My introduction in digital media and technology for peace building and conflict resolution
The promise of world peace at the click of a button is appealing. Considering the attention social media revolutions, Morozov and Project Loon–alikes get in the popular press, there must be something about digital media’s role in peace building and conflict resolution. The same popular press, however, in their enthusiasm often fails to come up with convincing cases that go beyond blanket statements. So, as digital media and technology play their part in connecting people and opening up the shared knowledge of the world for mass enlightenment, what is their role in peace building and conflict resolution?
This question has been on my mind recently as I’ve been asked to look for possible answers. It’s also a question that resonates with me and combines my interests in tech, innovation and constructive social change. To understand what is happening, what’s hot and not and what are the key challenges and opportunities I decided to take a deep dive into the topic, starting with an (excellent) TechChange course on the topic.
As it turns out, there’s a considerable community of ‘peace innovators’, smart people looking at ways to use ICTs for peace. They’re fun to follow on Twitter, go to exciting conferences and ask very good questions. Few of these questions, I found during my deep dive, have answers set in stone. I haven’t discovered the dogmas yet, just great questions asked multiple times. Refreshing.
The digital world as we know it has much of its roots in people who saw computers and networks as tools for peace and community. It’s hard to imagine if you consider the current state of the web with its warmongering and misogyny, but the internet was founded by some to prevent the world from collapsing in nuclear wars, while others even rejected such violent beginnings for the tool. (Isaacson’s The Innovators proves a wonderful portrait of many of these people.)
So, what kind of projects are the contemporary ICT and peace community involved in?
The probably most famous project is the Satellite Sentinel Project not in the least because, uhm, well… George Clooney. Newsweek’s Alex Perry recently wrote an eye-opening long-read about the project and the conflict it addresses in (South) Sudan: Clooney’s War, an absolute must-read. The project uses satellite images to uncover and document atrocities so they cannot be denied, which is pretty successful as can be seen by the quote below from the article above:
Clooney laughed. “I love the ‘It’s not fair’ thing,” he said. “Literally stomping their feet. ‘It’s not fair!’ The Defence Minister [of Sudan] came out and said: ‘How would Mr Clooney like it if every time he left his house there were people watching him with cameras?’”
Using ICTs and digital media to document and share information about events that would otherwise go unnoticed even in this hyperconnected world is fairly common. Another project that gained wider awareness, Ushahidi, is based on a similar approach, as are project that were new to me. This wonderful resource map from the eastern DRC for example, or the data treasure trove of the GDELT project.
The challenge here, of course, is that ICTs come after the fact. Atrocities need to be committed before they can be reported. Another branch of projects aims to move closer to the project and actually prevent violence from happening. For instance, Una Hakika which uses mobile phones to counter misinformation and misleading rumours that may cause violence. Again, there is a range of technologies to choose from, many of them SMS based because mobile phones are way more ubiquitous than wired connections.
Sometimes, social media is used to de-escalate violence and prevent violence, although the cases are few and far between and it is hard to find reliable research showing a clear, positive connection between (specific) social media use and peace building. Again, all such efforts are limited to people using social media, which billions still aren’t doing. (Which is why it is ridiculous to talk about social media revolutions. They’re people revolutions in which selected individuals use social media.)
Many of the projects we heard about in the course were great and brave and had a positive impact on the world we live in. Personally, however, I’d like to go one step further back in the conflict timeline with digital media and technology: prevent tensions from arising in the first place by building stronger and more respectful ties between (different) people. Fortunately, I don’t live in a war zone or post-conflict area – and I like to keep it that way. That doesn’t mean all’s well in my country, especially if you’re not a member of the traditional majority. The tension in Amsterdam is almost tangible, especially now ISIS is seen as a bigger threat than inequality and Black Pete still has avid supporters.
What can social media and technology do to fix this? Or, again, how can they contribute to a more peaceful and respectful society?
Maybe we should borrow (/steal) from the founders of much of the digital revolution and once again use technology to celebrate and learn to understand diversity, question authority and dogmas and generally create a more open and connected world. When the internet was first founded, the concept of MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction – assured world peace, maybe now we can have MAR – Mutually Assured Respect or Reason. Not just ‘do no evil’, but use tech and digital media so we can always ‘assume no evil’.
An introduction deserves a follow-up and I’d like to make this an hands-on journey. So yes, I’ll sign up for more TechChange and Coursera courses (I do have a paper to write), but I especially propose to use some of my time in the coming months to find a way to answer the leading question of this post. If you’ve read until here I’m guessing you’re at least somewhat interested in similar topics so I’d love to hear your thoughts, challenges or pointers for where to look. I do have a project idea up my sleeve in cooperation with some local partners, but it’s still too immature to share openly. I hope I will, soon. Another lesson learned from the passionate peace innovators: the stakes are too high to procrastinate any more than absolutely necessary. Writing alone doesn’t do the trick.
Header image by Faris Algosaibi.