Individualized text messages about public services fail to sway voters: Evidence from a field experiment on Ugandan elections
Ryan Jablonski, Mark Buntaine, Daniel L. Nielson, and Paula M. Pickering
Mobile communication technologies can provide citizens access to information that is tailored to their specific circumstances. Such technologies may there-fore increase citizens’ ability to vote in line with their interests and hold politicians accountable. In a large-scale randomized controlled trial in Uganda (n=16,083), we investigated whether citizens who receive private, timely and individualized text messages by mobile phone about public services in their community punished or rewarded incumbents in local elections in line with the information. The majority of respondents claimed to find the messages valuable and there is evidence that they briefly updated their beliefs based on the messages; however, the treatment did not cause increased votes for incumbents where public services were better than expected nor decreased votes where public services were worse than anticipated. The considerable knowledge gaps among citizens identified in this study indicate potential for communication technologies to effectively share civic information. Yet the findings imply that when the attribution of public service outcomes is difficult, even individualized information is unlikely to affect voting behavior.