Communication Technology and Politics

Cell phone coverage (black) and conflict locations (grey) in Africa (Pierskalla and Hollenbach, 2013: Fig. 1)

Cell phone coverage (black) and conflict locations (grey) in Africa (Pierskalla and Hollenbach, 2013: Fig. 1)

We have been on a technology kick this week, first talking about modern etiquette and then how technology improved traffic in LA. Today I want to point out two neat papers at the intersection of communication technology and politics.

The first article deals with “narrowcasting”-type technologies. Pierskalla and Hollenbach (2013) analyze the association between cell phone coverage and conflict in Africa.* They use 55×55 km grid cells rather than the more conventional country-year observational units for their analysis. Here’s the abstract:

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. Utilizing novel, spatially disaggregated data on cell phone coverage and the location of organized violent events in Africa, we are able to show that the availability of cell phone coverage significantly and substantially increases the probability of violent conflict. Our findings hold across numerous different model specifications and robustness checks, including cross-sectional models, instrumental variable techniques, and panel data methods.

Another neat paper I came across recently deals more with broadcasting technologies. Adena et al (2013) explore the association between radio broadcasts in pre-war Germany and pro- or anti-Nazi sentiment. The identification strategy is rather simple: before the Nazi party took power, radio broadcasts were anti-Nazi. That changed in 1933 when the Nazis took over. According to their paper it took a very short time for sentiments to change:

How far can media undermine democratic institutions and how persuasive can it be in assuring public support for dictator policies? We study this question in the context of Germany between 1929 and 1939. Using quasi-random geographical variation in radio availability, we show that radio had a significant negative effect on the Nazi vote share between 1930 and 1933, when political news had an anti-Nazi slant. This negative effect was fully undone in just one month after Nazis got control over the radio in 1933 and initiated heavy radio propaganda. Radio also helped the Nazis to enroll new party members and encouraged denunciations of Jews and other open expressions of anti-Semitism after Nazis fully consolidated power. Nazi radio propaganda was most effective when combined with other propaganda tools, such as Hitler’s speeches, and when the message was more aligned with listeners’ prior as measured by historical anti-Semitism.

There are several nice features that these papers have in common. The first is spatially disaggregated data, allowing for more fine-grain analysis of variation over space. (Although as a commenter at one ISA panel pointed out, this is not necessarily useful for all research questions.) Another feature I like is that both go to great lengths to test the robustness of their findings–this is a positive development for the field and I hope the trend continues.

See also: Thomas Zeitzoff sends along two more papers on the topic: “Opium for the Masses: How Foreign Media Can Stabilize Authoritarian Regimes” (Kern and Hainmueller, 2009) and “Propaganda and Conflict: Theory and Evidence from the Rwandan Genocide” (Yanagizawa-Drott, 2012).


*Note: Jan got his PhD at Duke and Florian is currently in the program. Both are friends of mine.

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