Technology is a vital tool for galvanising peace around the globe, writes Phil Vernon from peacemaking charity International Alert.
Technology is changing the way we communicate and collaborate. Social media is democratising society. Cheaper technology is helping to bridge the digital divide. But while technology is doing a huge amount of good, it is also used as a tool to spread messages of hate, incite violence and at worst, recruit vulnerable individuals to fight in wars or commit acts of unspeakable horror. As a peacebuilding organisation, how do we ensure that technology is used for good?
We recently asked that question at our latest Peace Talks event, ‘Can an App Stop a Bullet’, where a panel of experts discussed the good and bad uses of technologies. There was an overwhelming view that, while technology can be used to promote peace, this will be more likely to work if it is anchored in sound peacebuilding practice to ensure it is effective, appropriate for the context in which it is used, and sustainable.
Ahead of the talks, we interviewed a number of people from both the technology and peacebuilding fields in a series of talking heads. One of these was Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, and his view is that, while there are some people using technology to recruit and incite violence, it is easy to overblow the dangers. The number of people using technology for violence is extraordinarily small compared to those using technology to organise, communicate and build things together. Wikipedia itself is a great example of this, where people of often very differing viewpoints are able to collaborate on very broad-ranging topics in a calm, considered way. Wales attributes this to the cultural environment and neutrality of the Wikipedia platform.
We also talked about the use of these neutral cultural spaces and how important neutrality is when dealing with issues such as violent extremism. At Alert, we have worked with a number of youth groups, those being some of the most vulnerable when it comes to recruitment into violent extremism, and they have talked about the lack of ‘safe spaces’ to discuss difficult problems. Alert and other NGOs are concerned about the shrinking civil society spaces in many countries and this is where technology could be a helpful tool – if it is managed in the correct way.
From a peacebuilder’s perspective, Sanjana Hattotuwa, special advisor to Tech4Peace and a Ted fellow, warned against simply anchoring the work of building peace to the razzmatazz and the marketing spiel of technology – it is the strengthening of dignity, democracy and rights that should be the anchor.
At Alert, where we have been building peace for nearly 30 years, we would agree that technology alone will not solve the ‘wicked problems’ we face, but that technology is a tool that can augment and strengthen our peacebuilding work providing us with fresh perspectives.
As well as generating some lively debate and some excellent questions from the audience, the Peace Talks event gave us some food for thought before our #peacehack hackathon series. The #peacehack event brought designers, developers and idea generators in Barcelona, Beirut, London and Washington DC together to tackle issues as such as migration, access to resources and services, as well as countering violent extremism (CVE). The issue of CVE sparked some debate in the Alert offices and we agreed that it is probably not the role of peacebuilders to use technology to disrupt or shutdown discussion online, rather to provide alternative discussion channels and voices, and help young people in particular to identify with peaceful approaches to expressing and debating their views.
Despite being tasked with some difficult problems, the hacks yielded some excellent ideas and also helped in our aim of building a network of people who understand the links between peace and technology. We were greatly encouraged that participants were happy to ‘open source’ their code and International Alert and our partners, along with the hack participants will now set about bringing some of these ideas and prototypes to life.
During the many hours of coding, there was space for debate and we asked a number of participants why they wanted to join #peacehack. What was particularly striking was the number of people commenting that they had seen so many bad news stories that they just wanted to do something to help, but weren’t sure how. The hackathon gave them the opportunity to help use skills they acquired in their day-to-day work and by working together with their peers and peacebuilders, they felt they could start to make change.
So while we accept that technology alone is not the answer, by understanding the challenges involved, and by building a network of compassionate tech peacebuilders, we can certainly use technology to help us build peace around the globe.
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Photo credit: Luca Rossato from Flickr