One of the challenges of using social media in peacebuilding and conflict resolution is that while it can draw together like-minded people advocating for peace, it can also be used to organize violence just as effectively. Groups like the Islamic State (also known by acronyms including IS, ISIS, or ISIL, and currently dominates large portions of Iraq and Syria) are demonstrating that social media can be used to sow fear and promote their political agenda. Not only are they demonstrating how to do this effectively, they’re also demonstrating how hard it is to intervene when a violent actor has control of the information space.

Once violence has started, the information space — including social media — becomes a proxy for conflict. Ideas are being shared and are competing for a legitimacy among the population. In the case of IS, legitimacy could include instilling a sense of fear, or notions that they can or will play the role of the state. The State Department has made an effort to try to combat IS’s messaging in the Twittersphere, but this is difficult for an institution that has long standing communication protocols and is still adapting to the fluidity of social media messaging.

So, at what level does social media help peacebuilders in an information environment?

Civil society as a powerful source for peace

Traditional conflict management institutions may not yet be flexible enough to fully engage in the social media space, but this doesn’t mean that civil society can’t be a powerful force for peace. The Active Change Foundation, a London-based non-profit, set up the social media campaign for British Muslims called #notinmyname. The project uses Twitter to share videos and photos of Muslims, particularly youth, sharing reasons why IS does not speak for them as muslims. The project has gotten over 14,000 tweets using the #notinmyname hashtag, and is flexible in a way that a large institution’s use of social media cannot be. This isn’t to say that organizations like the State Department don’t play a role in social media, but in a highly fluid environment something grassroots like #notinmyname can catch on and respond to IS’s tweets in volume and tone. Winning the information war on something like Twitter depends on both of these and it’s impossible for a single user, even a user as big as the Department of State, to match the size of a social media network like IS’s.

Civil society response with mockery and humour

Another way Muslim civil society is responding is with mockery and humor. What’s important is that these videos and Twitter campaigns are coming from within Muslim communities. Humor has played an important role in protests and movements against dictators and repressive regimes previously, and it can take on a life of its own once it has percolated out into a space like Twitter. Again, this is something that large institutions are going to have trouble instigating. The messages have to be organic and come from within the communities that face the threat of a dictator or a group like IS. Indeed, something like a humor or ridicule protest could lose its legitimacy if larger institutions like the Department of State is involved.

Social media’s power to create grassroots movements across geographies

When we look at the role of social media in peacebuilding or conflict, we have to look beyond just the nature of the message. Social media is just a broadcast tool – it pushes out whatever message the user wants. The important question becomes the strategy employed by the peacebuilding community to engage against the violent messaging of an organization like IS. The power of social media is maximized when civil society bands together across geography, developing a large networked community. How traditional peacebuilding and governance institutions engage with these organic civil society networks is important. Large institutions can help give grassroots movements increased legitimacy and the backing of a recognized institution, but they must also be careful not to undermine the community’s legitimacy when organizing a message of peace in the face of violence.

Interested in learning more about using social media for peacebuilding? Register now for our upcoming Technology for Conflict Management & Peacebuilding online course that runs October 6 – 31, 2014.

As Jordan and I wrap up our FrontlineSMS/Ushahidi training here in Kisumu, Kenya we picked up a number of valuable observations that can be borne in mind by others as they prepare their own projects using these pieces of software.

The first and most important is to plan your “work arounds”.  During our preparatory afternoon the first day we arrived, FrontlineSMS worked on my MacBook Pro and Jordan’s Linux machine flawlessly.  The first day of the training program, FrontlineSMS completely failed to work on the exact same machines using the exact same GSM modems, and the exact same FrontlineSMS download.  This kind of failure could happen at any time, and that time will probably be when you need the software to be at it’s most efficient.  We got around this by uploading Frontline onto a few other computers, testing it, and finding that the software seemed happiest running on a more bare-bones Windows-based machine.  In an hour we went from having a serious problem to finding a solution that carried us through the next two days without any further complications.  In the field, keep a few extra computers handy, be patient as you encounter hiccups, and as one of the participants advised, “approach the challenge knowing you will persevere.”


Jordan and I are happily ensconced at the Partnership for Peace office here in Kisumu, Kenya preparing to facilitate a course with local leaders on the use of FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi.  This is exciting, especially as Kenya is preparing for another round of elections soon and will be using a new voting system in this round of elections.

We received a warm welcome from our hosts here in Kisumu, and are excited to get the training program underway.  When we first met the group we’re working with, the enthusiasm for seeing the software at work came through very clearly.  We had a nice coffee break with the office staff, discussed Kenyan and American politics, and learned a bit more about the context of the upcoming elections and how the new constitution is shaping political life.


For the frustrated governance advisor, exasperated force commander, and perpetually under funded election observer the notion that technology can solve our problems is a tempting one. But as Dr. Raul Zambrano of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and Dr. Matthew Levinger from the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) point out, the challenges faced by development and peace making professionals can only be solved by human ingenuity, social awareness and ethics. Mobile technology is only a means to more efficiently achieving this end. (more…)

The BBC reported today ( on the value that Twitter has provided to stock traders.  This is an example of how social media, when well filtered, can have a verifiable positive effect .  For our purposes, it also shows that humanitarian organizations and NGOs can leverage Twitter as a less expensive means of deriving on-the-ground information that is actionable and reliable.


You land in a country that is recovering from a long war.  The infrastructure is limited, but there is a nascent democratic government.  To make up for the lack of infrastructure, citizens use text messages sent to a central receiver or Twitter feeds to let government officials know what they need.  I’m describing E-Democracy, and using a platform like Swiftriver, these text messages and Tweets can be organized by time and geographic location.  It provides information to elected leaders, while starting a public record of citizen-government interaction. Since the Swift platform can handle data streams ranging from RSS feeds to the inflow of discrete numeric data, it’s an excellent platform for governance and peacekeeping professionals to use in their field work.   (more…)

Much of the event data that new technology is making available to practitioners contains geographic information, and to take advantage of this we need a way of thinking about geographic information in a predictive way.  Combining today’s post with last week’s “Corralling the Data instead of the Data Corralling Us” post, we get a data filtering methodology that gives us data that is timely and geographically relevant in the field.  This will set us up for next week’s post, which will explore how to use time and space filters to maximize the value of software like Swiftriver which significantly speeds the process of data collection and management for project leaders and analysts.


For those working in the field of conflict prevention and humanitarian assistance, reliable real-time data plays a critical role in staging a successful intervention.  As a recent discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace with Dr. Steven Livingston made clear, the humanitarian policy world is dealing with an environment where data gathering technology is advancing at an exceptional rate.  The conversation then addressed the challenge created by all this technology; the sheer volume of incoming data can overwhelm policy makers and field-based practitioners. (more…)