Digital peacebuilding and the pandemic (part 1: why it matters)

We’ve been reflecting on the implications of the pandemic for conflict, and our role as digital peacebuilders. This is the first of a two-part blogpost, where our director Helena Puig Larrauri explores why peacebuilding will be important in the coming months and years, in connection with the social, political and economic shifts that the pandemic is bringing about. The second part talks about how peacebuilding can adapt to social distancing measures in the short and medium term.

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I’m spending a lot of time on the roof of the building where I live. This is more or less my view.

I live in Barcelona, on a street that is unusually quiet these days, the silence broken every night at 8pm to clap for our public health staff. We’re not the only ones, and will not be for a time — Spain may be the epicenter right now, but this pandemic is rolling out across the globe at different speeds. And so there is a sense of commonality, of global connection. We’re all in this together, we’re all helping our neighbors, we’re all trying to keep each other safe.

There is power in this sense of global connection, but it is also deceptive. The pandemic is not a great equaliser. It is the opposite: it puts in sharp contrast social and economic inequalities within countries and across countries. Social distancing and hygiene are not a viable option for everyone, everywhere — and the cost of practicing them is essentially determined by both individual and societal privilege.

As peacebuilders, we need to pay attention to what the pandemic is doing to the fabric that keeps our societies together. What divisions are being exacerbated and how does that shift the balance of power? Who is left behind and how does that change socio-economic, political and conflict dynamics? What is being triggered that may contribute to the further escalation or new outbreaks of conflict? Who can no longer connect and what can we do about it?

Right now, we’re all in crisis response mode, as we should be, but in the medium term there needs to also be a peacebuilding response to the pandemic — and critically, this must have a digital dimension that pays attention to increased polarization of identities online and the effect of surveillance on conflict divisions.

We’re already seeing so much of the response depend on community networks of trust. Trust is also critical to the effectiveness of government responses to the pandemic. And trust is under attack: misinformation about the pandemic is rife, and is being used to exacerbate existing conflict divisions, create new ones, and draw more people into conflict. Many peacebuilders have recognised this threat, and are doubling down on their existing community and technology tools as a way to spread factual information and build a community response.

We’re also seeing positive short term effects of the pandemic on peace. In times of crisis, some people rise to their best, and every day I’m inspired by the ingenious and humane responses we’re seeing across communities finding new ways to connect. There are also reports of coronavirus ceasefires (in Cameroon, Yemen, Colombia, and probably others I’ve missed) and possibly an effect of the pandemic to reduce foreign military interventions at least temporarily. The Secretary General of the United Nations has also called for an immediate global ceasefire.

But crises are also an excuse to exert control, to shift power, to perpetrate violence. We’re seeing signs of this already, and what worries me most is how this plays out in the medium term. Will the rollout of location surveillance in Israel enable greater control after the pandemic? Will the clearing of Shaheen Bagh put an end to an inspiring movement for political togetherness in India? How are differences of opinion on pandemic control measures between the Catalan and the Spanish governments affecting an already fragile political conflict? Will greater tolerance for police violence in Rwanda or Kenya open the door to greater police control of civil society? Will fear of people carrying the virus be stoked to further harden the USA’s policy on borders? Will the roll back to the right of free expression in Honduras really be a temporary measure during the pandemic? Will Hungary’s government use its rule by decree powers to intimidate civil society? Why did Guinea use the pandemic as an excuse to cut access to the internet (at a critical moment before a referendum), when we know access to the internet actually decreases the risk that the virus will spread?

Two emergent challenges to peace

Peacebuilders will need to pay attention to these shifts over the coming months and years. There may well be some places where we seize opportunities for de-escalation and bridge-building offered by the pandemic, but there will also be many where we will need to find new ways to (re)build bridges across the divisions that the pandemic fuels. This article and this one explore some possible opportunities and challenges related to conflict; this one makes a compelling case for the broader societal choices that face us.

At Build Up, we’re especially concerned with divisions that emerge as a result of digital technologies, and we’re paying attention to two in particular: online identity polarization and surveillance. Digital technologies are already having an effect on how identities are shaped and on the use of surveillance to express and sustain socio-economic inequality. The pandemic is now amplifying these inequities. The externalities associated with the pandemic (such as misinformation) and the associated response (such as increased surveillance) are likely to be longer lasting. Digital media is going to spread polarizing messages, worsening divisions online, and we need to understand how this interacts with identity-based conflict. Surveillance is being deployed at frightening speed, digital rights are under threat, and we need to pay attention to the conflict dynamics that introduces.

We were already thinking deeply about these two challenges (here’s something we wrote last year about narratives on social media in Lebanon). We’re now stepping up our analysis and plan to host a series of conversations in our community of practice to unpack what a peacebuilding response to these two emergent challenges might look like. In the meantime, we’d love to hear what you’re thinking: drop us a note in the comments below.

Stay tuned for more, stay healthy and stay home (if you can).

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

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