The growing use of mobile phones in Africa leads to more political protests during recessions and periods of national crisis, according to research by Professor Marco Manacorda and Dr Andrea Tesei to be presented at the Royal Economic Society''s annual conference in Brighton in March 2016.

The study, published by the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) at the London School of Economics, is the first systematically to test the theory that mobile phones act as catalysts for political unrest. The researchers from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) find that when a country undergoes a serious recession – a four percentage point contraction – areas of the country with mobile phone coverage protest 16% more than areas without phone coverage.

The results also indicate that the mobilising potential of mobile phones is more pronounced in autocratic countries and in countries where traditional media are under state control, suggesting that this technology may play a key role in fostering political freedom.

The study uses geographical data on mobile phone coverage – at a level of detail of between 1 and 23 kilometres on the ground – combined with precisely geo-located data on the occurrence of protests. The study analyses the entire African continent over a period of 15 years, from the earliest adoption of mobile phones through to the rapid growth phase in 2012. Professor Manacorda says:

''Our results provide support for those who suggest that mobile phones lead to more protest activity – but the finding is qualified in one crucial area: the relationship is only significant during times of national grievance like a recession or a security crisis.''

''In many ways, this is a logical conclusion. Mobile phones do not cause protests, but – in the presence of a spark – then mobile phones amplify the effects of political protest.''

The sample of countries and years covers several of the major episodes of political unrest and mobilisation in recent world history including the Arab Spring and the food riots of 2007 and 2008. Co-author Dr Andrea Tesei comments:

''Based on the survey data from a large sample of African citizens, we find that mobile phones tend to play two specific roles in fostering political participation during economic downturns.''

''First, they seem to make individuals more informed about the true state of the economy – in contrast to government propaganda – and more eager to take to the street when the economy deteriorates.''

''Second, they appear to make people more responsive to changes in others'' participation, improving coordination among protesters through greater communication.''

''Liberation Technology: Mobile Phones and Political Mobilization in Africa'', is published on 21 March 2016, by the Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics

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