Social media and peace: Presentation at ZIF’s 15th year celebrations in Berlin

The Zentrum für Internationale Friedenseinsätze gGmbH (Centre for International Peace Operations) based in Berlin, Germany, invited me to talk on social media and peace as part of an event to celebrate 15 years since its inception.

I’ve worked with ZIF for a number of years, starting with pioneering training programs on leveraging open source intelligence and social media to strengthen situational awareness in complex peacekeeping missions. These specialized training programs were subsequently vetted by ENTRi and conducted in Europe and Africa.

Other speakers present or featured at the event included Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Lamberto Zannier, OSCE Secretary General. Henrietta Mensa-Bonsu, Professor of Law at the University of Ghana, former Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Rule of Law in the UN Mission in Liberia, along with myself, delivered presentations intended to generate an interest amongst those assembled – around 300 – on how the work of ZIF writ large could be contextualized in the complex socio-economic, political and technological landscape of political emergencies and violent conflict today.

My presentation, embedded below, was anchored to the role and relevance of technology and social media in all aspects of peacekeeping and peacebuilding. The presentation was coincidentally made on the same day as a massive, global ransomware attack was taking place, and when Facebook announced two billion active users were on its social media platform.

Short notes around each of the slides follow,

  • My father was never around when I was schooling for prize givings and other things I was part of or had done well in. I grew up with this anger against him. Only years after I left school and well into my adult life, that when just speaking with him about this pent up anger, did I realize that it was a conscious choice to stay away because of the high prevalence of suicide bombings in the country at the time my sister and I were growing up. Had my mom or father being killed, their logic was that there would be one parent to take care of us and that we would not be orphaned.
  • The huge turbo prop airfare transport planes that landed and took off from Ratmalana airbase, so close to my home, in the early 80s used to result in an endless stream of ambulances at night. Their wails were in stark contrast to the newspaper headlines the morning after suggesting some incredible victory over the Liberation of Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE). Then the wails stopped and the lights too, but ghostlike ambulances we could hear on the road in convoys after a plane landed. We knew, even as children, to disbelieve what we read in the mainstream media.
  • The physical world is important even as we focus mostly on the digital. To focus on physical discrimination and barriers around access, gender and other issues is just as much important as a focus on social media and peacebuilding in cyberspace.
  • You cannot talk about justice, peace or democracy without focussing on how the world of cyberspace is inextricably entwined with dynamics generated in the real world. For many, especially amongst a younger demographic, the Internet and indeed, sometimes even just one social media platform (e.g. Facebook or Instagram), is the real world.
  • The four principles of democracy that are most relevant to a younger demographic. No country that bucks this trend can avoid violent conflict.
  • The greatest threat to peace, and democracy itself, is oneself. Cyberattacks that lead to large catastrophes now don’t go after large, relatively impenetrable systems, but after the humans who are responsible for the maintenance, upkeep and access to these systems (see a really short film starring Christian Slater produced by HP, which stripped of the product placement and marketing, offers very real scenarios around cyberattacks and cybercrime today.)
  • Combined with above, the Internet of Things (IoT) will be the defining feature of our lives in the West and Global South in the years to come. We haven’t thought this through. Our fridges can launch sustained attacks on network infrastructure – and this is not science fiction. Last year one of the largest DDoS attacks was in large part the result of badly configured CCTV cameras.
  • Artificial Intelligence, like IoT, will define our lives in the years ahead – and will increasingly become, as it is even today, invisible. There are dangers as well as opportunities around this, but importantly – what are the ethics governing those who create AI algorithms that govern our news, perceptions, politics, banking, markets and lives? How can we channel AI to development?
  • A word play on just as in ordinary and just as in justice. Continuing the last point about the algorithmic nature of our politics and society in particular and the need to ensure that we make algorithms that govern us transparent. They can be the new colonialism.
  • Sifting the signal from the noise – or in other words, figuring out what is imp, when, to whom and why. Figuring out what’s actionable is critical for decision making and policy making during and after crises in particular. Technology and social media can help, but more needs to be done in this regard.
  • And to this end, governments and civil society need to invest – more than technology and money – human resources around all this. Often the technology is seen as something the IT Department or an ICT Ministry can handle, when today it is something woven into each and every part of the corporate, social, economic and governance fabric.
  • A quote to suggest that what is taken for granted in the West and in Berlin, Germany isn’t what can be taken as a given in the Global South. And vice versa, since the Global South generally leads with innovation in the use of mobile phones. A level playing field is needed.
  • Three final thoughts governing my approach to tech and social media, and why I do what I do: to create dignity, where there is little or none, for people forgotten by the mainstream. To give people choice, of their own bodies, their own lives. And to create hope, where there is little or none.

ZIF has promised a video recording of the presentation, which when available, will be posted here.

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