Mobile Connectivity in Africa: Increasing the Likelihood of Violence?

Regarding the above picture of DRC government troops with their mobile phones, Alexis Madrigal from the Atlatinc wrote in his column last year:

I don’t know what to say about this photograph aside from suggesting that an enterprising PhD student write a dissertation on “Cell Phones in War.” How are fighting, killing, and controlling territory different when you can call your brother after battle, post a photo of your squadron on the march to Facebook, or play Angry Birds between skirmishes?

Part of the answer to Alexis’ question comes in a newly published article in the American Political Science Review by postdoctoral fellow Jan Pierskalla and PhD candidate Florian Hollenbach (ht the Monkey Cage).

In a nutshell, the authors’ findings suggest that cell phone coverage in Africa increases the likelihood of political violence. The abstract is below:

The spread of cell phone technology across Africa has transforming effects on the economic and political sphere of the continent. In this paper, we investigate the impact of cell phone technology on violent collective action. We contend that the availability of cell phones as a communication technology allows political groups to overcome collective action problems more easily and improve in-group cooperation, and coordination. Utilizing novel, spatially disaggregated data on cell phone coverage and the location of organized violent events in Africa, we are able to show that the availability of cell phone coverage significantly and substantially increases the probability of violent conflict. Our findings hold across numerous different model specifications and robustness checks, including cross-sectional models, instrumental variable techniques, and panel data methods.

It will be interesting to see how this paper resonates with different audiences, such as the ICT4D community and political scientists. Some have already started to question the methodology and underlying assumptions in the paper.

But despite the findings of this study, like it or not, at some point technology cheerleaders will have to come to terms with a simple fact: if technology helps us overcome problems of collective action, there’s no reason to believe that this can only happen when it comes to virtuous collective action. And it shouldn’t take a PhD to know that.

Read the full paper here [PDF].