That is the finding of new research published in the latest American Political Science Review (APSR). It reveals that cell phone coverage and organized violence are increasingly moving in step in Africa, as ownership of the devices booms and disgruntled populations and their leaders use them to organize protests that often escalate into violence. The APSR is published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association (APSA).
In one of the first studies into the effect of cell phone ownership on collective action, researchers Jan Pierskalla and Florian Hollenbach found that most previous studies into cell phone usage on the continent have looked at the beneficial aspects for trade, entrepreneurship and mobile banking. Pierskalla and Hollenbach say the more sinister possibilities of emerging technologies have been overlooked.
In their article, Technology and Collective Action: The Effect of Cell Phone Coverage on Political Violence in Africa the pair recount how they studied areas of the continent where conflict was in progress, or simmering, and then looked at the availability of cell phone coverage in those areas.
Their information on cell phone networks was drawn from the GSM Association (GSMA), an interest group of cell phone providers and their data on conflicts was provided by the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway. The results show a startling correlation. Pierskalla comments:
“Using these data, we could map violent events across Africa for a number of years. Areas with a clear overlap in cell coverage and conflict events were found in Algeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. Compared to areas where there is still no cell phone coverage, areas with cell phones are much more likely to experience violent events.
“Africa today is the largest growing cell phone market in the world, with yearly growth rates of around 20% and an estimated 732 million subscribers. Many areas that are now covered by cell phone networks were never connected to land lines so this is a real revolution in communication and that is being exploited by rebels, insurgents and anyone who wants to instigate, or take part in, violent activities.”
Pierskalla and Hollenbach argue that rebel leaders could use the cell phone network to recruit, motivate and discipline their followers and to quickly and efficiently organise protest events. New devices are allowing insurgents to close the gap with those charged with keeping the peace, who were formerly better resourced in terms of technology. Cell phones can also be used to spread the word about government corruption or violence, thus stoking the fires of violent opposition.
And this trend is not only found in areas of autocratic government. Cell phones were crucial in organizing protest in Madrid, Spain in 2004 and riots in London in the summer of 2011, as well as protests over G20 summits. Cell phones allow real-time mass coordination of activity – a completely new phenomenon in the history of collective action.
But it remains Africa where the link is most apparent and most worrying, Hollenbach warns:
“We expect that local cell phone coverage can increase the likelihood of outbreaks of political violence. Cell phone technology has proliferated at such a rapid pace across the continent that it has reached regions with characteristics that make them more prone to violent events such as aggrieved populations, poverty, difficult terrain. Most other world regions lack such a potent mix of reasons for conflict and access to cell phone technology.”
However, Pierskalla and Hollenbach remain optimistic that cell phones in Africa do more good than harm and by promoting trade and helping people to improve their lives should reduce violence born out of poverty and anger. They are confident that the current pattern linking cell phones and violence represents a ‘short-term technological shock’, while the positive effects of better communication networks may, in the long run, reduce the incentive to fight.
According to a statement, “the American Political Science Review is political science’s premier scholarly research journal, publishing peer-reviewed articles and review essays across the discipline. Areas covered include political theory, American politics, public policy, public administration, comparative politics, and international relations. APSR has published continuously since 1906.”