Technology is changing the way we fight war and the way we make peace

Foreign PolicyOctober 5, 2013 

WASHINGTON -- While much attention has focused recently on debating the role of social media in high-profile events like the Arab Spring and the war in Syria, a quieter revolution has been happening around the globe. It's a revolution in innovation, information, and communication. And it could have big implications for the lives of people from Colombia to Egypt, Kenya to Afghanistan.

This revolution is in the way technologies are being used at the community level to mitigate causes of violence. It's difficult to think of a single issue in the conflict-management field -- election violence, interethnic hatred, land disputes, gender violence, and so on -- in which there hasn't been an effort to use digital media and technology-enabled networks to inflect the causes of conflict.

The catalyst for this quiet revolution comes down to a single reality that is both commonplace and incredible: For the first time in human history, people everywhere -- including in impoverished conflict zones -- have the ability to take photos, push data, publish text, and send information around the world or down the street with the click of a button. We are all social-media makers now, and the extent to which we see this at work in the peacebuilding field every day cannot be overstated. With well over 6 billion cell-phone subscriptions in the world, and over one-third of the world's population online, we've seen a striking expansion in the tools that peace-builders have at their disposal. Crowd-sourcing, crisis-mapping, micro-blogging -- in less than a decade, these have become essential to analysis and decision support across the entire conflict cycle, from prevention to post-conflict stabilization.

Here are just a few examples from what can be dubbed the "PeaceTech" revolution:

Fostering inter-communal dialogue: In Iraq, there is a strong conflict-resolution curriculum underpinning the SalamShabab.com (Peace Youth) online network, TV program, and Facebook group of about 30,000 active users -- with research showing shifting attitudes about ethnic tolerance among them. There is also a larger, 200,000-member YaLa-Young Leaders network taking shape among Israelis, Palestinians, and others in the Middle East, actively campaigning against violent conflict.

Managing elections: Virtually every election these days includes active monitoring of everything from violence to fraud using a range of social-media platforms. In Kenya and South Sudan, for example, recent referendums were considered successes in terms of violence prevention, and social-media networks were key parts of the civil-society toolkit.

Preventing gang violence: Twitter penetration in Brazil is among the highest on the planet, making it a valuable and much-used platform for individuals and community organizations working on campaigns aimed at fostering citizen security. Similar initiatives on other social networks have also been widely used in Mexico and Colombia.

Protesting violence: By now, many have heard of the 2008 Facebook campaign "A Million Voices Against the FARC," which was used to rally people across Colombia and around the world to protest the violent tactics of the Revolutionary Armed Forces guerilla movement.

Success has been mixed, to say the least, for a host of reasons, from the newness of the technologies to the fact that most violent conflict is deeply rooted in complex human dynamics. Addressing the underlying problems of conflict require far more than any single technological tool can deliver, which is why many of the initiatives listed above delivered limited results. Nonetheless, they and other programs offer hope for the future.

At the heart of it all is the unprecedented data that is generated by communication and captured using new digital technologies. We often hear about "Big Data" and read stunning figures about how Facebook receives more than 300 million new photographs every day, YouTube uploads 72 hours of video each minute, and almost unfathomably, in a single year, humans transmit more data than in all previous years combined.

But for those of us working in conflict zones, the real excitement is not about the quantity of data but about the unprecedented insight that this data offers into the human experience. Not only are unprecedented volumes of information about human dynamics and sentiment -- the DNA of conflict, so to speak -- being shared on social-networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Flicker, Tumblr, Google Plus, and YouTube. The technological capabilities to analyze this vast treasure trove of information are also becoming cheaper and more effective. We've already seen, for example, mobile-phone data being used to anticipate large-scale refugee movements, an analysis that can obviously be valuable in saving the lives of people affected by war.

Of course, it would be wrong to conclude without acknowledging the extent to which digital media and technology have also been enablers of violent conflict. Hardly a day goes by when we don't see a news story about the use of media and other technologies by al-Qaida or other terrorist organizations for recruitment, for fundraising, for detonating bombs, or for the coordination and execution of attacks like the recent one on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi.

But this is really the point -- the untold story of technology and peace: When the Westgate Mall was attacked, the gruesome, boastful Twitter messages of al-Shabab's gunmen rocketed around the world's media. But how many of us heard about Philip Ogola, who tweeted non-stop from Kenya's Red Cross social-media command center, steering help to where it could save lives throughout the violence?

It's time to tell this story loudly, to shine the global limelight on the quiet, PeaceTech revolution.

Sheldon Himelfarb, director of the U.S. Institute of Peace's PeaceTech Initiative, works at the intersection of technology, media, and data to devise effective means of reducing international violent conflict.

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