Peacebuilding is the new front in the long-standing battle between technology optimists and pessimists.
The optimists believe technology can contribute to peacebuilding processes by offering tools that foster collaboration, transform attitudes and give communities a stronger voice. But the pessimists see a world where technology widens the gap between groups in conflict, and therefore fosters more conflicts than it solves.
The truth is that peace is made by people, and that technology does not create anything that is not already there.
Tools for hate
In South Sudan, for example, a place that has been at war for more than 20 years — first fighting for its independence from Sudan and then internally from December 2013 — social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter offer a platform for hate speech, inciting violence and reinforcing divisions along ethnic lines. They have a strong impact even if less than 26 per cent of the population uses them.
The reality is that social media sites are seen as informal spaces to vent anger against the establishment and rival ethnic groups. In addition, many websites where political, social and economic issues are debated have largely unmoderated comment sections, which explains why hate speech continues to be found on them.
Most of these websites are run by South Sudanese nationals living abroad. The internet spaces serve more to connect people based on shared hatred of other groups, rather than to discuss possible reconciliation. This increases conflict in South Sudan by validating the ethnic divide.
And this doesn’t only happen online. In 2014, when I was working in the Central African Republic, young people were videoing killings and massacres on their mobile phones to share with friends and peers. Especially in Bangui, the capital, young people gathered to share videos and pictures of the violence in their areas by using Bluetooth, or sometimes by exchanging memory cards.
“The truth is that peace is made by people, and that technology does not create anything that is not already there.”
Anahi Ayala Iacucci
This kind of information flow was completely closed and undetected by outsiders — access was gained through a shared view of the conflict, or geographical and ethnic commonalities. To know about it, you had to already have been a part of it.
A rise in cognitive bias
Such uses of technology increase ‘cognitive bias’: where individuals reinforce their own subjective social reality based on their perception of any given issue.
Social media are particularly well suited to this process. In conflict settings, the availability of an unregulated space like the internet allows people to seek out points of view that confirm their existing opinions.
So while practitioners of ICT (information and communications technology) for peacebuilding argue that technology creates positive online engagement, the many cases of tech-enabled divisions show that tools do not create something if it is not already there. When I was working in Egypt, just three months before the Arab Spring, young people from all political parties, economic backgrounds and religions were already using social media and mobile phones for political activism. When the revolution started, they remained the main tools for activism — but in the four days in which the government shut down the internet and mobile networks, the revolution did not die. People just adapted to the means of communication available.
If it is people who create peace, technology then is relegated to its original and true role of being just a tool.
The need for forgiveness
The Egyptian example also shows that the sustainable use of any technology is strictly related to its availability at any given time. Too often, and increasingly, governments and repressive groups find ways to stop the use of technology if it harms them. This means that technology may not be available at all when it is needed the most.
Advocates of ICTs for peacebuilding also forget that, ultimately, peace is a process that entails a personal path to reconciliation and forgiveness. This is especially true with protracted, ethnic conflict, where personal trauma is the driving force behind feelings of hate and revenge and feelings of frustration.
In South Sudan, an internally displaced person seeking refuge in a UN-managed protection site once told me: “This peace agreement will never work because it does not understand the need for revenge that all of us need to see fulfilled.”
“If we want peace, we need to work on people, political will, reconciliation and dealing with trauma. Not on the tools people use, but on their minds.”
Anahi Ayala Iacucci
Physical proximity between people in conflict is a hugely important variable in peacebuilding. This means that what may be a “perceived” reality in digital space will never materialise once that gap of distance closes.
In Kenya, mobile technology was used to organise violence after the 2007 election. Despite the media buzz around the supposed role of online platforms such as Ushahidi in preventing violence, and the creation of dozens of further monitoring platforms since then, Kenya still faces politically driven violence following former Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s demand that the electoral commission be dissolved. The same issues that remained unresolved after the violence in 2008 and 2009 are still unresolved today, and no technology can help with that.
Technology plays a huge part in enhancing and supporting the building of peace, but peace is ultimately made by people. If we want peace, we need to work on people, political will, reconciliation and dealing with trauma. Not on the tools people use, but on their minds.
Anahi Ayala Iacucci is humanitarian director in South Sudan for Internews. She can be contacted at [email protected]
This article reflects the personal views and opinion of the author only and not the views and opinions of Internews.
This article is part of our Spotlight on Technology for peace.