Calling for Conflict: How Cell Phones Are Perpetuating Violence in Africa

Share Article

A new study published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Review draws connections between cell phone coverage and organized violence in Africa.

We expect that local cell phone coverage can increase the likelihood of outbreaks of political violence.

Anyone concerned about the possible eruption of violence in any troubled region of Africa should pay attention to how many people in the area have access to cell phone communication.

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.

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.

ENDS

Notes to Editors
For further information or to arrange interviews please contact Michael Marvin, Senior Marketing Associate, Journals, Cambridge University Press, Americas on (001) 646.460.3467 or at mmarvin(at)cambridge(dot)org.

About the American Political Science Association

APSA promotes scholarly research and communication, domestically and internationally, encourages the application of rigorous ethical and intellectual standards in the profession and serves the public by disseminating research and supporting people to be effective citizens and political participants.

For more information, visit: http://www.apsanet.org/

About the American Political Science Review

The APSR is political science’s premier scholarly research journal, providing peer-reviewed articles and review essays form subfields throughout the discipline. Areas covered include political theory, American politics, public policy, public administration, comparative politics, and international relations. The APSR has published continuously since 1906.

For more information, visit: http://journals.cambridge.org/PSR

About the Authors

Jan H. Pierskalla is a post-doctoral researcher at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg, Germany. In January 2014, he will take up the post of Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University. He is broadly interested in the Political Economy of Development, Political Geography, Political Violence and Applied Statistics.

Florian M. Hollenbach is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Duke University, with a focus in Political Economy and Methods. His current interests are the political economy of taxation, redistribution as well as state capacity and revenue extraction in developing countries. Additional interests include the political and economic determinants of different education systems and economic development.

About Cambridge Journals

Cambridge University Press publishes over 300 peer-reviewed academic journals across a wide spread of subject areas, in print and online. Many of these journals are the leading academic publications in their fields and together they form one of the most valuable and comprehensive bodies of research available today.

For more information, visit: http://journals.cambridge.org

About Cambridge University Press

Cambridge University Press is the publishing business of the University of Cambridge. Dedicated to excellence, its purpose is to further the University's objective of advancing knowledge, education, learning, and research.

Its extensive peer-reviewed publishing lists comprise 45,000 titles covering academic research, professional development, over 300 research journals, school-level education, English language teaching and bible publishing.

Playing a leading role in today’s international market place, Cambridge University Press has more than 50 offices around the globe, and distributes its products to nearly every country in the world.

For more information, visit: http://www.cambridge.org

Share article on social media or email:

View article via:

Pdf Print

Contact Author

Michael W. Marvin
Follow us on
Visit website