Politics and the Media in Africa

An ISS seed grant provided funds for Professor Devra C. Moehler to conduct preliminary research in Ghana for the project: “Media Effects and Political Knowledge in Africa”. Since receiving the grant, Professor Moehler won a research grant from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), conducted research in Uganda, organized a symposium on media and politics in Africa with the Institute of African Development, and co-authored an article on citizen trust in media which is currently under review.

Overview of project:

Most of Africa is experiencing a dramatic growth of communication resources due to new technologies and the lifting of political and economic constraints. Professor Moehler’s research analyzes the conditions under which new media will enlighten, deceive, or be ignored by citizens in formerly information scarce settings. It also investigates how mass media can facilitate good governance and democratic development by reducing information asymmetries between officials and constituents and by mobilizing citizens to defend their interests.

The existing literature on the benefits and limitations of media in Africa focuses on the breadth and quality of the media supplied, yet we know very little about how Africans are responding to the new independent media and the political information it provides. Research on media effects and political knowledge is largely confined to advanced industrial democracies where media penetration is thorough and information is abundant. This literature shows a complicated relationship between information availability and political behavior. People often disregard most information at their disposal and instead rely on shortcuts, cues, heuristics, and the advice of others to make politically relevant decisions. In what ways are citizens in developing democracies responding to their changing information environments? How are the decision-making strategies of ordinary people different when the challenge is one of incorporating newly available sources into a limited menu of options, rather than one of selection from a vast supply? Will individuals be able to use newly available information to hold leaders accountable and achieve preferred policy outcomes?

Project activities:

The first component of this research evaluates the extent to which information dissemination through the mass media improves government accountability. Moehler is collaborating with Archie Luyimbazi, a lecturer in the Department of Mass Communication at Makerere University in Uganda. They are currently conducting a randomized controlled field experiment whereby private FM radio stations broadcast information about the past performance and current projects for a random selection of local governments (See study). Pre and post-treatment panel surveys will allow them to compare the knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors of otherwise similar citizens who do and do not have access to specific information about their local governments. They will also compare the subsequent performance of officials who were exposed to the media spotlight and those that were not. Following the work in Uganda, they plan to replicate the experiment in other countries.

The second component of this research agenda investigates the impact of media variety on mass publics. The incomplete media penetration in Africa provides for a natural experiment whereby communities with access to new media can be compared with similar communities without access. Moehler plans to employ focus groups, in-depth interviews, and surveys within paired communities to assess how citizens obtain and use information to make political choices in different media environments.

The third component uses Afrobarometer and Pew survey data, as well as data on media penetration and voting to assess the links between media attention, media access, political knowledge, and political behavior across many countries. Professor Moehler has co-authored a paper with Professor Naunihal Singh that examines why African respondents tend to trust private sources less than public sources, despite the fact that most state media houses distributed pro-government propaganda in the past and many remain under the control of powerful government officials today (See study).