Last month, the New York Times and other news outlets reported that the Obama administration is developing “shadow” Internet and mobile phone systems that can be set-up from a suitcase. The stated goal is to prevent efforts by repressive governments to silence dissidents. Yet, a new working paper by Jakob Shapiro and Nils Weidmann suggests that such networks may also be useful to reduce insurgent violence.

That this would be so is not obvious. After all, cell phones can be used by insurgents to coordinate their actions and trigger explosive devices. Yet, the same technologies allow authorities to obtain valuable information about insurgents, either through taps, records in phones of captured insurgents, or because they allow civilians to more effectively communicate information about insurgents.

Shapiro and Weidmann investigate which of these effects prevails in a study of Iraq. They find that on average, insurgent violence is reduced significantly in the vicinity of new cell phone towers. It is, of course, not necessarily true that these effects generalize to other contexts, such as Afghanistan, or technologies, such as internet access. Yet, the results are promising. There are already good economic, social, and political reasons to invest in network infrastructure in poor countries caught in violent conflict. Since much of the money invested in such areas has a ‘security tag’ attached to it, the potential security benefits could help shift some resources towards such investments. The abstract is below:

Does improved communication as provided by modern cell phone technology affect the production of violence during insurgencies? Theoretical predictions are ambiguous. On the one hand, cell phones are assumed to enhance communication among insurgents, thus making it possible for them to coordinate more effectively. On the other hand, mobile communications can also hamper insurgent activity, by allowing the population to share information with counterinsurgents. This paper makes a first attempt to provide a systematic test of the effect of cell phone communication on conflict. Using data on Iraq’s cell phone network as well as event data on violence, we assess this effect at two levels. First, we analyze how violence at the district level changes as a result of the introduction of new cell phone towers. Second, using a novel identification strategy, we examine how insurgent operation in the tower’s vicinity is affected by the introduction of coverage. Taken together, our results show that mobile communication seems to increase the information flow from the population to the military, thus reducing insurgent effectiveness and ultimately, violence.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.