Truth, you are fired – and this is what peace practitioners can do about it

We are living in the age of post-truth. Post-truth, because truth appears to be no longer relevant; it does not seem to matter if you tell the truth or lie. The value of a message lies within its entertainment value – how provocative it is and how it attracts annoyed masses.

May the best lie win. Truth, you are fired.

Truth and lies in the socially networked era are increasingly communicated through major platforms, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. If we are not careful, these actors determine through algorithms what we see, with whom we interact frequently, and what we know about what is happening.

The platforms select our content, and truthfulness has not been their biggest concern. People have less direct access to “reality”, if they choose to use these platforms. In other words, we ignore the library, and take the book Google offers – sometimes without knowing, what other books are out there.

Right now, the algorithms control what we see, but we cannot control the algorithms or even challenge them. Yes, we got Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s post Cambridge Analytica apology, but that does not change much. The combination of post-truth and algorithm poses massive challenges for societies.

But why is this relevant for peace building?

Truthful accounts of what happens during violent conflicts are important for peacemakers, and ultimately for all actors that have a credible interest in sustaining peace and reconciling differences. False statements and wrong accusations can ruin sincere attempts to overcome violent conflict. So, more specifically:

1. It is meaningful to understand what really happens. Finding the truth, critically reviewing sources of information, and reflecting on what happens and why are important elements when trying to build peace.

Truth can bring recognition and closure to terrible events. Can you imagine how it feels if your family dies in a bomb attack and the other conflict party claims, it never happened? This is one reason why truth and reconciliation commissions are so important after violent conflict.

2. Lies travel faster than truth. But do we have time for complicated truths? Technology, it seems, is providing a conducive environment for “fake news”. This was evidenced by a study on false news traveling faster than true stories on Twitter. Have we lost the game already? No. Social media is based on social interactions. In other words, it is based on us.

We have influence and have to make choices. Perhaps during the next round of ‘Trump bashing’ we can ask ourselves if we are a part of simplified truth discussions, and should we be ready for complicated truth? The truth that looks beyond the statements of Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, Trump and the German far-right party AfD.

3. How do we get truth to speed up? As everyone is so excited about artificial intelligence, we may just need to find the right application for it. For example Eyal Weizman used video footage from different angles of a bomb attack and computing power to model 3D cities. Forensic architecture is verifying which residential areas were hit by bombs. Using socially shared (and often accused to be fake) videos to convincingly verify what actually happened, is an important step forward. Another step may be to get a better grip on the millions of twitter bots and other semi-automatic fake news amplifiers.

This is difficult stuff, because good attempts of filtering out fake news may take real news with them. Still, it would be a great start if artificial intelligence could assist humans to claim back the human social online sphere.

Truth is an important element in peace building. Dealing with complicated truths requires dialogue and all sides of the story. Ultimately, one group, however convincing (or convenient) it may appear, rarely owns truth.
It requires some stretching from everyone to be in dialogue with those with whom we disagree most.

Matthias Wevelsiep

The writer is Development Manager for Digital Transition at Finn Church Aid.