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Does Mobile Technology Exacerbate Wartime Violence?

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, June 5 2013

After watching one video of the war in Syria, YouTube suggests many more, all in the same vein.

You might have heard of 'conflict minerals' making their way into your cell phone, but has it occurred to you that cell phones could be fueling violent conflicts? A recent article in the American Political Science Review by Jan Pierskalla and Florian Hollenbach argues just that.

Pierskalla and Hollenbach write in the abstract to their paper:

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.

At least one poli-sci blogger, Chris Clary, has already mocked their findings, comparing it to the research question “Did Twitter cause the Arab Spring?” Clary points out, with less snark, that, “The cell phones are not increasing violence through collective action but rather through greater reporting on violence that was happening irrespective of cell phones.”

Still, cell phones are undeniably changing conflict in tangible ways. CJ Chivers observed the extent of cell phone use in Syria:

Machine gun in right hand. Cell phone in left. On duty on the gun-truck's machine gun, at 80 miles an hour into Aleppo, checking messages along the way.

Even as the war in Syria rages, large areas of the countryside have cellular phone coverage, and the fighters are constantly checking their phones. When they stop, many of them immediately look for ways to recharge their phone batteries. And, often as they move and enter an area with a strong signal, they commence texting back and forth.

Alexis Madrigal wrote in The Atlantic about this photograph:

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?

Or when you can easily record, upload and share videos of a rebel cutting out and eating a government soldier's organs? An atrocity committed, apparently, after the rebel Khalid al-Hamad found — in the soldier's cell phone — a video of the humiliation and rape of a woman and her two daughters.

As Clary pointed out, acts like this occur even without the presence of cell phones. But would al-Hamad have gone to such horrifying lengths to desecrate the corpse of the Syrian soldier if he had not found a video evidence that the man had committed rape?

Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch explained to a Time reporter that “when footage of rape, torture and amputations are passed like trading cards, it escalates the cycle of honor-driven revenge, as each atrocity, so publicly shared, demands a response from the opposing side.”

The cell phone ensures that certain communications endure, even when the perpetrators of war crimes are dead and gone, and perpetuates the violence.

DemocracySpot sums it up: “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.”

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.