Understanding Rural-Urban Political Divides within Digital Platforms

Global democracies are experiencing a paradox of connectivity. Societies are increasingly interconnected through the elimination of digital divides that separated large geographies from one another. Rural areas, especially, are being newly connected to urban cores via information and communication technologies (ICTs). However, these same rural-urban geographies are increasingly divided from one another economically and politically, resulting in increasingly partisan ideological battles. ICTs are contributing to these divides through processes of cyber balkanization, political trolling, and growing forms of post-truth politics. Despite material connectivity, rural denizens are expressing feelings of economic disempowerment, political disenfranchisement, and inability to have their voices heard. This raises the question of how the quality and types of relationships that we are forging through digital connectivity can be improved for rural communities. This project examines that question in the context of a rural, indigenous community in Dibut, Philippines. Community members recently supported the development of network connectivity in their community, the first in the area. However, they have also expressed fears that connectivity may open them up to manipulative political propaganda, resulting in loss of rights, economic exploitation, and cultural assimilation. Drawing on this case study, the project asks: 1. What political and economic discourses define ICT use by rural, indigenous communities? 2. How do applied solutions to digital divides position rural communities in relation to multi-scalar political, economic, and epistemological systems? 3. How does the rise and dissemination of post-truth politics within social media complicate these dynamics? The project uses a combination of digital content analysis, qualitative interviews, participatory action research, and technology co-development methods to answer these questions. In doing so it will produce new models for understanding how rural communities negotiate digital connectivity, and produce tools and strategies that offer these communities more control over the political impacts of that connectivity.
Intellectual Merit Rural connectivity is a strategically important area for geography research in general, and for digital geographies research in particular. Digital empowerment research has largely focused on urban case studies, with less understanding of how well these models translate to rural communities. This project fills that gap by producing comprehensive frameworks of digital politics grounded in rural communities. The project furthers digital divides and colonialism research by applying postcolonial and politico-economic theory to research on rural digital divides. Our case study’s focus on an indigenous community that is first gaining connectivity will powerfully highlight the cultural and epistemological factors implicated in digital politics, development, and colonialism. Finally, research on digital knowledge politics will be furthered through our analysis of the impact that post-truth politics, including social media trolling and disinformation, are having on rural communities. This is an emerging phenomena that is likely to have a profound impact on the political future of the US, making it a critical area for geographic research.
Broader Impact This research offers key theoretical, methodological, and applied lessons for understanding how researchers, government agencies, and local communities can collaborate to better empower rural denizens, in the US and elsewhere, through digital platforms. It also examines the implications of social media disinformation for marginalized populations, offering key lessons for government agencies and tech companies as they look for ways to ameliorate partisan divisions, expand public deliberation, and strengthen democratic institutions. Many of these lessons will scale out internationally, with implications for researchers and federal agencies that perform ICT4Development work in global communities.

Grant Info


Jason Young


Kurtis Heimerl

Start Date

Aug 8, 2018