Reach Out and Kill Someone

From activists organizing pro-democracy protests on Twitter to farmers checking crop prices on their Nokias, the positive impact that cell phones have had in the developing world has gotten plenty of press. But it turns out there’s a dark side to wireless connectivity: It can kill you. A new study by Jan Pierskalla of the ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
COLIN SUMMERS/AFP/Getty Images
COLIN SUMMERS/AFP/Getty Images
COLIN SUMMERS/AFP/Getty Images

From activists organizing pro-democracy protests on Twitter to farmers checking crop prices on their Nokias, the positive impact that cell phones have had in the developing world has gotten plenty of press. But it turns out there's a dark side to wireless connectivity: It can kill you.

A new study by Jan Pierskalla of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies and Florian Hollenbach of Duke University looks at the relationship between mobile phones and political violence in Africa. They found that from 2007 to 2009, areas with 2G network coverage were 50 percent more likely to have experienced incidents of armed conflict than those without. The clearest overlaps between cell coverage and violence were observed in Algeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

The authors think that improved cell-phone coverage helps insurgent leaders overcome what's called the "collective-action problem" -- that people are reluctant to join group endeavors when there's a high level of personal risk. But better communication helps leaders recruit reluctant followers, whether they're demonstrating for higher wages or killing people in the next town.

From activists organizing pro-democracy protests on Twitter to farmers checking crop prices on their Nokias, the positive impact that cell phones have had in the developing world has gotten plenty of press. But it turns out there’s a dark side to wireless connectivity: It can kill you.

A new study by Jan Pierskalla of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies and Florian Hollenbach of Duke University looks at the relationship between mobile phones and political violence in Africa. They found that from 2007 to 2009, areas with 2G network coverage were 50 percent more likely to have experienced incidents of armed conflict than those without. The clearest overlaps between cell coverage and violence were observed in Algeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

The authors think that improved cell-phone coverage helps insurgent leaders overcome what’s called the "collective-action problem" — that people are reluctant to join group endeavors when there’s a high level of personal risk. But better communication helps leaders recruit reluctant followers, whether they’re demonstrating for higher wages or killing people in the next town.

Still, as Pierskalla points out, the relationship between cell-phone coverage and violence is "specific to regions and countries that are prone to violence in the first place." So unless you live in, say, Mogadishu, it’s probably a safe bet that the arrival of ever more powerful phone reception isn’t going to lead to bloodshed.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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