstay of the curriculum in primary and secondary schools in democracies around the world, and over the past several decades there has also been a proliferation of USAID and other donor-sponsored civic education programs in developing democracies targeted toward adults.
The vast majority of adult civic education programs have been conducted either through face-to-face workshops or via radio or other traditional mass media. Little is known about whether educational interventions delivered online with subjects recruited from social media platforms such as Facebook can be effective in promoting democratic values and behaviors. But that is changing. A study just published in the American Journal of Political Science shows that civic education interventions can work to increase support for democracy among ordinary citizens, and that doing so in the social media context can reach many more people with potentially much greater overall impact, than was previously the case.
Results from an online randomized trial of approximately 2,000 young adults in Tunisia, a new democracy with a relatively recent authoritarian past, indicated that exposure to online civic education had clear positive effects on citizens’ attitudes about democracy. Individuals were recruited to the study through advertisements placed on Facebook and Instagram, and were then exposed to three short videos emphasizing different aspects of democratic political systems. The results showed significant impact of the videos on respondents’ democratic values, political efficacy, and intentions to register and engage in campaign-related political participation.
“Given the trends away from democracy that we are seeing in so many countries around the world, it is imperative that we find ways to forestall this backsliding into autocracy,” said co-author Steven Finkel, Daniel Wallace Professor of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh. “Our findings indicate that civic education interventions provided through social media platforms can be an effective, and a far-reaching tool, for strengthening people's commitments to democracy and their rejection of authoritarian rule."
This study is among the many highlighted in a recent publication from USAID, Civic Education in the Digital Age, which outlines more general strategies for how missions can move more of its civic education programming into the online space. The document, produced by USAID’s Center for Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance, is designed to be a Primer for missions to learn about the impacts of civic education programming in schools and in communities, and how to best design programs to maximize their overall effects. The Primer stresses both the opportunities and risks involved in civic education in the digital environment. Online civic education programs can provide participants with a variety of opportunities to engage with perspectives they may not have access to in offline environments, but online civic education efforts have their own potential challenges from costs, access, privacy, and online security of individuals to the careful shaping of virtual environments that support learning.
The changing landscape of civic engagement, along with the current global challenges facing both new and established democracies, led to a series of recommendations in the Primer for USAID civic education programming in the digital age:
- Use active and participatory pedagogical methods in all civic education programming.
- Devote the necessary resources for teacher and facilitator training.
- Expand online and online-offline hybrid civic education programming.
- Expand civic education curricula to counter current global challenges to democratic governance.
- Be mindful of, and attempt to mitigate, the potentially negative effects of both online and offline civic education.
- Integrate opportunities for online and offline activism.
- Utilize impact evaluations from previous interventions to make evidence-based programming decisions.
Following these recommendations will allow the enormous potential of online civic education to best be utilized by USAID missions to foster positive attitudinal and behavioral change, and to avert the democratic backsliding that is all-too-common in new and established democracies around the globe.