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Mobilising violence

10 February, 2010

Via boingboing, there are reports that mobile phone messages are being used in Nigeria to broadcast messages inciting communal violence.

“War, war, war. Stand up and defend yourselves. Kill before they kill you. Slaughter before they slaughter you. Dump them in a pit before they dump you.” — One of many mass-text-messages sent last week in Nigeria, inciting people to murder. And they did: some 350 were killed in Christian/Muslim violence.

Without wanting to forward any technological determinist arguments suggesting that the technology “produces” the violence, and quite aware that there is a need for the socio-historical background of events like this, I’d like to make two points.  First, this reminds me of the widespread use of text messages in the lead up to the so called “Cronulla Riot” in Sydney, 2005.  Messages inciting people to come and join the “wog and leb bashing day” were widely reported in the media at the time and concern about the power of mobile phones led to police adopting invasive searches people’s phone message records.*  At the time it seemed that mobile phones had a particular potential to “mobilise” dispersed populations and produce an event in shared time and space.  In a similar way, flash mobs of street performers are mobilised.

Second, the affordability and popular accessibility of mobile phones in contrast to other forms of technology — qualities which have been celebrated as tools for promoting development, capacity building and so on among the very poor (previous discussion here) — can also offer a platform for rapidly mobilising violence in a “rhizomatic” manner.  So I also wonder if projects that encourage the use of mobile phones for development related goals are also inadvertently facilitating new ways of producing sectarian conflict?

Not that I have done substantial reading on these issues.  If people are interested, I think Heather Horst and Daniel Miller’s book The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication would be a great place to start.

* Scott Poynting provides one media-based analysis of the riots, The Australian Journal of Anthropology devoted a special issue to more ethnographic analysis (Volume 18, Issue 3, Date: December 2007).

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