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Sheldon Himelfarb

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Media and International Conflict: Where We've Been and What's Ahead for 2011

Posted: 01/05/11 07:02 PM ET

A Taliban video is released showing a US soldier captured in Afghanistan. Google confronts censors in China. Jihad Jane is arrested in Pennsylvania for using online chat rooms to recruit terrorists. WikiLeaks uploads 400,000 classified US military documents on the Iraq war, and 250,000 confidential State Department cables.

Hardly a day goes by when we don't hear about media being used in new ways either to promote peace or to promote conflict. Modern warfare is as much a battle for public opinion as it is for territory or wealth; it has become a truism to say that media has become more powerful than ever before.

So what were the really big stories of 2010, when it comes to media, conflict and peacebuilding? In my view, there were three real standouts.

The first is the unprecedented use of crowd-sourced data pulled from multiple platforms (sms texts, twitter, mobile phone calls) combined with mapping and geospatial information systems (GIS) to provide new "ground truth" insights on everything from disaster relief in Haiti to election violence monitoring in Kenya's referendum. There were lots of news stories about an organization called Ushahidi -- whose all-volunteer band of crisis mappers based in Boston scanned text and tweets to help direct relief workers thousands of miles away in Port-au-Prince -- making them the best known of the pioneers. But their very real impact has spawned a movement, and there are now countless other organizations finding innovative applications for the information provided by nearly ubiquitous mobile phones in hot spots from Beirut to Baghdad.

The second big story of the year, in my view, isn't nearly as welcome as the first. We saw an alarming almost exponential rise in the ability of repressive regimes to monitor online and mobile-based information flows. Where the internet was once a haven for citizen journalists and dissident voices in otherwise closed societies, we saw very effective crackdowns and intimidation of online activists. Lots was written about Iran, China, Burma, but it was happening in many more countries as governments invested ever more resources in their own technical capacities.

Thirdly we had WikiLeaks, whose full implications are still unclear. It brought to the fore the struggles between transparency and security, participatory media and editorial stewardship that are the hallmarks of the times we live in. Clearly we still have a lot more maturing to do as a society when it comes to managing some of the ethical issues that new media can spring on us.

What's Ahead

As for what's ahead for 2011 I think first and foremost we will see innovative efforts to work out some of the impediments we faced in leveraging this brave new world of crowdsourced data. We need better ways of verifying the information as well as protecting the citizens who get engaged.

And speaking of citizen engagement we could well see a big jump in citizen to citizen diplomacy across this next year -- as universities and even high schools step up their efforts to integrate international awareness into their curriculum. We are seeing all sorts of interesting uses of skype, ichat, and other online video platforms to connect students around the world in meaningful international experiences.

Another frontier will be in using the information from online and mobile platforms in more predictive ways. In other words I think we are going to see governments and others in the conflict management world seeking to do a version of what the corporate world has been working hard at: combining cutting edge analytics with crowdsourced data, to anticipate both needs and events. Already there has been a lot of discussion about mining Facebook chatter, tweets and SMS texts in order to predict where mass violence might occur.

Finally we will continue the convergence of new and traditional media like tv and radio, but with the added element of smart phones at the center of it all. It won't be long before these mini computers overtake the mobile phone market even in the most remote places. Most analysts say it is still a few years off but I'm not so sure when I look at the pace of adoption already in places like Afghanistan. And then what happens when tv, radio and the internet become commonplace on our person? Will we become the best informed societies thanks to the information available or the most polarized societies as we gravitate to the networks (media and social) that share our biases? Here's where a good old fashioned crystal ball would come in handy.