Illusions of Democracy: LSE Study on Mobile Phones and “Statebuilding”

[Image credit: UNHCR_Displacement in South Sudan A Camp Within a Camp, K.McKinsey/ January 2014; Here camp residents are charged $50 to power-up their mobile phones]

Recent research at the London School of Economics in South Sudan’s state of Equatoria, has revealed a complex picture of the impact of mobile phone technology in democracy.

Whilst mobile phones and social media had less of a role in South Sudan independence than they did in the so-called Arab Spring, they apparently are having an unexpected effect on political participation in the country.

The following findings were made:

People living in areas with mobile phone coverage, while more likely to feel well-informed and more likely to hold political and administrative leaders to account, were less likely to vote with a sense of being able to influence political change and no more or less likely to be satisfied with political and administrative leaders.’

‘In fact, it seems that those with mobile phone access are less likely to vote—because those in areas with coverage were more frustrated with the experience of the last election. Those living without mobile phone coverage had retained a sense that elections might bring change.’

This may seem alarming (undoubtedly shatters the perceptions of many about the transformative nature of mobile phone technology), and yet unsurprising. Is it not common wisdom that democracy (at least for those in countries that posses it, or aspire to it) is the best but flawed form of governance? There is an illusive quality to democracies everywhere, which will vary according to interpretation. Consider for instance the disaffection of many Western civic bodies with contemporary politics as demonstrated by poor voter turn out? Does cynicism  and disappointment come with increased in involvement in democracy? In South Africa the case of the ANC is perhaps symptomatic of this paradox.

On surface value the LSE report does not seem to distinguish between satisfaction and support for democracy or political actors and processes, on the one hand, and criticality of participants on the other. European Democracy researcher Han-Dieter Klingermann, based on a longitudinal study, suggests that at least a third of democrats in Europe support the idea of democracy, but are dissatisfied with its functioning.

The specific features of South Sudan today (long civil war, “resource curse”, communal tensions, political divides, threat of sanctions) certainly have little to do with Western democracy, yet the globality of mobile technology and social media in politics may yield the same generalization: democracy is illusory, but it is the only oasis we have.


Further reading:

Off the Hook: Can Mobile Phones Help with Statebuilding? LSE Blog.

Schomerus and Rigterink, ‘‘And Then He Switched off the Phone’: Mobile Phones, Participation and Political Accountability in South Sudan’s Western Equatoria State,’ (2015).

Justice and Security Research Programme, South Sudan Survey Report, LSE (2013). 

Herman Wasserman, ‘Mobile phones, popular media and everyday African democracy: transmissions and transgressions,’ (2010).


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