The benefits of technological innovation are many. But they do not come without risks. With its new “Innovation Cell”, the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) is exploring the potential of new technologies in conflict prevention and peacemaking, as well as possible drawbacks.
Digital technologies impact all facets of contemporary private and public life. This is evident in the spectacular growth of social media. While exponentially increasing the possibility of interaction with others, social media can also be used maliciously. Disinformation campaigns can manipulate public opinion or fuel conflict by spreading hate and inflammatory speech. This dynamic is accentuated by the algorithmic architecture of social media tools, which are designed to magnify existing biases in order to maximize user engagement.
For DPPA, analyzing what people are saying on social media channels is vital. Doing so helps us identify patterns of social mobilization, diplomatic rhetoric and content that shapes the public’s views of ongoing political processes.
DPPA’s newly formed Innovation Cell is collaborating with a range of academic and technology partners to test new technologies for its conflict prevention, peace mediation and peacebuilding work. The goal is to improve our analytical tools and practices to enhance our ability to respond more rapidly and to focus our diplomatic action.
“Off-the-shelf tools have certain shortcomings when it comes to analyzing content in languages that are spoken in many parts of the world where we have field presences,” said Daanish Masood, of the DPPA Innovation Cell. “This is because there aren’t really good market reasons for tech companies to develop tools that cater to such languages. Most of the conversations in places that we cover happen in dialects, especially on social media, which requires us to develop special ways of parsing such content.”
Accordingly, DPPA has been running a pilot project on Arabic dialects and social media mining with the support of a group of prominent researchers that includes computational linguists, programmers, and data scientists.
“Extracting useful insights from social media in the peacemaking context differs in many ways,” said Alex Rutherford, Research Scientist at the MIT Media Lab and expert adviser to the project. “People may not express their opinions directly but use irony and political humor or simply from fear of reprisal.”
“However,” Rutherford continues, “semantic nuances are important to really get the full sense of public conversation as a basis for comprehensive political analysis, instead of ‘broad brush’ estimations of sentiments.” The vision is to scale the language focus of the project to cover a broad range of dialects of the various conflict regions the Department covers.
“What we are working on is called Natural Language Processing which is a subfield of linguistics, computer science, information engineering, and Artificial Intelligence,” said Mustafa Jarrar, Professor for Computer Science at Birzeit University and collaborator on the project. “These efforts are a groundbreaking contribution to peace as we also enable machines to understand local dialects in the long-run.”
Cutting-edge digital approaches can contribute to the UN’s longstanding goal of enhancing inclusivity in peace processes, as spelled out by the United Nations Guidance for Effective Mediation. “Understanding public discourse, whether in the cyber realm, conventional media or other spaces, is critical for sustaining peace as it gives us a real-time reading of heightened tensions, emerging political issues, and polarization,” said Martin Waehlisch, of the Innovation Cell. “Social media analysis, Natural Language Processing, and Machine Learning can help us to rapidly listen to and converse with multiple groups, thereby making political and peace processes more inclusive. This applies especially to those who are not at the formal negotiation table.”
Ultimately, this ongoing project responds to the strategic vision of the Secretary-General’s Strategy on New Technologies and the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech and adds to DPPA’s Digital Mediation Tookit for peacemakers.
Title picture: Time-lapse photography of people walking on pedestrian lane. Mike Chai