A clever bit of econometrics seems to confirm something that Mark Latham argued in his tome Civilizing Global Capital. That the tele undermines social capital. It seemed a plausible argument, but what was the evidence other than the historical concurrence of the rise of tele and the reduction of various measures of social capital.
In “Bowling Alone,” Putnam (1995) famously argued that the rise of television may be responsible for social capital’s decline. I investigate this hypothesis in the context of Indonesian villages. To identify the impact of exposure to television (and radio), I exploit plausibly exogenous differences in over-the-air signal strength associated with the topography of East and Central Java. Using this approach, I find that better signal reception, which is associated with more time spent watching television and listening to radio, is associated with substantially lower levels of participation in social activities and with lower self-reported measures of trust. I find particularly strong effects on participation in local government activities, as well as on participation in informal savings groups. However, despite the impact on social capital, improved reception does not appear to affect village governance, at least as measured by discussions in village-level meetings and by corruption in a village-level road project.