Technology and Collective Action: The Effect of Cell Phone Coverage and Political Violence in Africa

Bakary Seckan, Journalist's Resource, June 12, 2013

Much research and media attention has been devoted to exploring rapidly emerging African countries in recent years. In addition to extraordinarily high GDP growth rates, many African countries have seen their middle classes grow substantially and demand goods and services that were formerly available only to individuals in more developed countries. Cell phone use in Africa has increased significantly in recent years; its nearly 649 million mobile users in 2011 made it the second-largest market for mobile phones in the world after Asia.

Furthermore, the continent has the fastest-growing cell phone market in the world, maintaining an annual growth rate of almost 20% since 2007. This has substantially contributed to economic development within the continent as a result of various innovations and improvements, from mobile banking to faster communications between merchants and customers, as the World Bank notes. {snip}

{snip} Although much research has been done on the rise of technology in the developing world and its positive dimensions for politics, very little research has been done regarding possible negative externalities of increased communications capacity, such as improving the organizational abilities of violent groups to incite more conflict.

A 2013 paper from Duke University and the German Institute of Global and Area Studies published in the American Political Science Review, “Technology and Collective Action: The Effect of Cell Phone Coverage and Political Violence in Africa,” examines the impact that cell phones have had on violent conflict on the continent. The authors, Jan H. Pierskalla and Florian M. Hollenbach, utilize conflict data from the UCDP Georeferenced Event Data Set, which includes data on organized violence from 1989 to 2010, and data on cell phone coverage from the GSM Association, a global association of mobile phone service providers. The authors use various statistical techniques to account for economic, social and geographical factors related to conflict and to determine whether there is indeed an association between cell phone coverage and violent conflict in the context of Africa.

Key findings include:

  • Even when confounding variables such as income, inequality, ethnic fractionalization, geography are accounted for, increases in cell phone coverage are associated with higher levels of violence throughout Africa.
  • When evaluated on an individual country level, the impact of cell phone coverage on conflict is also significant within each country.
  • Greater cell phone coverage leads to more conflict in “areas with structural conditions that favor violence” than those where the conditions do not favor violence; it “enables groups to overcome their collective action and coordination problems more easily, which translates to more organized conflict events.”
  • The authors conclude that “cell phones lead to a boost in the capacity of rebels to communicate and monitor in-group behavior, thus increasing in-group cooperation. Furthermore, cell phones allow for coordination of insurgent activity across geographically distant locations.”

“We do not believe,” the researchers caution, “that the spread of cell phone technology has an overall negative effect on the African continent. The increase in violence induced by better communication might represent a short-term technological shock, while the positive effects of better communication networks on growth and political behavior may mitigate root causes of conflict in the long run.” {snip}

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