Hurdling Political Barriers, Cellphones in Hand: Political Participation and Information and Communications Technology in South Africa

Clark Gibson

How can citizens of emerging democracies overcome barriers to political participation?  Scholars and policymakers often promote Internet communications technology (ICT) as a blanket solution through which citizens can surmount obstacles to participation such as hostile governments, a lack of information, and limited individual resources. But what kinds of ICT are effective? And for what kinds of participation? For this study we built an ICT platform composed of six different channels to explore citizens’ political participation during the 2014 South African elections. After sending 50 million “please call me” messages asking individuals to engage with our platform, we “pulled” information from users regarding their local political conditions and “pushed” aggregated data back to them. We also asked users to serve as citizen monitors on election day. At all stages we assigned different incentives to user tasks. Our findings demonstrate there is no such thing as “the participation effect of ICT,” and that careful thought must be given about how to design ICT platforms to engender meaningful political participation.

Co-PIs: Mike Callen, Harvard University, Daniel Jung, Emory University, and James Long, University of Washington

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Speakers / Related People
Clark Gibson ‘83

Gibson is professor of political science and director of the International Studies Program at University of California San Diego (UCSD). He studies the politics of development, democracy, and the environment in relation to Africa, Central and South America, and the United States...
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