Vici for research on new ICT and social media in African conflict zones

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Anthropologist Mirjam de Bruijn has been awarded a Vici grant by NWO for investigating the influence of new communication technologies and social media on changing social and political relations in northern Central Africa. The Vici grant (1.5 million euros) is one of the largest individual grants in the Netherlands. De Bruijn, who works as a Professor at the African Studies Centre in Leiden and the Leiden University Institute for History, is the first Vici laureate ever of WOTRO Science for Global Development. WOTRO is the division within NWO which supports scientific research on development issues, in particular poverty alleviation and sustainable development.

De Bruijn’s research proposal, Communication and conflict in Africa’s mobile margins, combines theories and methods from anthropology, history, communication studies, psychology and political sciences to gain a better understanding of how social media, (new) ICT (including mobile phones) and the social fabric under duress interact. These dynamics were exemplified by recent developments in countries such as Egypt and Libya. Mobile communication, Twitter and Facebook acted as catalysts in the process that eventually led to the fall of several authoritarian regimes.

Societies under pressure

De Bruijn: ‘Our research will focus on Chad, Cameroon and the Central African Republic. Here, these movements are much less voluminous as smartphones and mobile internet are not yet as widespread as in Egypt. Nonetheless, here as well, these new technologies are making people more aware of the society they live in and the regime they are governed by. The relationship with their fellow countrymen who have migrated to the North intensifies. But also within the country, people are able to inform each other about societal changes, tensions and conflicts much more easily and quickly.’

‘Especially in societies plagued by years of poverty, war or oppression, the new and relatively free flow of information between often displaced people, is a revolutionary change’, says De Bruijn. ‘It is our goal to find out what the effects of this are. Not only on the relationship between society and politics, but also on society as a whole.’

The research programme also has a strong historic component. ‘Similar to mobile internet, the introduction of radio, for instance, brought about important changes in societies under duress. We will look at these changes and compare them with each other. This enables us to look beyond the current hype of social media and assess the lasting changes that are going on’, De Bruijn explains.

Conflict policy

‘This study aims to enhance our understanding of conflict dynamics and further the debate on the role of social media and ICT in conflict and post-conflict policies’, De Bruijn says. ‘Working together with policymakers and communication companies is an important element throughout the research. The collaboration focuses on questions like how improved means of communication and information can be used to prevent conflicts. Or how mobile communication can help refugees to be reunited with their family.’

Starting in September 2012, the research programme will last for five years. The research team will consist of PhD students, postdocs and senior researchers from both Europe and Africa.

In august 2011 Mirjam de Bruijn was interviewed for WOTRO’s website Research for Global Development. You can watch the interview here.

Mirjam de Bruijn is one of 31 researchers that have been awarded a Vici grant by NWO. An overview of all awarded research programmes is given here (Dutch).

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