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Can the Internet Solve Conflict?

Laura Ralston's picture

Buildings in need of repair Over the past decade there has been growing interest in using the internet and other communication technologies for conflict management and peacebuilding. Two key areas have emerged: (1) using publicly available data on events and social dynamics to monitor and predict escalations of tensions or violence, and (2) harnessing the increased access to the internet and mobile telephones to promote positive peace. In both areas exciting innovations have developed as well as encouraging results.

In the first area, perhaps the most comprehensive information source is Kalev Leetaru’s “Global Database of Society” or GDELT Project that “monitors the world's broadcast, print, and web news from nearly every corner of every country in over 100 languages and identifies the people, locations, organizations, counts, themes, sources, and events driving our global society”. The event database alone covers 300 categories of peace-conflict activities recorded in public media since January 1979, while the identification of people, organizations and locations enables network graphing of connections in media records.

Another widely used open data source is the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) that covers political violence and events in Africa since 1997 and releases weekly updates to provide close to real time coverage. ACLED releases its own monthly conflict trends report and its data has been used in almost 300 research projects to date.

Making data easily accessible and available is only part of the solution: there is still the task of using the data to understand how conflict and violence emerge and whether predictions can be made to mitigate escalations. USAID and Humanity United recently ran a modelling competition for applicants to develop algorithms to predict mass atrocities. The winning application put forward an algorithm that could predict atrocities in regions with limited or no past history of mass violence. One problem in the forecasting literature is the trade-off between “false positives” – predicted episodes that do not actually occur—and “false negatives” – unexpected episodes that do occur. If we know many of our predictions of conflict may not materialize this will surely influence our planned policy responses to these predictions.

In another application of publicly available data, Chris McNaboe of the Carter Center has been tracking the development of opposition groups in Syria from social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Through mapping out factions and defectors he hopes to better equip parties working to resolve the conflict as well as help humanitarian groups work more safely in the region. Another technological innovation is Dlshad Othman’s app that aims to warn Syrians of approaching SCUD missiles. Experts watch for SCUD missiles and when one is spotted, phone messages are automatically sent to Syrians at risk of being affected.

Separate from these efforts to use publicly available data to monitor, predict and forewarn of violence and security threats, there is a growing cluster of new methods to communicate information to and among individuals and groups affected by violence. Sisi Ni Amani and Una Hakika have both used SMS technology to address tensions and mitigate violence in Kenya. Following the 2013 elections, Sisi Ni Amani used mass SMS to de-escalate tensions by communicating messages that aimed to help Kenyans realize their common needs irrespective of political divides, while Una Hakika, which translates to “Are you sure?” in Swahili, was used to interrupt the spreading of false rumors. A recent workshop at the Media Lab at MIT brought together peace-tech innovators to share ideas on how to build peace. Some of the ideas that caught my eye included: – an online community to share news about peacebuilding activities across the world; Libyan Youth Voices – a forum to fill the media void on information relating to youth issues in Libya; using SMS for participation in peacebuilding in Mali; provision of open data on elections in MENA; Naqueshny - an online forum to enable peaceful discussion and debating on Egypt.

The internet alone is unlikely to solve conflict – something that Vint Cerf, Chief Evangelist for Google, makes clear in an excellent discussion with Jane Holl Lute, a former UN Peacekeeping and US Government Official. However, the use of technology to promote positive peace is gathering momentum and is adding to every peacebuilders’ toolkit. The ability to tap into large swathes of data to monitor tensions should help us pre-empt violence before it has the opportunity to escalate, while the increasing global connected-ness of individuals across the world can bridge gaps between cultures and identities, helping us to peacefully learn about our commonalities as well as our differences.


Submitted by Noel Dickover on

Another interesting trend is the degree to which regular citizens both within and outside the conflict can engage as either virtual or physical peacebuilders. Similar to the digital humanitarian, we should be asking whether there is a corollary to this, the digital peacebuilder, if you will. What does that look like, and how would we provide those individuals the information and resources needed to successfully engage.

Submitted by Laura on

Thanks Noel for an interesting comment. Indeed technology is helping people react and respond to crisis both within and outside the conflict. I heard that in the recent protests in Hong Kong an app called FireChat was being used for communicating through bluetooth in anticipation of cellular and internet communications being limited. Some of the peacebuilding forums I mentioned in the post also enable people outside the conflict to share information and enter the dialogue. I think you have a lot of experience with USIP on using technology for peace - do you have any thoughts on information and resources that would be helpful?

Submitted by Adrian Morel on

Thanks for an interesting post. Just wanted to point out the existence of a great publicly accessible dataset on violence and social conflict in Indonesia. The National Violence Monitoring System , established jointly by the Coordinating Ministry for People's Welfare and the Bank, records every single violent incident reported in local papers. It looks at both inter-personal and collective violence, covers crime, domestic violence, political violence, disputes related to access to resources, governance, identity etc. The data is updated every month. With a baseline going back to 1998 and over 150,000 incidents and counting, this is to our knowledge the largest country-specific public violence dataset. The data is accessible via the project's website: (there is an English version). We have recently used the data to look at correlations between violence and inequality, service provision and decentralization (dissemination events will be organized soon). We are now exploring ways to combine NVMS with other tools such as crowdsourcing and social media scraping to deelop predictive models, so stay tuned...

Submitted by Laura on

Hi Adrian - thanks for bringing up the NVMS for Indonesia - it is great to hear that it is still actively being updated. Would you be able to link to some of the recent applications of the data that you mention? I am sure it would be of interest to others. I wonder whether you could tap into the GDELT dataset for picking up social media data and information on perception trends in Indonesia?

Submitted by Charlene Reiss on

Great to see the work of Sisi ni Amani recognized! We have created a documentary film about their work that we hope will inspire others to use available technology to create peace and build civic engagement in their communities. More info at

Submitted by Neesha Harnam on

Thank you for the interesting (and informative) article! Do you know of any websites or mailing lists that might serve as a good resource for those interested in this area? I would be interested in finding out more if possible.

Submitted by Laura on

Hi Neesha - thanks for your interest. Beyond the online platforms linked into the blog post that aim to share information about peace building you might consider looking at:
theHive - an online community of practice for research, knowledge and learning on fragility and conflict (
USIP techpeace initiative homepage:
Build Peace website: they have twitter, FB and youtube links (

Hope this helps!

Submitted by a USA citizen on

While I haven't read the entirety through all of the many hyperlinks included, I have some comments and questions.

I see the internet as an excellent source toward promoting positive peace. Media has proven to be very influential. A simple example would be how USA President Obama's usage of internet campaigning to reach and sway voters toward action brought his successful election.

However, I believe there is a flip side to the internet to be considered within the suggestion of "data-mining." This toward a back-fire as we've seen with the popularly known Snowden case, as well as the Cuban "Twitter" scandal case.

For data-mining, it would seem sifting through information also could prove incredibly labor intensive and subjective to the interpreters.

There are proven scientific tools that are more accurate and less intrusive which may possibly be furthered.

Among several examples is a tool discussed within the link below:
The Global Consciousness Project (GCP)Link:

A few brief quotes from within:
"(GCP) uses electromagnetically-shielded computers...found on 9/11 shows foreknowledge for nearly 16 hours before the first plane struck. This data lends support to the proposition that several hundred people around the world had time-specific information about the attacks..."

Scientific tools have also effectively tested various types of stimuli and collected data as to how these affect brain-response activity. I should think information could prove quite valuable if furthered into your the efforts discussed in the article. Data-bases already exist via such studies and tools. Individual brains have proven to react in similar fashions. Therefore this offers proof toward collective response. These studies were in regard to emotional reaction, but this is the basis of action.

I believe you see where I'm going here. My thought of conclusion is that the internet toward data-mining may backfire toward peace, while it would be very effective toward peace efforts. I believe the tools I suggest toward data-collection would be under the subject and science of quantum mechanics.

Submitted by Laura on

Hi there, thanks for your comments. While I am not sure I fully understand all your points (and would welcome clarification), I would like to offer a couple of responses. I think your concern with using data for conflict monitoring is that it could cause public controversy and be perceived as being invasive. My suggestion were all based on publicly available data, many of which are reported in public media sources, so I am not sure that counts as invasive and for the public controversy - well that is possible, but doesn't the potential to preempt conflict before it escalates into widespread violence seem worth pursuing? My understanding of technology is that these prediction methodologies do not need to be labor intensive - most of the data can be automatically parsed and processed. However they do have the cons discussed in the article of predicting several false positives. Please let me know more about what you mean on the use of quantum mechanics for data-collection - it would be great to hear more on that and get clarification.

Submitted by Sawsan Gad on

Media Rigging at Source

Hi Laura -- Thanks for the thorough discussion. I know this is too much to ask, but when you say "recording public events from media sources and newspapers", does this mean that these events are taken at face-value or is there any screening/validation done on them? It is reasonable to assume that conflicting parties could have their media wars, over-reporting/mis-reporting violence from the opponent group; or that an authoritarian regime could use its wide access to various media to create public panic in order to influence people's decisions, etc. Any such thing was accounted for in the sourcing of the data?

Submitted by Laura on

Hi Sawsan - great question. The answer is it depends. I know that in trying to monitor conflict events ACLED has a cross-validation methodology to check they are logging accurate information. On the other hand in its approach to follow the way media reports are trending GDELT is very comprehensive in the media data it includes. Thus it depends on what is trying to be captured - ACLED tries to capture data on actual events and tries to validate, while GDELT is trying to capture information on opinion and perspective trends and is likely not screening in the same way.

Submitted by James on

I believe that the Internet can provide solution to conflicts. First, practicality: when the contact takes place online rather than face to face, it is much easier and significantly cheaper to organize. The Internet also goes a long way to solving another practical problem, that of equal status among participants. Since the Internet does not contain visual cues, it is impossible to know whether your opposite number is wearing a Rolex watch or is 20 years younger than you and much better looking.
Second, anxiety: the apprehension that people feel when they sit together with “the other” is significantly reduced when the contact takes place over the web. Moreover, the Internet allows people to meet from a place that they feel comfortable, this may be even their own living room, thus further reducing the anxiety. Third, the Internet also assists with the lack of generalization from the individual to the group, since it allows people to emphasize their group identity. For example, members may tag the group identity to the participant every time he or she makes a contribution to the meeting. Such tools in online contact will enhance the chances of a positive contact, which will effect the whole perception of the “other group.”
It seems that the Internet, with its almost ubiquitous accessibility, may have significant advantages over the traditional forms of contact. It is also important to stress that such digital contact should not take place in a wholly unstructured setting. I believe that the supervision of a social psychologist that has expertise in group dynamics is imperative. This will help to avoid flaming, that is people using the web, not as tool to improve intergroup relations, but rather to launch vicious attacks on the other side. The skills of the supervisor are important to ensure the involvement and commitment of participants.
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