More than 80 people working in digital sector policy and regulation, the private sector, diplomats, academics and the peacebuilding field attended the event.
Swiss 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.
A key concern is that digital tools and in particular social media have become powerful means to increase division and foment violence.
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 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 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 show up, risks of being recognised. So there are risks, but they are counter-balanced by the risks people take in person.”
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.
The panel discussion later touched on the power of open source intelligence in 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 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.
Watch video highlights from the event here or watch the full event below.