The Internet in a Conflict Zone: Grass roots Peacebuilding across Ukraine

Jacob Phillipps

European Commission DG ECHO, Ukraine: Survival on the frontline

European Commission DG ECHO, Ukraine: Survival on the frontline, Flickr

Coverage of the Ukraine crisis focuses predominantly on geopolitics, conflict, and macro level diplomacy. While this is integral for understanding the conflict in an academic, strategic, theoretical and informing sense, a micro level focus is lacking. Indeed, local peacebuilding is often overlooked, and struggles to get noticed when attention is on national and international problems (1). If international organisations such as the European Union, the United Nations, and OSCE, are struggling to find peaceful solutions to the Ukraine crisis beneath a geopolitical deadlock, an important strategy may emerge through a deeper focus on grass roots peacebuilding. Here, a deeper understanding of the opportunities and barriers to peace may emerge. An important source in which to understand this peacebuilding is provided by the use of the internet within the Ukraine crisis. The Ukraine crisis is a war inside a developed context, where the majority of the population have some form of expression through the internet. This should be considered an integral social variable that may influence the progression of the conflict. Data processing, communications and forms of community engagement can have a positive impact on the Ukraine crisis (2). Following a broad definition of peacebuilding, as the promotion of sustainable peace by addressing the “root causes” of violent conflict and supporting indigenous capacities for conflict resolution (3), these processes present a number of vehicles for peace.

Since the start of the conflict the internet has enabled the proliferation of vast quantities of data. This may relate to casualties, outbreaks of violence, the movement of military units, and civilian insight into events on the ground. Access to this data has encouraged the real-time evaluation of the Ukraine crisis, with a number of third party and independent actors involved in the analysis of data and the dissemination of findings through social media. This process has enabled an understanding of the conflict, contributing to new ideas and debate. In a more practical sense, the provision of data through the internet provides a facilitating element for organisations to respond in a timely and well informed manner. An early warning and early response capacity is anticipated, where, ‘if accessed in time, verified, analysed and shared with the right actors, information has the potential to prevent violence and stop it from escalating’ (2). Indeed, such processes have contributed to the work of actors on the ground such as the OSCE. With this hub of information and ideas comes the potential to develop a stronger approach in which to build peace in Ukraine during and after the conflict.

In addition, the internet provides an important means of communication that leads to the dissemination of personal insights into the conflict. Micro level communication can create a community discourse capable of promoting social change. In turn, citizens may begin to support a story and develop a form of social solidarity that counters ideas that drive conflict. The transfer of individual stories provides a critical informing function that can challenge the assumptions of truth and provide a stronger understanding of conflict. If momentum is gained, this discourse may pressure the drivers of conflict espoused at a macro level. This may offer a means in which to discredit an aggressive Russian separatist stance in an atmosphere of controlled censorship. Rather than an ‘us against them’ mentality, a more nuanced form of expression may be adopted. A number of historical, social and cultural similarities may be highlighted here to discourage polarised identities that stimulate difference and conflict. This may be especially applicable to the disputed part of Ukraine which contains a mix of both Russian and Ukrainian oriented communities. Such processes can contribute to peacebuilding if it helps to defeat common assumptions that stimulate the competition that drives conflict.

Of course, the positive functions of the internet also present a double edged sword, offering paradoxical results. The drivers of conflict may be stimulated through the provision of messages of hate, de-contextualised information and aggressive identity politics to an accepting audience. Rumours and a lack of trust may also upset peace related processes. Nonetheless, and although empirically unsubstantiated, the potential for the role of the internet as a means for peacebuilding from the micro level is plausible. The proliferation of a number of sources of data provides a critical informing function that enables our understanding of the nuances of the Ukraine crisis. This data must be collected and analysed in order to develop a stronger approach to understanding. Communication is also important, and may encourage notions of community and the expression of personal experiences. In the mixed population areas of Ukraine, these factors may stimulate ideas that discourage aggressive messages by focusing on similarities. Contributing to a deeper understanding of identity and discourse, grass roots peacebuilding is capable of countering the dominant and divisive rhetoric at an elite level, thereby weakening the core political drivers of conflict. It is important to find ways to theorise and conceptualise empirical data so as to use the internet as a peacebuilding function in Ukraine. In a conflict where geopolitical arguments tend to dominate, a micro level analysis will provide a greater understanding of the reality of the conflict.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *