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Media and Peacebuilding: Trends in 2011 and Looking Ahead to 2012

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Sheldon Himelfarb, the director of USIP’s Center of Innovation: Media, Conflict, and Peacebuilding and the Center of Innovation: Science, Technology and Peacebuilding, discusses trends of 2011 and looks ahead to what’s in store for the new year regarding conflict and new media technology.

How has crowdsourced data pulled from sources like SMS texts, twitter, mobile phone calls and combined with mapping and geospatial information systems (GIS) changed the peacebuilding field in 2011?

This was an important development for our field in 2011, that was largely overshadowed by the debate surrounding the role of social media in the Arab Spring. At one point earlier this year I remember hearing an Egyptian activist shouting at an interviewer with obvious frustration – “This is not a Facebook or Twitter Revolution, this is the people’s revolution!” But the people’s revolutions were also throwing off vast amounts of information from all the sources you’ve listed that was helping to shine a light on dark places. In Libya and Syria, for example, where journalists had much less access, citizens themselves filled the gap with their mobile phones and their video uploads.

We’d seen similar efforts before -- in Iran during the election protests and after the Haiti earthquake. But what was fundamentally different about 2011 was the way large international organizations working on these conflicts proactively sought the information and put it to use.

In March, for example, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) commissioned the Standby Task Force -- a global online volunteer community -- to create the Libya Crisis Map. This volunteer group used social media, mobiles, news reports and more to provide OCHA with situational awareness vital to its response efforts. In August, this same volunteer task force crowdsourced the analysis of satellite imagery to map refugee shelters in Somalia at the request of the UNHCR, and not long after, Amnesty International USA collaborated with the volunteers to track and crowdsource human rights violations in Syria. Most recently, the International Criminal Court in the Hague requested arrest warrants for Sudanese officials, relying upon evidence collected in the Satellite Sentinel Project which combines satellite imagery with on-the-ground reports to map mass atrocities and other threats to vulnerable civilian populations.

All of these situations have shown us the power of the technology-enabled crowd to provide valuable information in conflict zones that have traditionally been data vacuums. But equally important is the new potential for collaboration between governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the civilian populations they are meant to serve. Modern statecraft is being fundamentally changed.

On the flip side, how have these tools been used by repressive regimes to their advantage?

The 'open' nature of these technology tools means that they can be used by repressive regimes as well, but I find it striking that there’s been relatively few examples where the crowdsourced data has been successfully compromised. There was one such case in Russia, where a local news agency, Gazeta.ru partnered with a local NGO, Golos, to create a map to monitor election violation. Pro-Putin supporters managed to discredit it by planting false information. But most of the repression has come in more traditional ways that we’ve come to expect in the battle between activists and authoritarian regimes: cutting access to specific technologies, the way Syria banned import of the iPhone and Mubarak shut down mobile and Internet services. Or jailing bloggers and silencing dissent with violence. That said, given past efforts by these regimes to play catch-up with activist strategies, we’ll no doubt see more attempts to undermine the effectiveness of these citizen-based monitoring tools.

What does 2012 hold in store in the field of media and peacebuilding?

The first thing to note is that the pace of innovation is so rapid and profound today that we can be sure of exciting developments on multiple fronts. One of them is this area of “big data” and the new analytics it produces. As we’ve already indicated, social networks, mobile phones, user-generated content -- these are all creating vast amounts of new data about people, their attitudes, and their behavior. Google’s Global Flu Trend project, for example, analyzed the searches done for flu related information to gain a better, earlier understanding of where flu outbreaks were likely to occur. Now there are researchers, many in government agencies, doing the same with social media to see if other trends can be identified early enough to help avert violent conflict and other socioeconomic perils.

But big data does not only mean predictive potential of course. One of the most exciting prospects for 2012 and beyond when it comes to new media and peacebuilding is that of increased international problem-solving. As we share these new troves of data over the web, so do we increase our ability to work with that data together on shared problems ranging from food security to the prevention of mass atrocities. This will manifest, I think, in a deepening commitment of public resources to virtual exchange programs and technology platforms that demolish linguistic barriers in order to connect both students and professionals with their counterparts around the world.

Finally, I think we’ll also see a widening debate in the year ahead around Internet freedom. It’s been a topic of concern for a long time, of course, but the recent surge of activity in social media among groups identified by the U.S. government as “terrorists” such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Hezbollah is highlighting the tension between security and information flows. I wouldn’t be surprised if it became a pretty hot election issue.

In short, 2012 will see ever greater effort to grapple with a simple but profound new reality: for the first time in human history we are all media makers for a global audience. This is changing the way we communicate, organize and, potentially, how we manage international conflict.