Published on Digital Development

Looking at the future: Will mobile social media fuel improved governance in developing countries?

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A free and independent media plays an important role in monitoring public servants and holding them accountable for their actions.  In this way they promote transparency and accountability within a country.  The role of media in good governance is widely acknowledged.  The Worldwide Governance Indicators  (2009 update by Kaufmann, Kraay and Mastruzzi) is one of the largest compilations of cross-country data on governance.  The WGI measures six measures of governance.  These include Voice and Accountability, Political Stability and Absence of Violence, Government Effectiveness, Regulatory Quality, Rule of Law, and Control of Corruption.  The first group, Voice and Accountability includes freedom of expression, freedom of association, and a free media.  However in repressive, autocratic regimes, media freedom is severely restricted, thereby reducing the media’s watchdog role.  In other countries that do not have repressive governments, the media can also be restricted due to limited financial resources or other factors. 

In such environments, social media can help facilitate openness and transparency in spite of the restrictions imposed by the state.  Like the Lernaean Hydra from Greek mythology which grew back two heads for every head that was cut off, the Internet is very difficult to control.   You can always shut down the office of a newspaper, and put the editor in jail.  But it is very hard to shut down one website without another emerging, or stop people from using social networks to spread news.   For example proxy anonymizers allow users to block personal information from being disclosed.  Every computer has an IP that can tell a server or a monitor where you are located. Based on that location they may stop you from doing certain things. An anonymizer hides (masks) the IP and gives the server or a monitor a different IP.  There are several services that freely allow you to do so.  Although proxy anonymizers can be used for mundane purposes such as watching Netflix from outside the US, there are credible services such as the socially committed site Tor that offers the same service.  Tor was used extensively in Iran, and is meant for use by journalists to communicate more safely with whistleblowers and dissidents as well as NGOs to allow their workers to connect to their home website while they're in a foreign country.

Singapore’s "minister mentor," Lee Kuan Yew, who masterminded the celebrated "Singapore Model," converting a small country without any natural resources and a mixture of ethnicities into "Singapore, Inc.”, related an interesting story in this month’s National Geographic,  "We banned Playboy in the sixties, and it is still banned, that's true, but now, with the Internet, you get much more than you ever could from Playboy." The interviewer observed that allowing pornography sites while banning magazines seems contradictory. But attempting to censor the Internet, as has been tried in China, would be pointless, Lee says.   Singapore, while being one of the most highly controlled societies, is also the most pragmatic about the powers of the Internet, perhaps more than a China, because the lifeblood of Singapore is technology, perhaps much more so than any other Asian country. 

Examples of grassroots usage of social media to foster transparency include recent events in Iran and Bangladesh.  When Mir Hossein Mousavi alleged that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had stolen the election, the situation in Iran flared up within minutes.  News of street protests, the Iranian administration’s clampdown, demonstrations and rallies were captured on Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and other social media, thus driving grassroots-driven transparency through social media.  In Bangladesh, in 2009, someone posted a thirty to forty minute clip from a meeting between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and army officials on YouTube.  It showed the confrontation between angry army officials and the PM on her decision to negotiate with the Border Forces mutineers rather than take military action.  When the video got widespread attention, the government blocked Youtube altogether hoping that it would soon blow over.  However due to popular outcry the block was soon withdrawn.  In these and other examples, social media played a role in improved governance.

Social media use in the developing world

Social Media Tools

Country Usage


a)       Quite popular in Brazil- #3 country with 6.73% of all tweets coming from there.  

b)       Indonesia, India, Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia and Iran all have a core population of Twitter users (Source: Sysomos, 2010)


a)       As of March 2010 Facebook is popular in Indonesia, Turkey, Philippines, Mexico, Columbia, Argentina, Chile, India, Taiwan, Venezuela, Malaysia, Brazil, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Egypt  (Source: Facebook/Blog),

b)       These countries showed a high rate of growth over the past 12 months (e.g. Taiwan showed a 1272% growth). 



a)       According to a study by Acision, the top countries with the highest SMS traffic over the holiday season in 2009 were mostly in Asia

b)       They included were the Philippines, with 2.36 billion messages, closely followed by Indonesia (1.193 billion), Malaysia (1.075 billion) and Pakistan (763 million).

c)       Growth has been huge as well, in terms of year-on-year growth, Pakistan traffic volume grew by 253 percent compared to 2008 during the same period,  Philippines (65 percent), Indonesia (27 percent) and Malaysia (13 percent). (Source: PC World). 

(*Typically SMS software is not considered social media, but with group texting and other tools that allow texts to be grouped and shared by a high number of users, there is a good case for including mobile SMS software as part of the social media universe)



Although social media is not yet ubiquitous, with the push in mobile technology it may soon be, especially in developing countries.  The number of mobile subscriptions in the world is expected to pass five billion this year, according to the International Telecommunication Union. That would mean more human beings today have access to a cell phone than have access to a clean toilet, says the United Nations.  This increase is being fuelled by mobile technology growth in developing countries like Kenya, India, Brazil, South Korea, and even Afghanistan – where cell phone towers leapfrog past the expense of building wired networks (see relevant NYT article.  Although mobile penetration in the developed world continues to trump penetration in the developing world, there are still high rates of mobile growth in the developing countries.  This mobile growth is triggering social network growth in these countries.  The growth is obvious from the table above – and this is even without including popular regional networking sites like  (UK) or (more popular in Latin America).  It will not be easy to predict which social networking tool will thrive in the mobile world of developing countries, as use of social media tools varies greatly among the different countries (see table above).  All the same, it is likely that mobile social media will experience significant  growth in the same countries where governance is weak, and the media not as independent, hopefully with the result of improving governance in the countries where it is needed the most.

WGI Voice indicators worst in the developing world



High growth in mobile technology in the developing world, although not more than the developed countries



Tanya Gupta

Senior Resource Management Officer

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