DP11278 Liberation Technology: Mobile Phones and Political Mobilization in Africa
Can digital information and communication technology (ICT) foster mass political mobilization?
We use a novel geo-referenced dataset for the entire African continent between 1998 and
2012 on the coverage of mobile phone signal together with geo-referenced data from multiple
sources on the occurrence of protests and on individual participation in protests to bring this argument
to empirical scrutiny. We find that mobile phones are instrumental to mass mobilization
during economic downturns, when reasons for grievance emerge and the cost of participation
falls. Estimated effects are if anything larger once we use an instrumental variable approach
that relies on differential trends in coverage across areas with different incidence of lightning
strikes. The results are in line with insights from a network model with imperfect information
and strategic complementarities in protest provision. Mobile phones make individuals more
responsive to both changes in economic conditions - a mechanism that we ascribe to enhanced
information - and to their neighbors’ participation - a mechanism that we ascribe to enhanced
coordination. Empirically both effects are at play, highlighting the channels through which
digital ICT can alleviate the collective action problem.