The concept of intersectionality — the interconnected and overlapping nature of social categorizations such as race, class, gender, ability, age, and sexuality — has been essential to understand the realities of discrimination and social inequality. As legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw puts it: “If we aren’t intersectional, some of us, the most vulnerable, are going to fall through the cracks.” (If this term is new to you, see a fuller definition here). This blogpost summarizes a recent paper we authored for the Berghof Foundation and the Plattform Zivile Konfliktbearbeitung. We explore how an intersectional feminist perspective delivers more impactful peacebuilding, and how it mitigates bias and harm when applied to digital technology.
First, picture digital technology across the world as a sheet of glass, where each inequality in access, use, or representation signals a crack in the glass. Digital divides in connectivity and availability of devices; online safety or surveillance concerns; discriminative data collection or deployment; under or over-enforcement of content moderation policies; etc. All of these cracks intersect with identities and associated social hierarchies.
Next, picture peacebuilding across the world as a sheet of glass, where its recurring challenges again represent cracks. Top-down approaches and external impositions; exclusionary participation in peace processes; safety and security concerns for marginalized people; reinforcement of systems of discrimination; etc.
Layer these two sheets of glass together, and we see the unique risks, challenges, and opportunities digital peacebuilding holds in navigating within and bracing between these intricate lattices. Most importantly, it highlights where intentional efforts are needed to ‘seal the cracks.’
Using technology for more intersectional peacebuilding
How can we use digital approaches in a way that considers the experiences of all kinds of people in peace processes and programming, especially those who face more than one type of discrimination? We see four key paths:
Building better relationships of trust. Digital communication tools can contribute to a shared community identity and social cohesion. Peacebuilders can use that to build trust that cuts across identities and experiences of marginalization. Digital means can provide a platform for those who might not otherwise speak up in a process, allow for side conversations with those who need to build trust towards a process, and understand anonymously how marginalization plays out in a situation.
Broadening participation and ownership. Digital technologies can offer new and different ways to increase opportunities for participation of people facing overlapping forms of discrimination. To overcome the barriers present in the offline space, digital messaging platforms give people online access to join discussions that cuts across class, mobility, and social status lines, opens up processes and helps to hold leaders accountable. Critically, digital means can also support adequate participation of people previously marginalized in process design — not just during implementation.
Ensuring true safety and security. Digital means can address identified intersectional concerns related to online or offline harassment or intimidation in a targeted way. Peacebuilders can use them to carve out anonymous safe spaces online to accompany both online and offline processes, to surface content that might have stayed invisible, and to expand subtle means of reaching people facing marginalization.
Challenging existing power and oppression. Digital technology makes organizing easier, and in so doing shifts the balance of power. Peacebuilders can collaborate with the activists emerging through new forms of digital organizing to equalize offline power dynamics. Furthermore, social media in particular can build larger constituencies of peace activists, coalescing on intersectional allyship among people facing the same forms of oppression in a way that transcends borders and other dividing forces.
Using peacebuilding to mitigate technology’s harms
How can the design and implementation of peacebuilding programming include challenging the reinforcement of existing inequalities and the marginalization of vulnerable groups by digital technologies? We also see four priorities for this:
Rectifying biased data collection. Peacebuilders can challenge and correct the identity-based biases that show up in digital data collection, by examining and challenging power, embracing pluralism, and elevating emotions, for example. Changing the means of data collection can also make data more accessible to people facing discrimination. In addition, peacebuilders can offer alternatives to biased artificial intelligence by applying participatory action research to the design of machine learning processes.
Confronting access discrimination. The choice of technology and an assessment of digital literacy needs can help address intersectional access hurdles. Peacebuilders can go where people already have access — online or offline — to overcome barriers. They can also provide different options for accessing a technology to take into account layers of discrimination. Offering digital literacy alongside a peacebuilding activity is another way to confront marginalization.
Countering online vulnerability. Accountability mechanisms and effective strategies against surveillance and retaliation have the potential to remedy some of the intersectional vulnerabilities present in digital spaces. Peacebuilders can use creative scheduling to avoid time-specific vulnerabilities of specific groups, for example. Digital organizing helps counter attempts to surveil individuals at risk of multiple forms of discrimination. In addition, digital peacebuilding methods can reclaim digital space for those who have been pushed out by cyber-bullying.
Dampening explicit attempts to harm. Peacebuilding approaches can be used to intervene in digital spaces where marginalization happens, confronting harm head on. In addition, digital peacebuilding methods can also be used to correct perceptions distorted by algorithms that privilege hateful content, to counter attempts to abuse the distortion for political gain.
A Road Ahead: Priorities for Intersectional Digital Peacebuilding
We hope that this preview gives you some interest in how each of these can be done. The full report offers recommendations, sorted along the project cycle of interventions, on how to come up with digital approaches that make peacebuilding more intersectional and more feminist, and how to ensure that digital technologies do not reinforce existing inequalities. With simple and practical injects, recommendations include those relevant to (human-centered) design, then covers considerations important for implementation, and ends with those relevant to influence policy and adapt funding.