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Leadership Academy: Social Media and Challenges of Conflict and Prejudice

By India Fahy, Washington Ireland Program Class ’15

We have hosted the third #LeadershipAcademy last month. As you may be able to tell from my perpetual hash-tagging, the focus of the session was social media and its relevance to the challenges of conflict and prejudice. We heard from Nick Pickles, Head of Public Policy at Twitter, Enda Young, founder of Transformative Connections, and Oxford researcher Lydia Wilson.

Nick provided a fascinating insight into the concept of positive messaging and really drove home the responsibility borne by social media platforms, such as Twitter. I was inspired by some of the facts and figures presented, which demonstrate that users are standing up more and more often, challenging what they think is unacceptable content. Nick stressed that people are much more likely to have a healthy debate, conducive to productive outcomes, if they see that negative narrative challenged. That being said, Nick stressed that although social media now plays a role in conflict, with that comes immense challenges. He stressed the fact that whole teams of people are dedicated to drafting ‘responsible posting’ guidelines, and that Twitter are very aware that they have a responsibility to ensure that they respond appropriately to any irresponsible usage of their platform. The question that Twitter are facing, Nick said, is ‘how do we ensure that our platform is used to challenge the narrative, and isn’t a platform for people to promote terrorism.’ In typical Twitter fashion the presentation ended with a 21st Century ‘If you have any questions… you could always Tweet me’.

Enda Young, co-founder of Transformative Connections, gave a wonderful presentation about the use technology for peace building, or #PeaceTech. How can we effectively harness the power of social media, and technology, to harmonise conflict? How do we ‘de-jargonise’ social media so that we can effectively harness its power to harmonise conflict? How we measure the real life impact of social media will be crucial to our understanding. How do we translate tacit support i.e. a ‘like’ on Facebook into action? Social media presents an unprecedented opportunity for crowd-sourced information. Where does this data meet government focused statistical analysis?

One thing that particularly sparked my interest was the concept of fact-checking. Enda is involved in the launch of FactCheckNI, a platform designed to allow users to check the accuracy of the information they are viewing on online platforms. After the presentation we discussed the dangers of misinformation, citing recent examples such as an incident in Belfast when a Facebook user posted a photo of a flag supposedly being burnt by City Hall. This provoked a riot, despite imaging software being able to prove that the image had previously been posted years before.

Enda discussed the possibilities for the use of #PeaceTech in furthering the peace process specifically in NI. He presented a project which he is involved in, using virtual reality to engage with a community group and create a community interface, to show them what their community would look like after the interface walls came down. Through this project the offline world has met the online world; they have gathered information offline about what members of the community would like their community to look like, and have created a real life representation, complete with a 3D walk-through. Studies have shown that the use of virtual reality in such circumstances increases the level of empathy and understanding, by helping people to visualise the change and see tangible opportunities for their community.

All of the research carried out by Transformative Connection has been compiled into a concise and accessible report, which Enda presented to us, complete with a super high tech code to scan to access the report (cost-effective, and quite impressive really) – apparently ‘good old fashioned’ QR codes are now old news, who’d have thought?

Lydia Wilson, a researcher at Oxford, presented ‘The Allure of the Islamic State’. Lydia praised Twitter for its record of identifying repeat content, evidenced by the immense difficult she faced trying to track down content. She warned that it would be remiss to describe their attempts as a game of ‘whack a mole’, because contrary to public belief, Twitter is actually slowing them down. Lydia presented a number of stark examples of ISIS’ sophisticated use of technology and social media, including a version of Call of Duty. When it came to Q&A it was fascinating to hear that one of the attendees, a social worker working with youth at risk of radicalisation, had had her eyes opened by the presentation to a whole new possibility of ensuring that the children are not exposed to propaganda.

This #LeadershipAcademy provided a compelling insight into the phenomenon of social media and technological advances, coupled with their immense potential for challenging conflict and prejudice. What is also clear however, is that with this comes an increased risk of hijacking, so we must work to keep it neutral, to ensure that it fulfils its potential as a platform for free and open conversation, conducive to solving disagreements and engaging new voices.

The next Leadership Academy on 26th April 2016 will focus on Understanding and Countering Violent-Extremism. Sign up here: https://getinvited.to/cdpb/leadership/

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Leadership Academy: Hate Crime and Community Policing

The Leadership Academy has been developed by the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building and the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool. It shares the knowledge and experience of conflict and conflict transformation in Northern Ireland and beyond, and its relation to dissent and risk in contemporary British society.

By India Fahy

On Tuesday we hosted the second of our Leadership Academy sessions, this time focused on Hate Crime and Community Policing.

IMG_4035It was a pleasure to hear the insights of Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin, who discussed at length the importance, particularly in NI, of police building their cultural competencies and being constantly alert to the nuances of everything they say and do. This messaged was reiterated by Paul Giassani who highlighted the overlap with the PSNI and the Police Service in England and Wales and stressed that hostility exists in every society, the willingness of the state to deal with it is considered to be a key indicator of a thriving society.

One message that I took away was the notion that a business can never be successful without understanding its clients’ and their needs and wants. It seems that there has been a drive within the police force to adopt a more ‘client-centric’ approach, seeking to understand the communities they police. ACC Martin made the point that it would be nonsensical to arrive at the house of a Catholic family in Derry/Londonderry to deal with a domestic violence issue and refer to the city as Londonderry. This is certainly a welcome development.

ACC Martin stressed that the response of police officers to hate crime is critical; until officers begin to identify with victims of hatred and truly appreciate the fear and isolation it can create, he believes that we will always be one step behind – policies and other measures will not resolve the problem. On a more somber note ACC Martin stressed that as Northern Ireland moves beyond ‘The Troubles’ he can’t help but wonder if we are starting to displace traditional sectarian hostility with hostility based on difference by ethnicity, other religions, or sexuality.

This fear was certainly corroborated in some respects by the quantitative research study presented by Professor Peter Shirlow. Professor Shirlow provided a fascinating insight into the role of ‘signals’, particularly in a post-conflict society like Northern Ireland, in influencing perceptions of crime. He provided the comparison of a young man wearing a celtic or rangers shirt attacked at a bus stop, and a young man in plain clothing being attacked in the same circumstances. He stressed that because of our identification we can perceive that an attack with a ‘signal’ is an attack on ‘us’ and our community. Professor Shirlow’s study on perceptions of crime surveyed 990 families in Belfast interface areas about how common they believed that sectarian and ordinary crimes are in their communities. Whilst the level of recorded sectarian crimes across the wards ranged fro 1% – 7%, perceived levels of sectarian crime ranged from 23% to 55%. The study also revealed that perceived sectarian crime was the biggest indicator of a negative attitude towards the police.

A personal highlight of this week’s leadership academy was the attendance by two members of the police force of Somalia. Somalia is now emerging from conflict after 27 years and the challenge that the police force are facing is immense, in particular challenges from extremist organisations are proving extremely difficult to assuage. The two officers attended the Leadership Academy hoping to gain an understanding of how they can move forward and gain the confidence of their community. Both ACC Martin and Paul Giassani provided practical and innovative advice based on their experience of building relationships and rebuilding some semblance of unity.

This is just a snippet of the lessons that emerged from this Leadership Academy session. Deirdre, Stephen, Peter and Paul spoke eloquently about their own experience and advice moving forward.  It is evident that remnants of the problems of the past still linger in Northern Ireland, and that we are likely to face a host of new issues. What matters going forward is that we have clear and concise strategies moving forward which are executed as sensitively as possible.

The next Leadership Academy on ‘Social Media as a Driver of Conflict/Conflict Transformation’  will take place at the University of Liverpool’s London Campus on Wednesday 23rd March 2016 at 2.30pm.

University of Liverpool’s London Campus on Tuesday 23rd February 2016 at 2.30pm

Sign up here: www.getinvited.to/cdpb/leadership/

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Leadership Academy: Engaging with Communities at Risk

By India Fahy

The Leadership Academy has been developed by the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building and the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool. It shares the knowledge and experience of conflict and conflict transformation in Northern Ireland and beyond, and its relation to dissent and risk in contemporary British society.

The first session, ‘Engaging with Communities at Risk’, took place on 26th January. At the heart of the focus of the session was an examination of the role and impact of leadership in public service. I left the session feeling enlightened and with a revived interest in the study of Northern Ireland.

I had never before even considered the role played by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive in creating a peaceful and fair society. Jennifer Hawthorne, Head of Communities for the NIHE, led a fascinating session on ‘Building Peace through Housing’, giving an overview of the work that the HE is involved in within interface communities and some of the hardest hit areas of NI. The work carried out by the Community Cohesion team is focused on building better relations, ensuring that communities are safe and welcome to all, and strengthening cohesive communities.

One specific element of the projects carried out resonated with me, it seemed clear that the emphasis of the projects is placed on a careful process and impact, rather than tokenistic sentiments. The re-imaging programme works directly with communities, ensuring that they are fully involved from the project’s inception, giving a real sense of ownership and pride from the outset. Emotive examples have included new artwork featuring images close to the communities’ heart, such as a Mandela anti-racism mural created in Woodbourne.

Professor Shirlow made another interesting observation, about the fact that we often forget that there is a peace process worthy of study and consideration right on our doorstep. He highlighted that many conflict theorists are guilty of looking to former conflict regions further afield, such as the former Yugoslavia, before considering Northern Ireland. After the session I had a conversation with another WIP alum which shed further light on this matter, in-fact she had travelled to Yugoslavia with a view to studying the peace process there. As a resident of the Republic of Ireland she had never considered that a peace process worthy of study existed just across the border. 

These were just two lessons that I took away from the dynamic and comprehensive Leadership Academy session led by Professor Peter Shirlow, Debbie Waters and Jennifer Hawthorne. It is just this type of realisation that is the very purpose of the Academy itself, the Academy is intended to raise awareness and understanding, and capture the experiences of the many processes at work in Northern Ireland’s ongoing peace process. I came away from the session with a refreshed interest in such matters and a desire to expand my knowledge further.

The next session ‘Hate Crime and Community Policing’ on 23rd February will look at the evidence on hate crime and its impact on community/policing relationships and the policies adopted to challenge the reproduction of hate crime and its destabilising effect.

University of Liverpool’s London Campus on Tuesday 23rd February 2016 at 2.30pm

Sign up here: www.getinvited.to/cdpb/leadership/