The recent spread of digital information and communication technology has fed a wave of optimism about its use as a ‘liberation technology’ for the oppressed and disenfranchised worldwide. According to this argument, mobile phones and the Internet have the potential to foster citizens’ political activism and even lead to mass political mobilization, especially when civic forms of political participation are de facto or lawfully prevented. This is because, the argument goes, they enable two-way, multi-way and mass communication, and they are low cost, decentralized and open-access.
Africa has experienced the fastest rise in the spread of mobile phone technology worldwide: while in 1999 an estimated 80 million African citizens had access to mobile phones, in 2008 this number was estimated at about 477 million, or 60 percent of the continent’s population. Consistent with the liberation technology hypothesis, over the last decade Africa has witnessed some of the most spectacular episodes of mass mobilization.
This paper brings the liberation technology argument to empirical scrutiny using several novel datasets for the whole of Africa on the spread of mobile phone technology and on protest activity. Data on local mobile phone coverage come from the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA), which collects this information for the purpose of creating roaming maps for use by customers and providers worldwide. These data provide information on the availability of signal for the whole of Africa (with the exception of Somalia) between 1998 and 2012 at a level of geographical precision of between 1 and approximately 20 km2.
The paper use two datasets on individual protest events, a large dataset which relies on automated textual analysis of news sources, and a much smaller, manually compiled dataset on unrest in Africa. This very detailed level of geographical disaggregation allows the authors to compare changes in the incidence of protests in areas within the same country that experienced differential changes in the coverage of mobile technology.
The authors test a model in which participation in protests can be ascribed to increased information and to enhanced coordination. Mobile phone use can contribute to both effects, but the study uses data from Afrobarometer to study the effects separately. The authors find that both effects are at work, implying that the mechanism through which mobile phones foster political mobilization during recessions is both through enhanced information for citizens and enhanced coordination in protest participation.
The paper finds strong evidence that mobile phones are instrumental to mass political mobilization, but this only happens during periods of economic downturns. It finds no effect of mobile phones on protest occurrence during good economic times, when protests are rare. This lends support to a qualified version of the ‘liberation technology’ argument: mobile phones are instrumental to mass political mobilization provided sufficient reasons for grievance exist.