When mobile phones go bad: Technology and the promotion of violence

“New technologies promote democratization and social change,” herald the techno-evangelists. Joshua Goldstein at In An African Minute provides a sobering anecdote from Kenya that reminds us that new technology can also be an enabler of violent collective action.

The government message, sent to millions in Kenya via carriers like Safaricom, was in response to eerily violent messages being forwarded en masse. Messages like this:

“Fellow Kenyans, the Kikuyu’s have stolen our children’s future…we must deal with them in a way they understand…violence.”

“No more innocent Kikuyu blood will be shed. We will slaughter them right here in the capital city. For justice, compile a list of Luo’s you know…we will give you numbers to text this information.”

Human rights activists added that part of the problem was that otherwise upright citizens contributed to this hate speech because of the ease and excitement of forwarding these messages.

Intuitively, the idea that mass communication can stimulate violent action feels about right. The social scientist in me wonders, however.

The collective action problem arises when an individual benefits from the actions of the group even if he doesn’t participate himself. If participation is costly, then it makes sense to sit out and still reap the gains. Even if the ethnic cleansing of Kikuyus suits my interests, why would I risk punishment by dirtying my own hands?

The classic ‘solution’ to the collective action problem is to provide some sort of selective incentive–material or ethereal–to participants. This could be a payment to militia members, the opportunity to loot, or the use of some social pressure.

But what use is a text message?

One grim possibility is that some people take pleasure in violence but refrain out of fear of retribution. Mass media messages might create the illusion of mass participation, or the social acceptability of violence, and thereby reduce the individual’s expectation of capture and punishment. (For a nice paper on information, common knowledge, and collective action, see here.)

Alternatively, solidarity itself might be something people value; participation in collective action may be its own reward, whether violent or productive. Mass messaging might help generate this selective social incentive.

This is all quite depressing. For a technology-driven bandwagon effect to solve the collective action problem, it seems you have to assume that participation in violence is inherently valued. Otherwise the messaging effect is an illusion.

Is there an alternative explanation that I am missing?

3 thoughts on “When mobile phones go bad: Technology and the promotion of violence

  1. I suspect the probability of punishment is actually extremely low when in a mob in a rural area (or indeed an urban slum) without great state presence and when the aim is to drive the other group – who would be the ones most interested in punishment – out of the area.

    In this respect, the text message could be seen as an indicator from the Kenyan state (which we have to assume for a moment is a coherent whole, not simply a vehicle for group capture) that there is residual authority, and hence raising the (perceived) cost of punishment.

    Having been in the middle of several African mobs, it’s also quite hard for me to accept considered rationality as an appropriate framework. And this is of course far from unique to Africa; Keynes made somewhat similar points in a very different context about stock market behaviour.

  2. If not considered rationality, then what? I suspect it captures only half the picture, perhaps even less, but I haven’t found a persuasive, systematic set of rules or impulses that otherwise govern human action.

    I’m reading now about psychological and physiological responses to imminent violence and confrontation. Here a set of systematic, non-rational impulses seem to drive a number of behavioral responses. But one’s state of mind when receiving a text message at home is very different from the tension and fear of a mob scene.