Social media, viral news and the future of peace negotiations: Panel at Build Peace 2017

I was invited to take part, over Skype video, in a panel on social media, viral news and the future of peace negotiations at Build Peace 2017, held early December in Bogota, Colombia. My great disappointment at not being able to attend in person was somewhat offset by what was a great conversation with Juanita León, Director, La Silla Vacía moderated by the inspiring Helena Puig Laurri, co-founder and co-director of Build Up.

I don’t think there was a video recording of our session, which was in itself no mean technical achievement, since I was connecting was Sri Lanka, Juanita from elsewhere in Bogota and Helena at the conference venue, patching us all in. Skype, when it works, is quite incredible.

In brief introductory comments, I flagged my work in 2002 with the Sri Lankan Ceasefire Process and the One-Text process for which I designed technical solutions for asynchronous, confidential, encrypted Track 1 and Track 2.5 negotiations and communications using, what was at the time, commercially available off the shelf software (called Groove).

A lot of this work, and subsequent research, pre-dated and prefaced, by many years, the current praxis and increasing academic research on the use of technology for peacebuilding.

Referencing my keynote address at the first Build Peace conference three years ago, I spoke about radical transparency and how combined with now ubiquitous computing devices that recorded passively, or actively through user intervention, their surroundings, what it meant for negotiations processes where an element of timing, founded on secrecy, remains essential. I flagged how we needed to re-evaluate the meaning and effectiveness of the Chatham House Rule, for example, and how to engineer today a process that retains confidentiality in a manner that doesn’t also infringe on the rights of participants in a process to speak aloud and freely about what they are doing, and involved in.

I noted that with radical transparency also came radical inclusion – the idea that everyone today was a stakeholders in a negotiations process, with what happens in society and polity deeply and almost immediately impacting high-level discussions, as well as vice-versa. My challenge was around how to create processes that included stakeholders who had the power to bring about change and exclude spoilers and spoiler dynamics, which isn’t as easy as it was even just a few years ago – and certainly at the time I engineered the platforms for the One-Text process in Sri Lanka. The management of expectations and optics has I argued a substantive bearing on the negotiations.

I spoke about how difficult it is, ironically, to ascertain the interests of negotiating partners because despite the tsunami of content created, it was increasingly difficult to tune out the noise and focus on the signal. Given filter bubbles inhabited by those at the table, the challenges around misinformation, disinformation and sophisticated, web based propaganda campaigns, it is no longer possible to understand and respond to stakeholder positions, even as the manipulated of public opinion is easily possible with social media.

I flagged the importance of information and media literacy in this regard, noting that for example in Sri Lanka, while adult literacy was very high, people actually believed what they consumed over social media, leading to a disturbing situation where rumour and misinformation online and over instant messaging apps stood to derail fragile negotiations processes more than help secure them. I also flagged how power, patriarchy, social, cultural and political norms were ingrained into what is increasingly algorithmic bias – meaning that the social media platforms we use daily to help understand the world outside are themselves hostage to algorithmic filtering that only promotes what one is already partial to – increasing over time, and not bridging, differences between communities and regions.

In light of what I’ve noted elsewhere publicly, I also wondered how psychometric profiling, sentiment manufacture, trolls and the use of bots, the public mood could today be influenced in subtle (or not so subtle) ways that had a direct and lasting bearing on complex negotiations.

I wondered how the constant chatter – often without the art of the long view, vision, reflection, context or calm contemplation – impacted the reception and perception of what was publicly known of negotiations, putting those in the process under intense pressure to not just negotiate across the table, but also almost in real time, with their own constituencies as well.

I quoted Dannah Boyd, a well-known researcher from Microsoft ,

“[W]e have a cultural problem, one that is shaped by disconnects in values, relationships, and social fabric. Our media, our tools, and our politics are being leveraged to help breed polarization by countless actors who can leverage these systems for personal, economic, and ideological gain.”

Our conversation focussed a lot on the role and relevance of technology in (peace) negotiations spanning social media networks, how first interpretations of official processes are now made, remade, contested, contrasted, accepted and rejected, in close to real time, online, how instant messaging conversations go totally under the radar of the usual media monitoring (that informs an official process), the role of corporate entities and how 18-34 year olds, in various countries, engage with news and information.

Build Peace has a useful collection of tweets from the session here.

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