Between Scylla and Charybdis: Harnessing the potential of new media for conflict transformation

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Photo by Jareeya Arttanuchit

I was invited to present a keynote address at the International Conference on “Communication, Conflicts and Peace Processes: Landscape of Knowledge from Asia and the Deep South of Thailand”, from 21 – 22 August in Pattani, Thailand.

As an aside, half an hour before I left for the airport, my Mac completely crashed, which forced me gather my thoughts on paper en route and deliver a 40 minute address without the aid of a presentation, for the first time in my life. Looking back, I think it was useful to have the audience focus on exactly what I said, instead of being distracted by what I showed.

I knew going in the conference would be organised by and for academics and researchers interested in or working on conflict transformation, a field I’ve based my Masters work on as far back as 2004. Primarily, I wanted to open their eyes to the potential of new media in supporting their work. I also made the submission that without focussing on discourses and content on new media, any peace or negotiations process – whether Track 1, 2 or 1.5 – risked ignoring key risks and opportunities in the context is was operating in.

I began by noting my experience as a technical architect of Sri Lanka’s One Text process at the time of the Ceasefire Agreement between 2002 and 2004, responsible for creating asynchronous, participatory, rich media based decision support tools to support the negotiations process at the time. I also noted that since 2006, as Founding Editor of Groundviews, I had both produced and read through reams of content on the web, giving me perspectives around how new media could aid conflict transformation even within cycles of violences. Looking at the conference structure, I submitted the separation of media, peace journalism and peacebuilding into three tracks was artificial and indicative of what I saw as a problem in conflict transformation praxis and theory today. Noting that I worked in the confluence of all three, I suggested it was useful to look at how new media was a leitmotif in all three domains, and helped glue them together. I also said that the Scylla and Charybdis in the title of my keynote was symbolic of the dangers of ignorance over and misuse of, respectively, new media in conflict transformation.

I broke up peacebuilding and conflict transformation into conceptual (ideational) and the physical (real world interaction based) work. The conceptual basis I said was pegged to the articulation, definitions, redefinitions, contestation, markers, archiving, erasing, inclusion, exclusion, censoring and promotion of key ideas. The physical I said involved logistics, organisation, complex geographies, contested territories, movement and protests. Both the physical organisation and the ideation of peacebuilding/CT I said were inextricably entwined with new media production and dissemination. This in turn meant that if one was serious about the study of conflict or activism around conflict transformation, new media had to play an integral role in the research and advocacy. This I submitted wasn’t happening, which led me to coin the phrase ‘pracademics’ in half-jest, suggesting the need for practitioners who were also able to critically question praxis.

I went briefly into the world of new media, noting that more information was produced even in the Deep South of Thailand today than at any time in the past. I noted that those who were often seen as victims of conflict were also today, and contesting this simplistic definition, also agents of their narrative. The difference between a few years ago and today I noted was the technology they all had access to in the palm of their hands.

I said the advent of smartphones and tablets meant that communities in the heart of the conflict now had the agency to record their lives, to contest narratives written by others far removed from the violence, or who had a vested interest in its continuation. I flagged my recent UNESCO podcast where I spoke about the importance of bearing witness. In the process of bearing witness, communities and individuals could create multiple narratives, which as Nigerian author Chimminanda Achibe notes, can help contest what she calls the ‘danger of the single story‘.

I noted that any peace process wasn’t just the absence of war – structural violence post-war could be as devastating to a just peace as the overt violence between warring factions during war. Given the complexity of a peace process, I flagged three key challenges in harness the potential of new media discourses and content to support peacebuilding, anchored to technical and political aspects, combined with perception.

Technically, I noted the difficultly of dealing with Big Data, though I don’t recall using the term in my keynote. I flagged the challenge of gleaning actionable information from the tsunami of user generated media, noting that the deluge could overwhelm institutions and individuals, especially at the grassroots. On the political level, I noted that governments around the world had embarked on a new twist to the Nehruvian tryst with destiny, which was to often control, contain or censor inconvenient truths online. The result I said was a proclivity of states, especially illiberal regimes, to look at new media through old paradigms, seeing risk instead of opportunity, seeing violence instead of the potential for peace, seeing harm instead of the capacity for proactive messaging, seeing propaganda instead of multiple narratives vital to conflict transformation. This led to my submission that the perception of new media was often pegged to misconceptions around its use and production, notably that it was,

  • just the web over broadband
  • only for those with smartphones
  • featured content mainly in English
  • was accessible largely by a social and political elite
  • required high literacy to produce and consume
  • peripheral to local, regional or national decision making
  • largely ephemeral and not long lasting
  • deeply subjective and as a result, not useful for a larger more impartial perspective

Noting that communities producing new media content didn’t really care for more academic arguments around the qualitative nature of the content, I called for a fuller, deeper and richer understanding of how the plethora of content in text, audio, video and photographic form over the web, Internet and mobiles impacted peacebuilding in real time, as well as over time. Instead of being behind the curve, I noted that the Deep South of Thailand and Asia in general could be ahead of the curve on this score, if academics just chose to focus more seriously on new media’s role in peacebuilding.

I then focussed on what new media could really do in a peacebuilding process, noting again that the volume, velocity and variety of information online was fertile ground for researchers to understand the complexity of social, cultural, religious, political and identity relations between and within communities. In this respect, I flagged as templates useful to emulate Moving Images, Mediated and 30 Years Ago as projects that combined new media with an understanding of conflict dynamics to create the space for critical discussions to take place around what remain highly emotive issues in Sri Lanka.

Looking at why it was important to both harvest and observe content online, I said that on the one hand, the role of technology in delivering the news around conflict often went unrecognised. Noting that it is today hard to imagine life without the Internet even if one could recall a time before it, I called it the most pervasive mediator of news and information in the world today. Noting that technology wasn’t value neutral and the algorithmic bias in so many web platforms today, I did however note that Gaza, Ukraine, Gezi Park, Tahrir and Fergusson in the US were all conflicts and violence covered in excruciating detail because of the role of new media in the hands of so many actors, including perpetrators. I called for a new approach for the study of new media in conflict – looking at it from a systemic perspective, instead of just quantifying output. En route to Thailand, I read David Leonhardt in the New York Times, who flagged revealing difference in Google searches of those who resided in the most wealthy and impoverished communities in the US. As he noted in the NYT,

The different subjects that occupy people’s thoughts aren’t just a window into American life today. They’re a window onto future inequality, too.

I used this example and asked the audience, what if it was possible to get indications of violence before it erupted, or the general contours of conflict in a region, just by looking at content published online, or the search patterns of people in that area? I flagged the importance of call data records in areas where the web wasn’t widely used, and though I didn’t mention it by name, the work of the UN’s GlobalPulse in using these records to understand complex social phenomena. I asked, what are the implications of this kind of data for peacebuilding? I flagged the work of Umati in analysing social media conversations to prevent violence during elections in Kenya, and my own work in archiving Twitter conversations. I asked the audience – if we don’t even know what is being discussed over new media, how could we make an informed choice to disregard or respond to key discourses? My submission was that instead of looking at media as somehow separate from peacebuilding, the two were now inextricably entwined, both in the generation of conflict and also in the potential to transform violence. In this respect, I flagged the power of memes – from the hands up images in Fergusson to the Hunger Games in Thailand and the yellow ducks around Tianamen Square in China. I asked the audience – if peacebuilders didn’t understand the power and rich messaging around and behind these online memes, did they risk misreading the potential for dissent in a given context?

I also spoke around the flip side – that if we chose to disengage and devalue the importance of new media, its introduction and resulting explosion in social interactions could take us by surprise. I used as an example Myanmar, where the country was just opening up the telecoms sector which risked, inter alia, what was ‘local’ violence in the Rakhine state to, in real time, become a national issue and spill over into other geographies, communities and political processes.

Capturing these developments, I called for new metrics around peacebuilding to be developed, taking into account, inter alia, mobile phone penetration, availability of CDRs, social media adoption, adaptation and the use of specific platforms and apps, web search metrics, smartphone sales, the cost and availability of broadband including 3G and 4G services on the mobile, the sales of tablets and the prevalence of IM use over mobiles, including WhatsApp and other leading chat apps. In sum, I noted that the recognition of and critical gaze around the information society (including its econometrics) was integral today to understanding and engaging with the political society, and that this understanding in turn was central to the construction of a just peace (a moral imagination as it were, mediated through, constructed by, critiqued via and popularised on new media).

In ending my keynote, I called for the inclusion of actors not at the workshop in Pattani, and not usually at any workshop dealing with peacebuilding and conflict transformation. These for me included marketers, telecommunications companies, advertisers, technology companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook, design firms, digital artists and curators of digital media. They were I submitted the new bridge builders of conflict transformation, able to cross and transcend specific domains in order to give peacebuilders the conceptual frameworks and tools to help address violence at multiple levels. Noting that ignorance over and misuse of new media was inevitable, I urged those in the room – which includes a large number of University students, community level practitioners, lecturers, teachers and academics – to produce, engage, study and interact with new media. Flagging Revolution 2.0 by Weal Ghonim, I said we should be ashamed at not doing more around what we already have in terms of technological tools to support peacebuilding. Noting that new media often transcended any government’s ability to control the narrative, I also said that new media was no panacea to violence, and that those in power would always use it to perpetuate what they profited from.

The difference today, I said, was that everyone in the room had – in their palms, pockets or bags – devices they could use to create their own narratives, which individually and collectively, had the potential to shape futures different to what we all had inherited, and often thought immutable.

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