Can Social Technology help prevent Genocide?

The distressing footage of violence in Kenya and the reflective horror of the Darfur documentary 'The Devil Came on Horseback' prompted me to revisit Tom Glaisyer's thoughtful paper on Social Computing Technology and Genocide Prevention. I was struck by the fact that an analysis of the genocides in Armenia, Germany, and Rwanda shows there was enough information available at the time to have enabled preventative action. And yet that action wasn't taken. Tom concludes that "simple knowledge of genocidal potential or acts is insufficient to provoke people to act".

While his paper is a careful analysis of the various roles the social web could play, especially in supporting 'the third side' ("the surrounding community, which serves as a container for any escalating conflict"), it's basic thesis is that personal connection is the necessary driver for prompt intervention. Hence the potential for social technologies, and I'll quote the BBC's Bill Thompson again because he says it so well:

"What happens when the photos on Facebook and Flickr show devastated crops and starving families – and these people are not just faces on the television but old friends, people whose likes and dislikes and reading habits and favourite films we know and share? The world is different when it’s the people you know, and I do not think we will be able to resist the forces of change when our friends are dying on screen, in front of us, and we know that we could do something but have decided not to."

Of course, there were no laptops or wifi networks in the burned out villages in Darfur visited by Brian Steidle, the disillusioned peace monitor profiled in 'The Devil Came on Horseback'. On the other hand, the amazing spread of mobiles in Africa has already led to some human rights uses (for example 'Rural Women To Report Human Rights Violations Against Them Using Mobile Phones'). And it's interesting that the concrete project propose by Tom Glaisyer looks to me a lot like the WITNESS Video Hub. So the humble mobile may become the technology vector for a genocide prevention platform.

But maybe, when looking at the impact of the social web on genocide, the focus on tools is the wrong tack. After all, as Tom also points out, all technologies can be used to promote genocide as much as to prevent it. There is such a thing as User Generated Racism and fascists and racists "get" Web2.0.

The critical point is the influence of culture on whether human rights are defended or abused. In The Wealth of Networks Benkler points out how rights-based liberalism (the basis for most human rights organisations) is made impotent by ignoring the power of culture. Within cultural (and counter-cultural!) values lie the shared motivations for spontaneous action. Since the digital space is a cultural space I'm suggesting that the biggest brake the internet can have on genocide is by propagating an online culture pervaded by a sense of fairness & justice. Whether that happens by writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in to all web 2.0 Terms of Service, or by flooding social networks with raw human rights hiphop , history will judge the role of the social web in our darkest collective moments .

p.s. while writing this post I was intrigued to see how many torrent sites are hosting 'The Devil Came on Horseback' - that's got to be a good sign, no...?

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