Editor   20 Dec 2018   Diplo Blog

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The event ‘CyberMediation: The impact of digital technologies on the prevention and resolution of violent conflicts’ took place at the Palais des Nations within the context of the Geneva Peace Week. The moderator, Dr David Lanz (Co-Head of the swisspeace Mediation Program) briefly introduced the CyberMediation initiative. The initiative was launched in March 2018 by the United Nations Department of Political Affairs (UN DPA) in partnership with swisspeace, DiploFoundation, and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD). It aims to explore how digital technologies impact mediators in their activities, exploring the opportunities they offer and risks they pose. The initiative is a response to the fact that conflicts increasingly have cyber dimensions, and the need for those working to prevent conflicts, to catch up with this trend.

Mr Enrico Formica (Senior Mediation Officer, UN Department of Political Affairs on CyberMediation initiative) highlighted the UN Secretary-General’s Initiative on New Technologies, which makes the CyberMediation initiative timely. He explained that in peace mediation, interpersonal skills are extremely important and as such, it has been treated as a low-tech field. However, mediators find themselves in an increasingly digital environment characterised by risks and opportunities. In this regard, he gave three examples of digital technologies already used by mediators. First, mediators use social media platforms to stimulate comments on draft texts or on the peace process as a whole. This has been useful, but at the same time, the increasing use of social media poses the risk of confidential documents being leaked. Second, mediators frequently use instant messages to keep in touch with conflict parties and with people on the ground. This however raises questions related to the reliability and security of the communication. Third, mediators sometimes use crowd-source maps as tools providing real time information from people on the ground. However, this poses the risk of information being manipulated. Overall, Formica called for a responsible and conscious engagement with digital technologies, harnessing opportunities and mitigating risks.

Dr Katharina Höne (Researcher Diplomacy and Global Governance, DiploFoundation) talked about the application of artificial intelligence (AI) in peace mediation. She introduced the topic, arguing that there is a need to ask the right kind of questions. Mediators and negotiators have certain tasks and problems occurring in practice, how can technology be used to support these tasks and solve these problems? Considering that there should not be a gap between the technology and the task, there is a need to identify concrete tasks in the phase of mediation and evaluate the distinct and detailed application of specific technologies. For example, textual data from mediation – such as treaties, manuals, and notes from the field – is often unstructured and located in a variety of locations. Natural language processing AI can help in the analysis of this data. In this way, mediators can save time when preparing for negotiations and get support in their research activities. However, AI needs to be specifically trained to answer more complex questions and go beyond keyword searches. Such smart research systems can be an important application of AI for negotiation and mediation.

Mr Matthias Luefkens (Founder of Twiplomacy) focused on the use of social media platforms by world leaders. He explained that currently, 97% of all nation states have their presence on social media. He explained that different platforms have different features that can be leveraged for making digital diplomacy happen. For instance, Instagram is used more and more for its visual features, shifting the narrative from texts to visual negotiation that can be used for mediation. He further argued that there has been a consistent shift in the use and misuse of such platforms. Frequent use of social media posed challenges in the Iran negotiations, as some issues became public before being properly negotiated. As a result, in the final stages of the negotiations, the parties agreed not to use social media and it was High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini who first announced the results of the negotiations as agreed by the negotiators. This does not mean that there is a need to shut down social media in a negotiation setting, but to understand that social media poses enormous challenges.

Ms Tamara Shakarchi (Project Associate, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD)) gave an example of a practical contribution and explained how HD uses digital tools in its activities in Libya. She explained that Facebook is a tool where real-time information is shared, allowing for an understanding of the public perception of certain developments. She added that these platforms can be useful in national dialogues to ensure proper inclusion and transparency. Indeed, as she explained, the Libyan National Conference Process incorporated digital platforms to reach the broader population. To support communication and outreach during the process, a website was created. It was designed to be easily accessible, with the following components: information about the Libyan National Conference; the different ways Libyans could participate; a calendar of meetings; meeting reports of the 77 consultations that took place as well as an online questionnaire. Moreover, a Facebook page and Twitter account were created. The Facebook page allowed more engagement and interaction among participants, as well as specific outreach to participants according to meeting locations. The digital communication tools helped overcome obstacles of participation, such as security, and geographical and cultural constraints. For example: women who did not feel comfortable openly participating could do so through digital means (via the online questionnaire).

Ms Kirsten Salyer (Member of the Graduate Institute Capstone Project) is working on an applied research seminar (Capstone Project) together with Mr Cedric Amon, Ms Victoria Tianyi Wang, and Ms Stefania Grottola. The Capstone project aims to understand the benefits and risks of the application of new technologies in political mediation, especially from the perspective of engaging with the private sector. She explained that it is extremely important to understand the context of mediators and their concerns. Indeed, to meet peace mediation needs, technological solutions should:

  • Easily integrate into existing mediation processes

  • Be secure and protect confidential information

  • Fit different situational and regional contexts

In addition, in order to engage with private technology companies, mediators should:

  • Choose their level of engagement, such as free user, customer, or partner

  • Establish shared goals with private technological partners

  • Consider the potential risks of private technological company partnerships

Salyer explained that the research is structured around four main categories: conflict analysis, inclusion, digital negotiations, and public information and communication. For each of these categories, the use of specific technologies will be analysed in terms of both the benefits and risks. Moreover, an additional feature of the project is to create an interactive dashboard, containing a non-exhaustive list of the digital tools available, sorted into a mediation category and a main technological category, and featured by descriptions of the tools in some of their specificities.

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