How are digital tools polarising societies and fuelling violence? And how can they be used to build peace instead? These were the main questions explored at our panel event held on 10 May 2022.
Ambassador Markus Leitner opened the discussion, noting that “the war in Ukraine shows again the power of social media.” It was acknowledged that the wide availability of digital technology has changed the nature of modern conflict and the responses to it.
The panel discussion was chaired by the Co-founder & Strategy Lead of Build Up, Ms Helena Puig Larrauri, and the speakers included:
- Ms Zigwai Ayuba, National Expert Adviser, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Nigeria
- Dr Christine Cheng, Senior Lecturer, Department of War Studies, King's College London and Trustee, Conciliation Resources
- Mr Enrico Formica, Senior Mediation Officer, Mediation Support Unit, UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs
- Dr Andreas Hirblinger, Postdoctoral Researcher, Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP), Graduate Institute, Geneva
Visiting Researcher, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
A key concern discussed by the panel is that digital tools, and in particular social media, have become powerful means to increase division and foment violence.“We’ve realised that social media is being used to compound issues of violence and as a tool for terrorist groups to use,” said Zigwai Ayuba, National Expert Adviser at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Nigeria.
The panel also discussed how Artificial Intelligence (AI) is playing a role, and how conflict parties themselves are manipulating opinions and content.
“This is not just a problem ‘over there’ but a problem in all our countries,” said Dr Christine Cheng, Senior Lecturer at the Department of War Studies, King's College London and Trustee at Conciliation Resources. “This is happening in our backyard. The way that violence is fuelled over elections is frightening, the way that harmful narratives are made viral is frightening.”
Enrico Formica, Senior Mediation Officer at the Mediation Support of the UN’s Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, noted that “there are new actors coming to the scene….individuals with a simple cellphone that is now more powerful than the original computer.”
While on the one hand, digital tools and in particular social media have become powerful means to increase division and foment violence, on the other hand these technologies can be used to change the narrative of a conflict, anticipate and prevent the escalation of tensions, and as a tool for peacebuilding.
For example, panellists noted that peacebuilding can aid inclusion, ensuring that the views of more people - especially different groups who are not usually included such as diverse women and youth - are brought into dialogue and peace processes, including anonymously. The use of data-driven approaches means we can have more complexity and diversity of voices.Event moderator Helena Puig Larrauri, Co-Founder & Strategy Lead at Build Up, said: “There are things you can do online to build trust and relationships and break down hierarchies. People highlight the risks involved in convening online dialogue, but people take risks to come to face-to face meetings: risks to travel, risks of showing up, risks of being recognised. So there are risks, but they are counter-balanced by the risks people take in person.”
Zigwai Ayuba explained how social media is used for early warning systems to protect people and communities in Nigeria, while Cheng discussed how digital tools are being utilised to support people who have been impacted by conflict and violence, as well as to aid in collective memory and dealing with the past.
“Collating oral testimonies and stories can capture the breadth of experience, and be used to collect evidence for war crimes trials,” said Cheng.
The panel discussion later touched on the power of open source intelligence in changing the dynamics of conflict, the challenge of staying up-to-date as technology develops at break-neck speed, and the dilemma of whether online participation in peace mediation supports or comes at a cost to effective conflict resolution.
“I think we’re moving scientifically from a time where we’ve been focusing on grand theories about conflict towards a much more complex picture,” said Dr Andreas Hirblinger, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding.
Panellists concluded that while there are tools that can aid mediation and support peacebuilding, ultimately digital technology cannot replace the need for human contact and human control.
Switzerland has a long-standing tradition of supporting conflict parties in finding negotiated solutions and promotes the development and responsible use of digital technologies in peacebuilding work. With Geneva as an international hub for digitalisation and peacebuilding, Switzerland also brings together expertise in humanitarian issues and digital governance, as well as creating space for dialogue.
If elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2023‑24, Switzerland intends to continue its engagement for peacebuilding within the Security Council.