Can You Hear Me Now? How Communication Technology Affects Protest and Repression


Commentators covering recent social movements, such as the Arab Spring, commonly claim that cell phones enable protests. Yet, existing empirical work does not conclusively support this contention: some studies find that these technologies actually reduce collective action; many others struggle to overcome the selection problems that dog observational research. We propose two mechanisms through which cell phones affect protests: first, by enabling communication among would-be protesters, cell phones lower coordination costs; and second, these technologies broadcast information about whether a protest is repressed. Knowing that a larger audience now witnesses and may be angered by repression, governments refrain from squashing demonstrations, further lowering the cost of protesting. We evaluate these mechanisms using high-resolution global data on the expansion of cell phone coverage and incidence of protest from 2007-2014. Our difference-in-differences estimates indicate that cell phone coverage increases the probability of protest by over half the mean. Consistent with our second mechanism, we also find that gaining coverage has a larger effect when it connects a locality to a large proportion of other citizens.

Accepted, Quarterly Journal of Political Science