Build Peace 2017: Dialogue on Social Media, Viral News, and the Future of Confidentiality in Peace

This Dialogue was part of the plenary for Build Peace 2017 — Making Paper Count: New Forms of Citizen Participation in Peace Agreements, a conference at the intersection of peacebuilding, technology, and arts, held in Bogotá, Colombia. Build Peace 2017 was organized in partnership between Build Up and Policéntrico. Find the full 60-page conference report here, and all conference plenary proceedings on Youtube.

You can read about the other Dialogues here:
Dialogue on Creativity and Public Imaginations for Peaceful Futures
Dialogue on Information and Communication Technologies to Monitor Peace Agreements

Build Peace 2018 will be in Belfast, Northern Ireland in October 2018.

Through the last few years, it feels like governments and peacebuilders have been left behind as polarizing speech spreads on social media, threatening social cohesion and even peace processes. Build Peace 2017 included a dialogue Social media, viral news and the future of confidentiality in peace negotiations, with the aim of discussing the nuances and prospects of this topic from a national and international perspective. The conversation, moderated by Helena Puig Larrauri, Executive Director of Build Up, featured Juanita León, Director of La Silla Vacía, and Sanjana Hattotuwa, Special Advisor of the ICT4Peace Foundation.

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The idea of social media brings the promise of better communication between voters and their government, increased transparency, and more connections between voters from multiple perspectives; yet, a litany of problems seem to signal that social media tools are actually making things worse.

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“Technology is an add on. Peace is something people create between themselves and amongst themselves. We need to architect the ways that tech can help keep it”.

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Only a few years ago, social media was heralded as a positive force for good; now many peacebuilders are approaching these tools with caution and suspicion. Whether because of leaks from negotiations that expose difficult compromises negotiators are making, the ability to anonymously publish unverified and unsupported information to large audiences, or closed and siloed digital spaces where opinions are made, it’s important to understand these tools and their potential impacts within the ecosystem of a peace process.

In Colombia, the effects of social media were acutely painful for the government when it came time to discuss the agreement they made with FARC. Juanita León, Director of La Silla Vacía, explained that the interpretation of a top down peace process in Cuba, insulated from leaks by low internet connectivity and high security, was quickly taken over by distributed social networks isolated from each other on closed Whatsapp channels.

Juanita worked as editor of the Peace Unit at the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, covering the peace process with the FARC. The government hoped to maintain control over the conversation, but they were taken by surprise by the social networks, she said, “where the interpretation of the agreement was done in a second.”

One of the greatest challenges peacebuilders face is approaching these fragmented civic conversations. In this vein, Juanita mentioned that “people think there’s a hidden agenda. Maybe we can go more transparent and show the process more. Maybe people will learn more about what’s at stake.”

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“You need to open the doors to information, but emotion is part of the conversation.”

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It’s not so easy as radical transparency and radical inclusion, said Sanjana Hattotuwa, Special Advisor for the ICT4Peace Foundation. He was the lead architect of a platform that allowed secure asynchronous negotiations to work out a ceasefire agreement in Sri Lanka. He affirmed that the conversations on social media move fast, maybe too fast. For a parliamentary discussion, this may be okay, but peace agreements are much more sensitive. “The greatest risk about compromise doesn’t come from the other, but often from your own party,” he explained.

“We need to be careful about confirmation bias. If we champion 100% transparency, we assume people understand what the compromises and political situations are. In a deeply divided society, radical transparency could actually deepen the divides.” Of course, he asserted, “we need to know the best contextual application of the technology.” “It’s probable”, he added, “that the needs of the Colombian peace process are different than those of Sri Lanka”.

How the facts are presented is also important. Peacebuilders struggle with messages of peace. If different, isolated groups, are pushing different narratives about the truth, fact-based arguments can become fraught and potentially alienating. When approaching these conversations, Juanita stressed, “You need to open the doors to information, but emotion is part of the conversation. Get into the places where people are talking and talk in the language they are talking.”

“Technology is an add on,” explained Sanjana. “Peace is something people create between themselves and amongst themselves. We need to architect the ways that tech can help keep it”.

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Key Takeaways

— Governments, institutions and peacebuilders are often left behind when polarizing speech is spread on social media. Interpretations on private channels are done in seconds.

— Radical transparency and radical inclusion are not straightforward with peace negotiations, because of the sensitivity of compromises, and how they can be upset by members of one’s’ own coalition.

— Peacebuilders often shy away from emotional appeals and stick to facts and reason, but emotion is part of the conversation. Get into the places where people are talking and talk in the language they are talking.

— “The elephant in the room is corporate ownership. We don’t talk enough about the fact that’s it’s silicon valley that are the custodians of the processes happening in Colombia and Sri Lanka. We are not the sole owners of this. That is the concern of mine — archiving, politics of tech, politics of code, how it plays into the organic, local contexts.” -Sanjana Hattotuwa

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Build Up transforms conflict in the digital age. Our approach combines peacebuilding, participation and technology.

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