In the last ten years, the world has experienced the dramatic rise of mobile broadband internet brought by third-generation (3G) and fourth-generation (4G) mobile networks. This has resulted in major political changes – reduced confidence in governments around the world, lower voting shares of incumbent political parties, and the rise of populists. The empirical evidence is consistent with both the optimistic view of 3G internet (the “Liberation Technology”) and the pessimistic one (the “Disinformation Technology”). 3G internet helps to expose actual corruption; however, it also contributes to electoral successes of populist opposition.
The Spectacular Rise of 3G
Communication technologies have undergone a dramatic change in the last 10-15 years. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), there were only 4 active mobile broadband subscriptions per hundred people in the world in 2007, while this number reached 75 per hundred in 2020. The growth of mobile broadband internet – provided by the third and fourth generation of mobile networks (3G and 4G, respectively) – was the main driver of growth in broadband access. The number of fixed broadband subscriptions per hundred people has only increased from 5 to 15 percent in the same period of time.
Relative to the previous generations of mobile technology, 3G provides a qualitatively different way of using the internet. First, it is broadband access on the go, available wherever the user is rather than at a fixed point at home or in the office. Second, it allows for downloading and uploading photos and videos. Before 3G, mobile technology only allowed exchanging text messages along with limited and slow access to the web. Third, it is the technology that is best suited for social media. While social networks started before 3G and were initially accessed on fixed broadband, today most Facebook, Twitter and YouTube users are mobile.
Liberation Technology or Disinformation Technology?
What are the political implications of the spread of this new technology around the world? Initially, political scientists were excited about the internet as a “Liberation Technology”, especially after it played an important role in the Arab Spring. Internet – and in particular mobile internet –helped pro-democracy activists in autocratic states to disseminate critical information about the government, expose corruption, and coordinate protests.
Later on, however, it became clear that social media also provided a platform for the dissemination of false news and hate speech – thus supporting the rise of populists. This led to a rethinking of the role of mobile internet – and rechristening it into a “Disinformation Technology.”
Which view, the optimistic or the pessimistic one, is correct? In Guriev et al. (2021), we study the impact of the expansion of 3G around the world on attitudes to government and electoral outcomes.
Exposing Actual Corruption
In order to explore the effects on confidence in government, we use data from Gallup World Poll surveys of 840,537 individuals from 2,232 subnational regions in 116 countries from 2008 to 2017. In each region and year we calculate the population-weighted average access to mobile broadband relying on the network coverage data from Collins Bartholomew’s Mobile Coverage Explorer.
First, we find that increased access to 3G internet causes lower confidence in government, judiciary, honesty of elections, and a lower belief that the government is not corrupt. As shown in Figure 1, the magnitudes are substantial. In our paper, we show that a decade-long 3G expansion has the same effect on government approval as a 2.2 percentage-point rise in the national unemployment rate.
Figure 1. Mobile Broadband Access and Government Approval.
This effect is only present when there is no online censorship and stronger when traditional media are not free. Furthermore, the spread of 3G makes people think that the government is corrupt when the actual corruption is high. In the cleanest countries of the world, the effect is actually positive – better access to information may help citizens to understand that other countries are much more corrupt relative to their own.
This positive impact is, however, limited to about 10% of the world’s countries. On average, the effect of 3G on the perception that government is clean is negative (see Figure 1). There are two potential explanations. First, as suggested by Gurriv (2018), before the arrival of the fast internet, the elites controlled the media and, as a result, the public was not fully aware of the elites’ corruption. 3G helped to expose this corruption and corrected the pre-3G positive bias. The second explanation is related to the negative bias of social media where critical messages spread faster and deeper (see the references in Guriev et al. 2021).
Another potential explanation is that social media promote overall negative and pessimistic attitudes. We show that this conjecture is not consistent with the evidence: the spread of 3G does not reduce life satisfaction or expected future life satisfaction.
Helping European Populists
The evidence above is consistent with the view that mobile broadband internet and social media help to expose misgovernance and corruption. These findings are in line with the optimistic view of mobile broadband internet as a “Liberation Technology.” However, it turns out that the pessimistic view of “Disinformation Technology” may also be correct.
We examine the impact of 3G expansion on the outcomes of 102 parliamentary elections in 33 European democracies between 2007 and 2018. Using subnational data, we show that the spread of 3G, not surprisingly, decreases the vote share of incumbents substantially (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. The impact of 3G expansion on incumbent vote share in Europe.
Figure 3. The impact of 3G expansion on opposition vote share in Europe.
If incumbents lose votes, who picks them up? We show that the main beneficiaries of 3G expansion are the populist opposition parties, both on the left and right (Figure 3). The non-populist opposition does not gain.
Why do populists benefit from the spread of mobile broadband and social media? One explanation is that social media is decentralized and has no entry barriers. It is not the first time in history that populist politicians have relied on new communication technology to circumvent mainstream media controlled by the elites (e.g. the US late 19thcentury populists used telegraph and railroads, the Nazis in Germany used radio). It may also be the case that populist messages may be simpler, and thus, better suited for a short and catchy communication on social media. For example, another pan-European family of anti-system parties, the Greens, do not benefit from the spread of the 3G internet at all (see Figure 3): their narrative is more complex, asking voters to take responsibility for the planet.
Fact-Checking Alternative Facts
Many populist politicians point to actual corruption of the incumbent elites, but some also spread false narratives or “alternative facts.” (It was Donald Trump’s Counselor Kellyanne who, in January 2017, when asked to comment on false statements by Trump’s Press-Secretary about his inauguration, famously said that these were not falsehoods but “alternative facts.”) What can be done to stop the dissemination of these falsehoods on social media? Can fact-checking by mainstream media and independent organizations help?
In two studies, Barrera et al. (2020) and Henry et al. (2021), we carry out two randomized online experiments to identify the causal effects of alternative facts spread by populist politicians and their fact-checking. The findings are as follows: (i) alternative facts are highly persuasive; (ii) fact-checking helps to correct factual beliefs – but do not change voting intentions; even though the voters understand that the populists misrepresent the facts, they still support their agenda; (iii) fact-checking, however, substantially reduces sharing of alternative facts on social media; (iv) the impact of fact-checking on sharing is equally strong regardless of whether the users are forced to view the fact-checking information or are simply given an option to click on a fact-checking link; (v) asking users to re-confirm their intention to share alternative facts with an additional click greatly reduces sharing.
Our results suggest that fact-checking may not be as effective as fact-checkers themselves hope, but can help slow down the dissemination of falsehoods on social media. Furthermore, our analysis delivers clear policy implications – both providing fact-checking (even in the form of accompanying alternative facts with fact-checking links) and requiring additional clicks before sharing can be very effective.
The findings from our analysis of the worldwide spread of mobile broadband internet in the last decade are consistent with both optimistic and pessimistic views. On the one hand, 3G internet does help expose actual corruption. On the other hand, it helps populist opposition to gain votes. Likely, the latter result is eventually due to the populists’ abuse of online platforms for spreading disinformation. We show that the propagation of falsehoods on social media can be at least partially slowed down by fact-checking.
- Guriev, Sergei & Nikita, Melnikov & Ekaterina, Zhuravskaya, 2021 “3G Internet and Confidence in Government.” Forthcoming, Quarterly Journal of Economics.
- Barrera, Oscar, Sergei Guriev, Emeric Henry & Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, 2020. “Facts, Alternative Facts, and Fact Checking in Times of Post-Truth Politics.” Journal of Public Economics, 182: 104123.
- Gurri, Martin, 2018. The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. 2nd edition. San Francisco, CA: Stripe Press.
- Henry, Emeric & Ekaterina Zhuravskaya & Sergei Guriev, 2021. “Checking and Sharing Alt-Facts.”
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
Thirty years after the fall of communism, many assume that the economic transition of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet States towards a system of market economy is complete. But the region faces new challenges, of both economic and political kind, which renders a thorough understanding the past even more important. This policy brief is based on the scientific contributions presented at the 7th SITE Academic Conference held at the Stockholm School of Economics from December 16th to December 17th, 2019. Organized by the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE), the conference brought together academics from all over Europe and the United States to share and discuss their research on economic and political development in Eastern Europe.
The Imperial and Soviet Periods
In the first section of the conference, papers with a focus on the long-term history of Eastern Europe and its implications for more recent events were presented. Marvin Suesse presented his research on how the Russian State Bank financed Tsarist Russia´s belated industrialization, a question that had been discussed by historians, but never thoroughly analyzed quantitatively. By geo-coding historical manufacturing censuses around the turn of the century and using distance between bank branches and factory location, the causal impact of the expansion of the State Bank is estimated, revealing large effects on firm revenues and productivity. These effects are largest in areas where alternative means of financing were least available and where human capital was more abundant.
Natalya Naumenko presented her findings on the economic consequences of the 1933 Soviet famine, which in terms of casualties was extremely devastating. She uses the meteorological conditions a year earlier as an instrumental variable and finds that the famine, which was mostly a rural phenomenon, had a persistent negative effect on the urban population while the rural population recovered relatively quickly.
Gerhard Toews discussed the long-term consequences on regional development of the displacement of an estimated 3 million “enemies of the people”, political prisoners typically belonging to the elite of the society, into the gulags in the early years of the Soviet Union. Using archival data, he has constructed a large database describing the gulag population in terms of the shares of “enemies” relative to other prisoners and taking into account their socio-economic characteristics i.e. the much higher levels of education of the former group. Exploiting variation within gulags, the results suggest that a historically higher density of “enemies” means higher economic prosperity today as measured by nightlight intensity.
Taking another angle, Christian Ochsner investigated the effects of the Red Army´s occupation on post-war Europe, using the demarcation line crossing the Austrian state of Styria as a natural experiment. His conclusion is that even the temporary occupation affected the region’s long-term development, the main channel being age-specific migration.
Finally, Andreas Stegman offered an analysis of the effects of the 1972 East German Extended Visitors Program. The program reduced travel restrictions for West German visitors traveling to certain districts of East Germany. Using a geographic regression discontinuity design comparing similar districts with and without the program, he shows that included districts indeed received much more visits from West Germany and that their citizens were more likely to protest against the Communist government and less likely to vote for the ruling party. This suggests that face-to-face interaction can influence beliefs and attitudes in non-democratic regimes, in turn influencing individual behavior and societal outcomes during transition.
Corruption, Conflict and Public Institutions
Another topic of the conference was the current role of corruption, conflict, electoral fraud and public sector effectiveness for the region. Scott Gehlbach presented his most recent research on the ownership patterns and strategies of Ukrainian oligarchs before and after the Orange revolution. By mapping oligarchs to changing political leadership, he shows how firm owners in Ukraine take actions to protect their property depending on their connections with the current government. He finds that obfuscation of ownership behind holding companies and complicated structures is a potentially valuable strategy in this environment in general but becomes particularly important when an oligarch loses direct connections to the ruling regime.
Likewise, Timothy Frye analyzed election subversion by employers in Russia, Argentina, Venezuela, Turkey and Nigeria. He finds that in Russia, public sector employers and especially state-owned firms are more likely to influence their employees’ decision to vote than private companies. Furthermore, work place mobilization by employers in Russia is clearly negatively associated with the freedom of the press. Election subversion is more likely to be successful when the degree of dependence of the employee is high and the employer’s potential threats are credible. Among Russian firm officials, the most frequently named motivations for them to practice election subversion are the desire to improve their relationship with the authority and the intention to help their party.
Michal Myck studied the impact of the transition experience on economic development around the Polish-German border. Polish communities close to the border were economically backward at the beginning of the transition but could potentially benefit from trade opportunities with an opening towards the West. Using similar methods to those of Stegman above, and nightlight intensity as a measure of economic activity as for instance Toews, Myck finds significant evidence for economic convergence both between Germany and Poland, and between Polish border regions and the rest of Poland.
Vasily Korovkin presented his research on the impact of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine on trade in non-conflict areas in Ukraine, hypothesizing that the conflict may cause a trade diversion away from Russia, particularly so in areas with many ethnic Ukrainians. Using variation in the share of the Russian speaking population at the county level as well as detailed firm level export and import data, he finds that the decrease in trade with Russia is negatively correlated with the share of the Russian speaking population. Potential mechanisms include a decline in trust at the firm level and changes in local attitudes including consumer boycotts.
Finally, Tetyana Tyshchuk analyzed the effects of a Ukrainian public sector reform on civil servants’ capacity and autonomy. The reform created public policy directorates parallel to the regular bureaucracy in 10 ministries. Members of the directorates were hired based on a different procedure and different merits relative to regular public servants and received significantly higher salaries. Tyshchuk finds that the better paid civil servants indeed score higher on many, though not all, indicators of capacity and autonomy.
Information, Populism and Authoritarianism Today
The final important theme of the conference was the role of information and media, old and new, in today’s politics. In the event´s first keynote speech, Ruben Enikolopov analyzed the political effects of the Internet and social media whose low entry barriers and reliance on user-generated content make them decisively different from traditional media channels. On the one hand, this represents a chance for opposition leaders and whistleblowers to make their voice heard and may improve government accountability. On the other, these media may also become a platform for extremists. Enikolopov presented some of his work analyzing to what extent social media has contributed to fighting corruption in Russia. Using the timings of blog posts by the famous Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on corporate governance violations in state-owned companies, he shows that revelations resulted in an immediate drop in the price of the traded shares of the respective companies. He also finds evidence suggesting that Navalny´s blog posts resulted in management changes in these companies. In related papers, he exploits the spread of VKontakte (VK), the Russian version of Facebook, to better understand the influence of social networks on political activism, voting and the occurrence of hate crime. He finds that the spread of VK is indeed causally related to political protests, though not because it nurtures opposition to the government, but rather because it facilitates protest co-ordination. With respect to hate crime, he finds that social media only has an effect in areas where it falls on fertile grounds and where there already are high levels of nationalism. The tentative conclusion is that in Russia – as in Western countries – social media seems to have increased political polarization.
On a similar topic but taking a more theoretical approach, Galina Zudenkova investigated the link between information and communication technologies (ICT), regime contestation and censorship. In a game theoretical framework, where citizens use ICT both to learn about the competency of the government and to coordinate protests, governments can use different tools to censor information to increase their chances of survival. Zudenkova finds that less competent regimes are more likely to censor coordination, whereas intermediate regimes are more likely to focus on censoring content. These theoretical predictions are then tested using country level data.
The targeted use of information has also played a key role in Putin’s Russia according to Daniel Treisman. In his keynote speech, he argued that while the 20th century dictatorships were mainly based on violence and ideology, the 21st century has been characterized by a sizeable shift towards what he calls “informational autocracy”. Constructing a dataset on the methods used by authoritarian regimes to maintain power between 1946 and 2015, he shows that the use of torture and violence peaked among those dictators who took power in the 1980s and has declined since. Furthermore, he highlights a remarkable shift from topics of violence towards topics of economic competency in dictators’ speeches. However, Treisman finds that by instrumentalizing information, dictators fool the public “but not the elite”. In democratic regimes, those with tertiary education tend to rate their political leaders higher than people without tertiary education. In the new informational authoritarian regime, the opposite seems to be the case. According to Treisman, this is because the “informed elite” has a better understanding of the political reality in places where the media is censored, Putin’s Russia being a good example. Treisman concluded that this new model of authoritarianism has become the prevalent model outside of Europe and today also has its advocates inside the European Union.
The conference ended with a final keynote speech by Sergei Guriev on the political economy of populism. Using existing definitions, he first confirmed that Europe has seen a rise in right-wing populism in the last 20 years. Secular trends, such as globalization and new communication technology, but also the recent global financial crisis, are driving factors behind the rise of populist parties. For instance, analyzing regional variation in voting patterns suggests that the Brexit vote was primarily driven by economic motives rather than by anti-immigrant sentiments. Ironically, though, most evidence suggests that populist governments have a below-average economic performance once in office, the US and Poland being notable exceptions. A key point of Guriev’s presentation was that populism seems to be a good method to obtain power, but, once in power, populists tend to be less successful in promoting citizen welfare. These findings seem to be of high importance given the increasing public support for populist parties around the world and in parts of Eastern Europe
The conference was very well received and on behalf of SITE, the authors would like to express their appreciation to all speakers and participants for sharing their knowledge and to Riksbankens Jubileumsfond for financial support. For those interested to learn more about the papers summarized very briefly above, please visit the conference website and the presenters’ websites as indicated in the text and here below.
Speakers at the Conference
Andreas Stegman, briq – Institute on Behavior and Inequality
Christian Ochsner, CERGE-EI and University of Zurich
Daniel Treisman, University of California, Los Angeles
Galina Zudenkova, TU Dortmund University
Gerhard Toews, New Economic School Moscow
Marvin Suesse, Trinity College
Michal Myck, CenEA
Natalya Naumenko, George Mason University
Ruben Enikolopov, New Economic School Moscow
Scott Gehlbach, University of Chicago
Sergei Guriev, Sciences Po Paris
Tetyana Tyshchuk, Kyiv School of Economics
Timothy Frye, Columbia University
Vasily Korovkin, CERGE-EI