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Mobile Phones and Violent Conflict - Is there a Connection?

Photo credit: Al Jazeera

Over the past several years, a significant body of research has examined how communication technologies are transforming social, political, and economic dynamics in societies around the world.  Much of this work has observed the positive effects of these technologies on improving civic engagement, increasing transparency, supporting free and fair elections, fostering economic development, and preventing violent conflict.  We at NDI have developed numerous programs using communication technologies to improve democracy and good governance across borders and issue areas.  

A new report, “Technology and Collective Action: The Effect of Cell Phone Coverage on Political Violence in Africa,” sheds light on the less beneficial aspects of communications technologies. 

The authors Jan H. Pierskalla and Florian M. Hollenbach chart new territory for this research in exploring the relationship between the expansion of cell phone coverage in Africa and higher levels of political violence. They write,

We contend that, in contrast to mass media, access to individual communication technology like cell phones can undermine the effects of government propaganda and, more importantly, play an integral part in overcoming other specific collective action and coordination problems inherent in insurgent violence.

According to the authors’ analysis, when cell phone coverage is present, the probability of conflict occurrence rises significantly.   As they argue, private communication technologies such as cell phones can play an integral role in overcoming collective action and coordination problems inherent in insurgent violence.  In Africa, the benefits of improved communication technologies are particularly substantial for insurgent groups.  The cheap availability of cell phones improves and increases communication among group members and allows for the tightening of networks.  These improvements are crucial for insurgents who are often spread out across vast geographical distances and who need an efficient means to coordinate actions and gather material support.  The authors hypothesize that enhanced communication facilitates in-group trust and information sharing, which are key to collective action. 

 Cell Phone Coverage and Conflict in Africa 

While their findings show a positive relationship between cell phone coverage and political violence in Africa, the authors note that the effects of cell phone use may vary significantly across different contexts.  For instance, in Iraq, a study done on the link between cell phone availability and insurgent activity shows the inverse relationship.  Equally importantly, the authors do not believe that the spread of cell phone technology has an overall negative effect on the African continent.  Rather, the increase of violence induced by improved communication may be a “short-term technological shock,” while the positive effects of these same technologies on economic growth and political behavior may mitigate the root causes of violence in the long run.  Given the increased availability of data on communication technologies as well as the occurrence of violence worldwide, this is clearly a space in which we can continue to explore how communication technologies can transform people's lives around the world.