The drive toward widespread adoption of computerised telecommunications tools and devices in everyday life. Alongside positives like greater access to information and ease of communications, there are negatives such as mass surveillance by states or online echo chambers that can fuel conspiracy theories and hate speech.
Twitter, Instagram and other social media channels are important tools for activists to raise awareness of human rights violations and social injustices. When in 2020 the footage capturing the murder of George Floyd spread via social media, activists quickly joined calls for demonstrations that revived the #BlackLivesMatter movement at unprecedented scale and speed. Practically all protest movements in recent years have been fuelled and transformed through the use of social media; notable examples are the Gezi park protest in Turkey, the Arab uprisings, the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria and the 2019-20 Hong Kong protests.
However, at the same time, we are witnessing how digital technologies and artificial intelligence are fundamentally reshaping the nature of armed conflict and present a set of new challenges to human rights: fully autonomous weapon systems with limited accountability and proportionality can reduce the possibility of military casualties and lower the threshold of war. Authoritarian governments increasingly use digital surveillance to control and repress restive populations and inconvenient civil society actors, while political arsonists exploit social media to fuel hatred, manipulate public opinion and exacerbate social polarisation. Democratic governments and social media platforms are often ill-prepared to do much about it.
As peacebuilders, we cannot afford to disregard ongoing developments in digital technology and artificial intelligence. We need to engage with them proactively, ethically and transparently while constantly reflecting on possible negative consequences. If we fail to do so, we leave this field to those who see new technologies as an opportunity to control, manipulate and repress populations, to gain political influence, and to conduct warfare by ever more heinous means.
At Berghof, we have been combining peacebuilding and digitalisation for a number of years in Germany. Our digital peace education projects Friedenfragen.de, Streitkultur 3.0 and #vrschwrng, have spearheaded our exploration of digital peacebuilding. Recently, we have expanded our engagement in this field to other contexts. In Lebanon, we are supporting an inclusive group of social media influencers from various communities and confessional groups in their efforts to de-escalate tensions, advocate for inclusive citizenship concepts and uphold a constructive forward-looking dialogue on key national priorities.
When violence erupted in Lebanon in 2019 and 2020 and polarised messages went viral on social media, this group of influencers was able to use its prominent status and wide reach to confront sectarian messaging and incite narratives with alternative messages that promote non-exclusionary identity concepts and shared values of citizenship and empathy. Based on these promising experiences, we intend to further develop and deepen our engagement with digital conflict transformation both geographically and thematically.
Digital tools and in particular social media will make it possible to create wider inclusivity and integrate a broad variety of perspectives, interests and needs into a negotiation process.
There is growing consensus that digital technologies are key tools to prevent, resolve, transform and manage conflicts. Digital technologies can help us improve our conflict analysis by increasing the volume and variety of information that can be gathered at low cost and in real time, and provide innovative means for managing and visualising that information. With the help of digital technologies, we will also be able to better facilitate and sustain engagement with conflict parties and improve our understanding of their positions and relations. While digital technologies will never be able to completely replace the sensitive, human-to-human interaction of high-level mediation that is contingent on the mediator’s need to gain the trust of the conflict parties, they will nonetheless allow us to adapt the mediation strategy and the design of the peace process continuously to ongoing developments and needs.
Digital tools and in particular social media will make it possible to create wider inclusivity and integrate a broad variety of perspectives, interests and needs into a negotiation process. They enable peacebuilders to assess the views and opinions of the wider population, and inform and educate the public and organised actors about the negotiations, the agreement and its implementation. This will ultimately increase the legitimacy and ownership of the peace process.