(Al Jazeera)

The past decade has witnessed an explosion of interest among political scientists in the outbreak and dynamics of civil wars. Much of this research has been facilitated by the rise of electronic media, including newspapers but extending to social media (Twitter, Facebook) that permit the collection of fine-grained data on patterns of civil war violence. At the same time, a parallel research program has emerged that centers on the effects of new information and communication technologies (ICTs).

Yet these two research efforts rarely intersect. It is, however, likely that social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are intensifying, if not driving, political conflict in locations as diverse as Egypt, Hong Kong and Syria. What role, for example, does ICT play in shaping conflict and violence within and across countries? Does the introduction of new technologies empower activists and rebels, or only further reinforce the grip of autocratic leaders over their societies? At the end of the day, do cellphones and other platforms cause violence?

Seventeen scholars were invited to explore these and related questions for a newly published special issue of the Journal of Peace Research, guest-edited by Nils B. Weidmann. These 11 articles embrace a variety of different theoretical and methodological approaches and test their claims with multiple types of evidence ranging from cross-national comparisons in Africa to Internet disruptions in Syria and Twitter networks during the 2012-13 Iranian-Israeli confrontation.

Drawing on the special issue’s introduction and conclusion, we highlight four prominent themes that emerged from these studies.

1. The introduction of new ICTs is typically associated with increased political violence and state repressive capacity. All of the cross-national studies, for example, conclude that the creation of new mobile technology networks substantially increases collective violence within the (typically developing) country (see for example here or here). These negative effects may also spill over to other countries if they are bound together by dense communication ties (see here). In addition, multiple studies conclude that these new technologies often favor the regime, not activists, in the struggle for democracy, reform and freedom of information (see here, here or here). While the Arab Spring has fired imaginations about the powerful (and destabilizing) effects of social media, evidence in these studies suggest that such optimism is misplaced: Autocracy can coexist, and even strengthen itself, by strategically manipulating both access to and content on social media platforms.

2. Uncertainty still exists about how ICT generates these effects among political leaders, protest groups and insurgent organizations. Within these studies, there is convergence, though not consensus, on the idea that mobile technology facilitates collective action by lowering barriers to participation. In short, cellphones and social media platforms allow activists and rebels to share information, recruit new followers and circumvent regime obstacles in ways and at speeds not previously possible. Other mechanisms also appear important. Mobile technology may punch holes in censorship walls, helping citizens obtain accurate information about their situation, generating new grievances against the regime. ICTs also facilitate information gathering while also generating audience costs more quickly and extensively than previously possible. Of course, these mechanisms may also work in concert, underscoring the need to explore the question of “how” technology matters at the ground level.

3. Pinning down whether ICTs actually matter in a causal sense is really, really hard. Take the claim that mobile technologies like cellphones increase collective violence. This is certainly plausible; insurgents could use cellphones to coordinate their attacks and to escape state retribution, increasing the number of attacks they are able to conduct. But what happens if the introduction of these same technologies facilitates the collection of new data on violence? In other words, what if we’re recording upticks in violence not because there are more attacks but merely because our media coverage of a given area or country has improved? Similarly, these studies tend to suggest that technology has cross-cutting effects: Technology rarely empowers only one side in a conflict. Instead, what we need to identify is the relative effect of technology across different groups, a difficult task made harder by the fact that the introduction of these same technologies is likely tied to the level of violence in these settings. Opening up the Pandora’s box of conflict-level dynamics and exploring why (and when) new technologies are introduced locally and nationally remain key tasks for future research.

4. A large gap remains between academics and practitioners. Nearly all of these authors shy away from offering policy recommendations about either harnessing the power of ICTs for information collection or mitigating its conflict-inducing properties. We do not mean to add more fuel to the (self-)flagellation of academics as indifferent to policy questions; the stereotype of the out-of-touch professor is by now tired and misleading. But if the claims made here are correct, then they carry wide-ranging implications for a host of issue areas. It has become standard, for example, for development agencies such as the World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into programs designed to create national telecommunications networks in developing countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. These programs do not track violence as a potential impact measure. Yet our studies would suggest that increased violence is a possible, if unintended, consequence of such programming, undercutting broader development and security goals in these countries.

This week, we’ll continue to post contributions from individual authors introducing their respective papers and main findings. Courtesy of SAGE Publications, the special issue, will remain available free of charge until March 31, 2015.

Allan Dafoe is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Yale University.

Jason Lyall is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Yale University. He directs the Political Violence FieldLab at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University.

Nils B. Weidmann is a professor of political science and head of the “Communication, Networks and Contention” research group at the University of Konstanz, Germany.