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The Political Relevance of the Internet in Developing Countries

- May 10, 2011

More often than not, the number one skepticism I hear from academics regarding Internet use in developing countries is their incredulity regarding individuals’ desire to consume political information online.  This is commonly followed by their conjecture that it seems much more likely that these individuals are using the Internet for porn, video games, or watching silly cat videos on Youtube.  Although there is undoubtedly a fair degree of Internet use toward these ends, the belief that individuals in developing countries would not have any desire at all to use the Internet to seek out political information dumbfounds me.


Just as most of the developed world assumed that Africans had no desire for telephonic communication (including the telecommunications industry, which was happily surprised when the number of phone subscriptions increased by more than 1300% since the advent of mobile phones a decade ago), the idea that individuals in nations with historically constrained access to political information would not take advantage of Internet technology to seek out such information is similarly short-sighted.  I do not think this disbelief originates from a desire to patronize—after all, we know firsthand that many Americans do prefer to use the Internet primarily as a venue for porn, video games, and/or watching silly cat videos.

Instead, I attribute this disbelief to a lack of perspective.  In developed nations, we have long been inundated with information, particularly political information.  So, I can see why we might take for granted the unprecedented opportunity that the Internet provides to access such information.  However, imagine yourself in a nation where the ability to access this sort of information has long been severely constrained, and one could perhaps imagine how this new technology may be embraced as an invaluable tool for seeking out and sharing such information.

Perhaps, I am also fortunate to have been in countries, through my research, where I witnessed firsthand the sincere desire for political information among average citizens.  I conducted a field experiment in Tanzania in the months leading up to their 2010 general election to discern the effect of Internet access on media consumption and political attitudes.  During the field experiment, participants were randomly assigned to receive 30 75 hours of free time at a local internet cafe or to a control group.

After the experiment was concluded, 95% of the participants reported that they created an email address, 64% reported that they created a Facebook account, and 64% reported reading blogs while online.  Meanwhile, 61% of participants reported that they “mostly” used the media to look for information and news, 32% reported that they “mostly” used the Internet for social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, etc.), and 13% stated that they “mostly” used the Internet for entertainment (e.g. watch videos on Youtube, listen to music, etc.).   Finally, more than one-third of the participants stated that they followed election information specifically either regularly or sometimes on the Internet.  I also received this email from a participant:

bq. May i pleae take this oppotunity to thank you for the free hours of Internet you gave us.  For a long time I never thought of anything called Internet leave alone touching a computer.

bq. It was my thouht that the Internet and computers were meant for very rich people all over the world and those living in very rich developed countries likeyou Catie!

bq. I now regret very much because of the Information that i have missed, the knowledge that i have missed through information via the Internet

Lastly, consider the amount of political information that piggy-backs on ostensibly non-political uses of the Internet. Take the picture above, for example, which I took at an Internet café in Tanzania.  I watched this woman click through more than 90 pages of this website of Western women’s apparel—page after page after page, for over an hour.  I don’t think it is too difficult to imagine that this woman was exposed to more information than simply how women in Western democracies dressed differently.

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