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Violence prevention: Is there a digital dimension?

By Blog Admin, on 4 April 2013

Legacy of rage - Flickr - Al Jazeera English (1)

Photo: Al-Jazeera English via WikiCommons

Protesters famously used social media to mobilise against authoritarian regimes during the Coloured Revolutions and the Arab Spring. But attempts to use technology to prevent deadly outbreaks of violence are less well known. A new book sheds important lights on these efforts, finds Kristen Perrin.

 Current discussions of the uses of social media are magnifying the implications of near-instantaneous human interaction. These discussions are often layered – we use social media to discuss both the issues and potential of social media. Therein lies a fascinating marker for our time. Where we recently marvelled at the speed at which information could reach us, we are now examining a more sophisticated set of problems.  What impact, for example, does the timing and spread of information have on communities teetering on the brink of violence?

In The Technology of Nonviolence: Social Media and Violence Prevention (MIT Press, 2012) Joseph G. Bock sets out to answer this question, drawing on his extensive experience in humanitarian aid, adding a digital dimension to some of the issues he has tackled in previous publications. I was initially interested but sceptical about how this topic would be addressed, but Bock sets about his analysis in a very organised and functional way.  His first two chapters give a straightforward investigation of the theory and application of violence prevention and early warning systems.

He also keeps to the heart of the matter throughout the book: in analysing the technological elements of tracking and preventing violence, we are, he says, really analysing people, leadership, politics and communication. Digital innovations are merely symptoms of larger processes and, Bock emphasises, it is ultimately these processes he is seeking to understand. Bock uses several case studies to examine the ways in which technology has brought change to early-warning systems to prevent violence.

Breaking down myths

Interestingly, however, Bock begins with a case study in which technology does not play a major role. He looks at the role of communication in counteracting tensions between the Muslim and Hindu inhabitants of the slums of Ahmedabad in Gujarat. Bock describes how a Catholic humanitarian group, St. Xavier’s Social Services Society, have been undertaking programmes to promote peaceful coexistence.

This group has used a variety of methods to spread it message from staff speaking to people directly, to plays and songs, art and essay contests. Bock highlights the tensions in this area and explains how ethno-religious boundaries are often manipulated by politicians and real-estate entrepreneurs for their own benefit. A large part of the work done to counter violence in these slums has to do with breaking down myths and encouraging people to think before acting violently.

This contrasts well with other chapters such as the chapter on crowd-sourcing during post-election violence in Kenya. Here, a non-profit technology company called Ushahidi created a platform for spreading event-specific information. Information added to these platforms can come by way of texting, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other media, and is collated and verified by Ushahidi.

Much like the way data is harvested for sites like Wikipedia, these methods depend on multiple reports to give a valid perspective on an event. This makes it possible for violence to be identified early and for people to spread information despite disruption from , for example,  media blackouts.

Unanswered questions

Bock tackles several issues with this approach: how information can be verified, how rumours can be dealt with, the use of the platform by those trying to spread and promote violence, and problems with limited internet access. The results of Ushahidi’s crowdsourcing techniques were mixed. Bock draws attention to the fact that users of this platform often have different needs.  This raises the question of whether responses to crises and violence are influenced by the type of people likely to contribute to these digital platforms.

Several such questions are left unanswered and the case studies are described rather briefly. This may be a result of Bock’s decision to explore phenomena that are recent, in flux, and difficult to quantify. Some of the evidence for failure or success is mentioned through one-off examples that tend to read as word-of-mouth information of the same type that platforms such as Ushahidi strive intensely to verify. The evidence feels less concrete than if Bock had conducted interviews with those using these technologies to convey information during violent outbreaks. Bock frequently speaks with the people coordinating these efforts, but when opinions of the crowds involved are needed he pulls information from the digital sources themselves.

That said, Bock does address the issue of how these methods can side-line local populations, warning that there is a strong need for what he calls a ‘people-centred’ approach. It can seem as though information is given to a vulnerable population by  better informed outsiders, rather than through members of the community helping one another. In highlighting this issue, Bock gives voice to problems that are reflected in the major challenges of humanitarian aid in general.

The book is innovative in bridging topics that can be helpfully examined next to one another. It will appeal to scholars of violence prevention, but also to practitioners in both the field of humanitarian aid and the study of technology and social media. In many ways, the book is more a comparative evaluation of the successes and failures of violence prevention programmes with technology only one element in the quest to better understand how violence can be predicted and deterred.

This is as it should be given the complexities of the relationships between people and the difficulties we face when looking to understand how tensions arise in a rapidly changing world.

Kristen Perrin is a PhD candidate at UCL-SSEES.  Her primary research interests are in theories of conflict, genocide, transitional justice and human rights.  Her thesis examines transcripts from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), applying a mixture of sociolinguistics and social psychology to witness testimony from both victims and accused.

This article was first published on the LSE Review of Books blog.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.