VoxEU Column Politics and economics

Liberation technology: Mobile phones and political mobilisation in Africa

Digital technologies have been widely used for political activism in recent years, including during the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the Indignados movement in Spain. This column reports research showing that the growing use of mobile phones in Africa leads to more political protests during recessions and periods of national crisis. The mobilising potential of digital technologies is more pronounced in autocratic countries and those where the raditional media are under state control, suggesting that this technology may play a key role in fostering political freedom.

An often-heard argument is that digital technologies have become instrumental in mass political mobilisation and even democratic change, especially in autocratic regimes. This view is often reported in the media (for an early example, see The Economist 2006) and squares well with observations that two-way and multi-way mobile phone communication, Twitter and other social media were greatly used during the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US, and the Indignados movement in Spain – to name just a few – so much that a new term of ‘mobile activism’ has been coined.

The ‘liberation technology’ argument, which is forcefully supported by some political sociologists and media scholars (e.g. Castells 2011 and Diamond 2012), posits that mobile phones and the internet allow citizens to spread and access information. They are able to do so thanks to their low cost, and their decentralised and open-access nature. They can thus help promote citizens' coordination, especially under authoritarian regimes and when reasons for grievance abound.

Despite the popularity of this argument, credible empirical evidence of the effect of information and communication technologies (ICT) and in particular mobile phones on political mobilisation is scant. The channels of impact are not well understood. With the exception of a few recent studies that focus on the role of the internet and social media in protest participation (Acemoglu et al. 2014 for Egypt; Enikolopov et al. 2015 for Russia), a large body of research has focused on the effect of traditional media and the internet on civic forms of participation such as voting (Gentzkow 2006, Falck et al 2014).

In a new paper, we study the role played by mobile phones on political mobilisation across the whole of Africa and investigate the underlying mechanisms of impact (Manacorda and Tesei 2016). Africa is one of the continents with the fastest rate of adoption in mobile phone technology, and also theatre of some of the most spectacular episodes of mobilisation in recent years. Importantly, mobile phone technology adoption in many countries in the continent happened against the backdrop of a practically non-existent fixed line infrastructure. Because of this, it is claimed to have had unprecedented consequences on the life of their citizens (Aker and Mbiti 2010).

For the purpose of our research, we use novel geo-referenced data on mobile phone coverage for the entire continent over 15 years (1998-2012) at a level of geographical precision of between 1 and 20 km2 on the ground. While in 1998 only 9% of the population was in reach of a signal, by 2012 this number had increased to 63%. (Figure 1). 

Figure 1

We match this information with geo-located data derived from newswires on the occurrence of protests (from GDELT and ACLED) and with survey micro data on protest participation (from Afrobarometer). Figure 2 provides an example of the level of detail of the protest data in GDELT showing the exact location of episodes of protest during the Cairo uprising of 2011.

Figure 2

We exploit the very detailed level of geographical details warranted by our data to investigate trends in protest activity across areas within the same country that experienced different rates of mobile phone adoption. Negative economic conditions act as a trigger for protest participation (Figure 3), possibly because these reduce the opportunity cost of taking part in a protest or because reasons for grievance increase during recessions. So, as protests are strongly anti-cyclical, we focus in particular on the differential responsiveness of areas with different coverage to a country's aggregate macro economic shocks.

Figure 3

Consistently across sources we find that mobile phones act in amplifying the impact of economic downturns on the incidence of protests. A 4% fall in GDP growth is associated with 16% greater protest activity in areas fully covered, compared to areas without phone coverage. Figure 4 presents separate estimates, and the associated confidence intervals, for the effect of coverage on protests at five intervals of the GDP growth distribution. It shows that it is precisely and only during recessions that the protest differential between high- and low-coverage areas arises.

Figure 4

One challenge in the empirical exercise is that, even within countries, mobile phones might not be randomly allocated across areas, as areas that witness earlier or greater penetration might be the ones with different underlying trends in protest activity. We circumvent this problem by exploiting the circumstance that areas with greater lightning strikes activity (that we take from NASA) tend to experience slower adoption in mobile phone technology. This is due to mobile phone services being in both lower supply (as power surge protection is costly and poor connectivity makes the investment in technology less profitable) and lower demand (as the risk of intermittent communications discourages adoption).

In practice we instrument mobile phone technology with average lightning intensity in one area interacted with a linear trend. The results from the IV strategy deliver estimates of impact that are, if anything, larger than the ones estimated by OLS.

Our results also show that this effect is more pronounced under autocratic regimes and when traditional media such as television are under state control. This suggests that mobile phone technology may play a key role in fostering political freedom.

In the final part of the paper, we use insights from economic theory to shed some light on the mechanisms through which digital ICT acts in fostering citizens' responsiveness to economic downturns. We argue that two mechanisms are at play. First, mobile phones provide access to unadulterated information on reasons for grievance, hence leading to a greater increase in protests in areas with greater coverage. This is only a first round effect, though.

When strategic complementarities in the provision of protests exist (i.e. when the returns to political activism increase or the costs of participation decrease the number of others participating increases), mobile phone technology can also foster mass mobilisation through its ability to promote coordination. Knowledge, albeit imperfect, of others’ likelihood of participating can, in particular, foster individuals’ willingness to participate, and lead to the emergence of protests in equilibrium, an outcome that would not result in a world where individuals act unconnectedly. Empirically we show that both effects are at play.


Our analysis suggests that ICT indeed help promoting mass mobilisation, especially when reasons for grievance arise and citizens blame the government for the poor state of the economy. But while citizens become empowered through such technologies, governments also become aware of their potential to subvert the status quo.

The looming question is whether technology will ultimately increase government accountability or whether it will result in greater repression. The advent of 3G and 4G technologies, which further facilitate coordination among citizens but also expand the potential for government control, suggests that the technological battle for hearts and minds will further intensify in the future.


Acemoglu, D, T A Hassan, and A Tahoun (2014), “The Power of the Street: Evidence from Egypt’s Arab Spring”, NBER Working Paper 20665

Aker, J C, and I M Mbiti (2010), “Mobile Phones and Economic Development in Africa”, Journal of Economic Perspectives 24(3): 207-32

Castells, M (2011), The Rise of the Network Society: The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture, Vol. 1, John Wiley & Sons

Diamond, L (2010), “Liberation Technology”, Journal of Democracy 21(3): 69-83

Enikolopov, R, A Makarin, and M Petrova (2015), “Social Media and Protest Participation: Evidence from Russia”, mimeo.

Falck, O, R Gold, and S Heblich (2014), “E-lections: Voting Behavior and the Internet”, American Economic Review 104(7): 2238–65

Gentzkow, M (2006), “Television and Voter Turnout”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 121(3): 931-72

Manacorda M, and A Tesei (2016), “Liberation Technology: Mobile Phones and Political Mobilization in Africa”, CEPR Discussion Paper no. 11278. 

The Economist (2006) “Mobiles, protests and pundits”.

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