Written by Diana Anton, Deputy Director, Strategic Policy
Technological advancements have changed every aspect of modern life socially, politically, and economically. By the end of 2019, it is estimated that 53.6 percent of the global population were using the Internet. Additionally, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reports that access to mobile networks is now so widespread that 97 percent of the world’s population now lives within reach of a mobile cellular signal. However, in the case of genocide and genocide prevention, technological advancements have the potential to both aid genocide prevention efforts as well as to assist in the perpetuation of genocide.
Technology & Genocide Prevention Efforts
Advances in satellite technology have now made it possible for regular citizens as well as governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and think tanks to utilise satellite images to detect cases of occurring and possible genocides early enough to consider preventative measures/actions.
Numerous programs and projects have been established to monitor at risk areas for any indication of government attacks, refugee movements, or the appearance of mass grave sites. Projects such as The Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) and The Human Security and Geospatial Intelligence Lab have been able to document significant human rights abuses in hard to reach areas (areas that are isolated, under governmental lockdowns and restrictions, or areas where governments are denying the existence of genocidal activities altogether). These projects utilize commercially available satellites and “small satellite” technology to create baseline pictures (pictures taken from before any suspected genocidal activity started). These baseline photos are then compared with current images taken at the same approximate time of year and day in order to detect any abnormalities or changes in the environment.
As a result of more sophisticated analytical processes, satellite imagery has allowed for the development of systematic techniques that highlight important and previously unknown information. For example, as a result of combining baseline photos with techniques that can detect infrared light reflection in images, researchers have now been able to detect instances of when Rohingya huts in a village have been torched or otherwise destroyed. The corresponding drop in infrared reflectance is often an indication of an attack having occurred in that area and is especially important in areas like Myanmar where government officials have continuously denied any instances of genocidal activity.
In addition to being able to reach isolated areas, images of conflict areas often elicit more emotional responses from viewers than traditional news reports and written accounts. When used in combination with eyewitness testimonies, visual evidence of genocide may serve as a more effective way to both raise awareness about the horrors of genocide as well as preventing future genocides. If potential perpetrators are made aware that they will not be able to commit hostile acts unscrutinised and under the radar of the international community, they may be less likely to commit genocide for fear of retaliation from the international community.
Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs)
The sophistication of current information and communications technologies (ICTs) has provided today’s society with an unprecedented degree of connection to the world around us. Due to a combination of social media channels, the internet, and online broadcasting/video services, people can now continuously monitor the events and actions of countries and individuals. As such, ICTs have made it harder for repressive regimes to hide their actions due to the instantaneous reporting of human rights abuses, and an increase in the capability to monitor online behaviour and hate speech through projects and databases such as Hatebase. However, the true value of ICTs in terms of genocide prevention is in the way that these avenues can alter the perception of individuals and groups towards both genocides themselves and the victims of genocide.
ICTs such as social media provide persecuted groups and individuals with avenues through which they can share with the rest of the world, firsthand, on-the-ground information regarding their situations and the abuses that they are experiencing. In most instances, this information and first hand accounts can serve to dispel rumours, false narratives about the genocide taking place (especially important in cases where the genocide is being denied by the perpetrators), and reduce misconceptions regarding the out groups culture. For example, in the case of the Rohingya diaspora, they have been vocal in Australia, Canada, and the United States and are utilizing the YouTube-based platforms Rohingya Vision and The Arakan Times Rohingya News to raise awareness about torture, suffering, and the denial of their citizenship rights. The exposure to new and diverse ideas and perspectives provided by social media has the potential to lead to the spread of content that increases empathy and makes it more difficult for the perpetrators of genocide to successfully dehumanize genocide victims.
The Flip Side: ICTs and The Perpetuation of Genocide
However, while it is possible to use technology for genocide prevention efforts, it is equally possible, and in fact more common, for technology to be used to aid perpetrators in committing genocide. This is largely due to the fact that ICTs are uniquely suited to tapping into human tendencies such as, the need to belong, susceptibility to norms, sensitivity to threat, and preference for information that confirms existing worldviews.
Out of all the ICTs, social media channels are the ones that are the most vulnerable to manipulation, as highlighted by a report from the University of Oxford indicating that there was evidence of 48 different social media manipulation campaigns in 28 countries (all of which are under investigation by the International Criminal Court). This vulnerability can largely be attributed to the fact that the ability to post directly to social media channels without any sort of oversight has eliminated traditional media gatekeepers, such as editors and producers who are responsible for fact-checking and cross-referencing information. Without these gatekeepers there are fewer barriers preventing the spread of fabricated and fear-and shock-inducing information. This is especially dangerous in countries like Myanmar where the use of social media channels, specifically Facebook, is used so broadly that it is confused with the internet. This, combined with the fact that it is only recently, with the liberalisation of business in Myanmar, that people have had any contact at all with the internet, means that citizens in Myanmar are prime targets for disinformation and propaganda given their lack of knowledge regarding safe and critical internet use.
If the aforementioned vulnerabilities are correctly exploited, social media channels can serve as a way for perpetrators of genocide to create echo chambers that reinforce and spread their biases and further polarize their readers opinions toward their target groups. This has been highlighted by a recent report recounting how for half a decade, members of the Myanmar military have conducted a systematic campaign on Facebook that targeted the country’s mostly Muslim Rohingya minority group. Up until now this campaign has gone undetected by Facebook and has consisted of hundreds of fake troll accounts and news and celebrity pages on Facebook that have been flooded with incendiary comments with posts timed for peak viewership. These accounts were then used as distribution channels for sham photos of corpses that they said were evidence of Rohingya-perpetrated massacres, false news and inflammatory posts. These inflammatory and false posts often serve to rile up citizens and to incite followers to commit acts of violence towards the out group.
Is Technology Itself Really the Problem?
At the end of the day, technology is a tool and thus its potential for harm is equally matched by its potential to facilitate progress in preventing mass atrocities. However, the outcomes of its use depends on the individuals who have access to it and what they choose to do with it. Yet, with access to the internet increasing to the point that in developed countries 60 percent of households have Internet access (50 percent in developing countries), monitoring online activity is more difficult than ever.
While numerous projects and NGOs are successfully utilizing the unprecedented connectivity offered by technological advancements to identify occurrences of genocide, many genocides/mass atrocities are sliding under the radar. This is the result of a lack of responsible oversight from social media companies who, due to the volume of content that floods the internet on a daily basis, tend to ignore and brush off subtle signs of genocides. Genocides do not occur overnight, it is a long and insidious process that generally begins with laws or discussions dividing groups into different categories. When left to develop unchecked and unmonitored these conflicts inevitably escalate to a point where intervention may not be feasible. Thus, in not investing adequate resources to prevent hateful content from reaching large audiences, and ignoring the early warning signs of genocide during the early stages, social media platforms run the risk of actually making it easier for perpetrators to achieve their goals. Consequently, the type of relationship that develops between technology and genocide depends solely on how it is implemented and the commitment that its users have to utilizing it responsibly.