Increased cell phone coverage tied to uptick in African violence

'Significantly and substantially increases the probability of violent conflict'

The increasing availability of cell phone coverage in Africa is contributing to an increase of violence on that continent, a recent study contends.

"Utilizing novel, spatially disaggregated data on cell phone coverage and the location of organized violent events in Africa," the abstract of the findings published in the American Political Science Review reports, "we are able to show that the availability of cell phone coverage significantly and substantially increases the probability of violent conflict."

The coauthors of "Technology and Collective Action: The Effect of Cell Phone Coverage and Political Violence in Africa," Jan Pierskalla and Florian Hollenbach, correlated data on organized violence from 1989 to 2010 provided by the UCDP Georeferenced Event Dataset, and cell phone coverage data from the GSM Association (GSMA).

As reported by Harvard University's Journalist's Resource, Pierskalla and Hollenbach found that increased cell phone coverage "enables groups to overcome their collective action and coordination problems more easily, which translates to more organized conflict events."

In addition, "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."

Increases in cell phone coverage are associated with increases in violence throughout Africa, they found, even when such considerations as income, inequality, ethnic fractionalization, and geography are factored into their findings.

Africa is the fastest-growing cell phone market in the world, having increased at a rate of 20 per cent per year since 2007, with a total market of nearly 649 million users in 2011. As Journalist's Resource points out, the increase in coverage has brought numerous benefits to the continent, including Safaricom's M-PESA mobile banking system in Kenya, improvements in voter education and political participation in Mozambique, and that "in Namibia cell phone usage has allowed citizens to hold their government officials more accountable and reduce corruption."

These positive outcomes are likely to be factors in Pierskalla and Hollenbach's conclusion that the rapid increase in African cell phone use is not necessarily a bad thing, despite their findings.

"We do not believe that the spread of cell phone technology has an overall negative effect on the African continent," they write. "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."

Pierskalla and Hollenbach also point out one work-in-progress study that found the opposite effect in another often-violent part of the world. In "Is the Phone Mightier than the Sword? Cell Phones and Insurgent Violence in Iraq", researchers Jacob Shapiro and Nils Weidmann conclude that "increased mobile communications reduced insurgent violence in Iraq, both at the district level and for specific local coverage areas."

Perhaps Pierskalla and Hollenbach are correct, and the African continent is merely suffering through a "short-term technological shock." In any case, their work certainly puts the silly sniping between fanbois and fandroids in the iOS versus Android "war" in perspective. ®

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