Africa, Conflicts, Development, Global Tech, Globalization, Human Rights, Security, Military

Technology and collective action: Cell phones and violence in Africa

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Last updated: June 12, 2013

Cellphone cards in Uganda (Wikimedia)
Cellphone cards in Uganda (Wikimedia)

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.

Case in point: In 2011 the continent had 650 million mobile users, making it the second-largest market in the world after Asia. It also has the fastest-growing cell phone market in the world, maintaining an annual growth rate of almost 20% since 2007. This has both contributed to economic development and lead to innovations and improvements, from mobile banking to faster communications between merchants and customers, as the World Bank notes. In Kenya, the success of the mobile banking system M-pesa has opened the door for tech startups, prompting some to refer to the country as the “Silicon Savannah.” (It should be noted, however, that mobile phone technology in Africa frequently does not afford robust Internet access, with all its innovation potential.)

The widespread use of cell phones and social media in Africa has also had profound political repercussions. New technology has often credited, rightly or wrongly, with playing a key role in the Arab Spring, which sparked protest movements throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In Mozambique, cell phones have been shown to improve voter education and political participation, while in Namibia cell phone usage has allowed citizens to hold their government officials more accountable and reduce corruption.

While there has been significant research on the positive impacts of the rise of technology in the developing world, the potential downsides have received relatively little attention — for example, its ability to improve the ability of violent groups to organize and incite 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 an association between cell phone coverage and violent conflict in Africa.

Key findings include:

  • Even when confounding variables such as income, inequality, ethnic fractionalization and geography are accounted for, increases in cell phone coverage are associated with higher levels of violence throughout Africa.
  • When evaluated at the country level, the impact of cell phone coverage on conflict is also significant within each nation.
  • 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: “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 that the spread of cell phone technology has an overall negative effect on the African continent,” the researchers state. “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.” The authors suggest that more research must be done to determine how communication technology, such as cell phones, impacts various forms of collective action, whether violent or non-violent, in Africa. They also note that an earlier paper on the connection between cell phone capacity and violence, “Is the Phone Mightier than the Sword? Cell Phones and Insurgent Violence in Iraq,” observed the opposite effect: Mobile technology was associated with decreased insurgent violence in Iraq.

Related research: The World Bank’s 2012 report “eTransform Africa: The Transformational Use of Information and Communication Technologies in Africa” examines a wide variety of areas, including agriculture, health, education and governance. The report discusses the implications of Africa’s so-called “mobile decade.”

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Tags: technology, communication, mobile tech, telecommunications


Writer: | June 12, 2013

Citation: Pierskalla, Jan H.; Hollenbach, Florian M. “Technology and Collective Action: The Effect of Cell Phone Coverage on Political Violence in Africa.” American Political Science Review, May 2013, Volume 107, No. 2. doi:10.1017/S0003055413000075.

Analysis assignments

Read the issue-related Tech President article titled "Does Mobile Technology Exacerbate Wartime Violence?"

  1. What key insights from this news analysis article and the study in question should reporters be aware of as they cover issues relating to technology and development? What key questions remain unanswered?

Read the full study titled “Technology and Collective Action: The Effect of Cell Phone Coverage and Political Violence in Africa.”

  1. What are the study's key technical terms? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
  2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
  3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
  4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
  5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

  1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
  2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
  3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
  4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
  5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
  6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

Class discussion questions

  1. What is the study’s most important finding?
  2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
  3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
  4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
  5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
  6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?

 

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Impending dangers of cellphones » Rosefund Legal Defense Oct 14, 2013 1:41

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