The Voices of War

30. Adam Cooper - Mediation, Diplomacy And Digital Conflict

VOW 30 | Conflict Negotiation


My guest today is Adam Cooper. He is the Director of Digital Conflict for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, or HD. Adam has been with HD for over a decade and now oversees a global programme of work mediating offensive cyber operations and disinformation on social media. He also hosts ‘The Mediator’s Studio’ podcast, which provides some incredible insights into what happens behind closed doors when peace agreements are negotiated.

Prior to his current role, Adam managed HD’s Myanmar operations. And before joining HD, he coordinated election observation missions in Asia and served as an adviser to former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed. He has degrees from Oxford University and the Harvard Kennedy School. Adam is a Thai and UK national and currently lives in Brussels.

Some of the topics we covered are:

  • Adam’s journey into the world of conflict negotiation
  • Private mediation and the work of HD
  • Why confidentiality is important when looking for alternatives to military-only solutions
  • Straddling multiple diplomacy tracks
  • Lessons learned from senior negotiators
  • ‘Peace is made in stages’
  • Dangers of not negotiating with the ‘enemy’
  • Adam’s experience in Myanmar
  • Digital conflict, digital threats and understanding the problem
  • Challenge of establishing norms of online behaviour
  • ‘Freedom of speech’ vs. ‘Hate speech’
  • Responsibility of social media organisations
  • Experimentations of ‘Peace Tech’


To find out more about the ‘ups and downs’ of conflict mediation, listen to ‘The Mediator’s Studio,’ available here.

Listen to the podcast here


Adam Cooper – Mediation, Diplomacy And Digital Conflict

My guest is Adam Cooper. He’s the Director of Digital Conflict for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue or HD. For those not familiar with the organisation, HD mediates between governments, non-state armed groups, and opposition parties to reduce conflict, limit the human suffering caused by war, and develop opportunities for peaceful settlements.

Adam has been with HD for over a decade. He oversees a global program of work, mediating offensive cyber operations, and this information on social media. He also hosts The Mediator’s Studio, a podcast that provides some incredible insights into what happens behind closed doors when peace agreements are negotiated.

Prior to his role, Adam managed HD’s Myanmar operations. Before joining HD, he coordinated election observation missions in Asia and served as an advisor to former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed. He has degrees from Oxford University and the Harvard Kennedy School. Adam is a Thai and UK National and lives in Brussels.

Adam, thanks for joining the show.

It is great to be with you.

Before we dive into your work with HD, which is quite extensive, maybe let’s get a better sense of how you ended up doing the work that you do. What motivated your journey into the murky world of conflict mediation?

It was by accident. A lot of people who work for HD almost fall into it. That was certainly the case for me. Looking back, there were a few turning points in my life. I grew up having a pretty sheltered existence in London. I was in Thailand at the time that the 2004 tsunami happened. I was personally caught up and affected there. That is what took me away from a life in the UK to a life in the developing world.

It was because of what had happened to me personally and what I saw around me I volunteered for the UN on tsunami relief in the Maldives. From there, I got drawn into the interesting political world of Asia. I ended up working for the Democratic opposition in the Maldives. It was then that I got a sense of the high political stakes that are involved in other parts of the world.

If you grew up in the UK, it is very comfortable. We have fierce political discussions, but we take that stability for granted. I was in a place like the Maldives, which was, at that time, struggling through a very difficult democratic transition. It was where you would see members of the opposition being beaten in the street, and then you realised what was at stake. That’s what drew me to politics outside the Western world. From there, there were a few steps in between until I ended up in the mediation world.

That’s interesting. I want to pick up on what you mentioned about the tsunami that happened to you personally. Can you talk about that a little bit? You were there when it occurred.

The island I was on was not one of those most hard-hit compared to the dramatic images you saw on TV. I was out diving with my brother at that time, so we were out at sea. As the boat came back, we saw a scene of devastation and wreckage on the edge of the island. It was extremely confusing. You had no idea how this had happened. No one imagines a tsunami. You didn’t see any storm. Suddenly, you come back and there’s no jetty. We’re swimming to the shore. My parents had run away from the beach. They were there.

They were freaking out about you and your brother, undoubtedly.

Exactly. They had no idea where we were. Once I saw that up close, I left university and thought, “Helping with this is clearly going to be a better use of my time than whatever else I had planned.” I was fortunate enough that the humanitarian agency in the UN, OCHA, was open to my volunteering and lending some help to the relief operation. That’s what gave me my first taste of international affairs.

That worked. Working for the first democratically elected president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, what was that like?

It was great.

To be quite honest, at that time, you were relatively young. I’m sure you were eager and keen, but I suspect that would’ve been quite a big step up.

I was eager, keen, and entirely unqualified.

It’s politics.

I remember the first time I met him for a cup of tea. He was under house arrest at that time. We were chatting, and at the end of the conversation, he said, “How would you like to leave the UN and come and work for the party and for me?” I said, “That sounds interesting, but you do realise I have zero political experience. I have almost nothing that I can bring to you.” He said, “It’s fine. We’re all working it out as we go along. Come and join us. We’ll go on that journey together.”

I’m glad I did take that jump because it wasn’t a normal job. You were working for a cause that you believed in deeply. You saw colleagues who were making incredible sacrifices who were out there on the streets and facing quite a degree of harassment. Our offices were attacked. You had a sense of the real stakes involved. To be allowed into that world and help in whatever modest way that I could at age 22 was a real privilege. It put the fire in my belly for politics in Asia, for sure.

Congratulations. It’s circumstantial, but I believe we also make our luck. We use the opportunities that are given to us. You are a dual citizen in Thailand and UK. What’s your link to Thailand? Have you lived there? Were you there on holiday? Was that the only experience you had with Thai, or did you live there and spend longer?

My mother is Thai. I grew up in London, but we would go and visit every year. What it did do was open my eyes from a pretty young age to a very different culture. Spanning those two worlds in Western Asia, perhaps is one of the reasons why I’ve ended up in mediation. Friends tell me that when I speak in Thai that I sound like an entirely different person with my tone of voice. You learn how to communicate in a different way.

You end up having to build empathy with people from different cultures. That’s an important skillset when you come to the mediation world as well. I wasn’t deeply rooted in Thailand. I had family there, but my Thai wasn’t especially fluent. It took some time later on in life to get immersed there back in Bangkok. The seeds were sewn quite early for me to be able to work between different worlds.

When you learn how to communicate in different ways, you end up building empathy with people from different cultures. Click To Tweet

I really like that term, different worlds. I often refer to it as walking in two worlds. That’s the multitude of identities that one embodies, having lived in different parts of the world and lived in different languages. Something I often talk about in some of the courses that I teach is that very point. When I speak in Bosnian, it’s a different pace and different tone. My body language is different. My identity is embodied very differently from when I’m engaging in English. That makes absolute sense. Your path and journey to HD is a natural one. Although, I must say most people probably won’t have heard of HD. That’s probably the way HD likes it, knowing what the organisation does. Maybe you can give us some wave tops about what the organisation does and how it does it.

It was set up many years ago in a little house on the edge of the lake in Geneva. The rationale for the organisation’s creation was that the world of mediation, working between governments and armed groups, had been dominated by the UN and by a certain set of governments who would do this work. What HD tried to do was to create a world of private diplomacy. We weren’t the only organisation who were in that space.

Our founder saw that there was, for lack of a better term, a gap in the market because you’d have these internal conflicts often where it might have been difficult for larger, more formal institutions to operate. Those are states who might not want the UN involved. There was a space for a more informal, especially an organisation that focuses on confidentiality like HD. That’s why the organisation started.

The first exercise in mediation that we did was in Indonesia in Aceh. It was the first cessation of hostilities between the free Aceh movement, the rebels there, and the government of Indonesia. It’s grown into a quite large organisation, working in 30 countries around the world and a few hundred staff. We’ve got many confidential dialogue processes in most wars and conflicts that you’ll read about in the news. A lot of that is kept low-key for a good reason because of the obvious sensitivities. Some of it is more public as well.

Can I double-click on that quickly? While it might be obvious why it’s kept confidential, it might not be so to everyone. Can you elaborate on that a little bit on why it’s so important for HD to remain in the “shadows”?

It’s often what our clients, or the people who are at war with each other demand, especially in the early stages of a process. If you put yourself in the shoes of, let’s say, a government official who sees the conflicts going on, is maybe unsure that a Military-only solution is going to lead to a good outcome for them and is curious about what a negotiated settlement might look like, that’s a risky thing for that government official to engage in. If they’re going to take those first baby steps to find out what an alternative to a Military solution looks like, they want that to be discreet.

Sometimes, they’ll do that themselves without any mediation at all, but often, it can be helpful to grease the wheels through a third party. It allows someone to shuttle quietly and float ideas with the other side in a deniable manner. That protects that official from any consequences which might come from even being seen to entertain peace, which is not always the most popular option in a government. That’s the reason why it often exists. For the discussions themselves, people want to feel that they can test ideas in a manner that is non-committal. They may take that up in a more formal process, either through us or maybe through other bodies like the UN. It allows them to experiment a little more freely.

In these kinds of diplomacy tracks, track one is the official one. The one that we see on TV. That’s the formal signatures, leaders of conflicting parties shaking hands, etc. If I understand this correctly, track two is the unofficial academic civil society. Track three is the actual people-to-people diplomacy. Where does HD sit in that space? It’s probably somewhere between 2 and 3 or between 1 and 2. It dances around various tracks, I suspect.

It does exactly. As the organisation has grown over time, we’ve spanned that full breadth between sometimes convening processes and serving government officials. They might be coming in an informal capacity, but they’re very much serving. That’s fairly close to a track one setup. Sometimes, you are working with experts who are close to their respective governments and trusted by them in a more track-two setting. Sometimes, indeed, it is work that’s at a community level. For example, some of the local agreements we’ve forged in Nigeria between the different communities who’ve had tensions with each other. That’s more grassroots community-based work. It is closer to the track three description which you provide.

It’s very much dependent on the context, needs, whatever we think is most useful, and where the mediation gaps to be filled are. One of the good things about the organisation is that we are increasingly able to span those different tracks in one conflict. To take Libya as an example, several years ago, the UN envoy there, Ghassan Salamé, said, “I’m going to handle a lot of the top-level outreach to the political leaders. Can you run a national consultation process with people more in the level of towns and rural communities?” That’s what we did to feed into that higher-level process.

At the same time, in Switzerland, we also helped to bring together some of those top leaders to lay the foundations for a ceasefire and political roadmap that was then picked up by the UN and others later. When we invest heavily in a place, we’re often spanning and able to reach both the communities that are most affected by the conflict and the leaders of the conflict parties themselves, too.

It’s incredible work and quite humbling work. It’s amazing. I follow your podcast closely. We can maybe touch on it a little bit as well. You’ve interviewed Ghassan Salamé on there, if I remember correctly. One of the things that I find amazing is the disproportionate impact 1, 2, 3, 5, or 10 people can have to build those initial bridges that are tenuous to start with but over time become denser to build the hope in one way but also build the confidence of the conflicting parties to embrace this idea of peace. The conflict has to be “ripe enough” to get to that point.

What are some of the lessons about that process that you can maybe pull out from the various high-level negotiators and mediators that you’ve interviewed on The Mediator’s Studio? I highly recommend the podcast. What are some of the key lessons that you’ve taken out from talking to these people?

A few things have jumped out for me with the interviews that I’ve conducted. The first thing is the risk of stating the obvious, which is the willingness of the mediator and negotiator to take calculated risks and do things that are politically difficult. I think of Betty Bigombe, for example, this amazing Ugandan minister at the time in the government. She was advocating for quiet outreach to Joseph Kony, the Head of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

VOW 30 | Conflict Negotiation
Conflict Negotiation: The willingness of the mediator and negotiator to take calculated risks and do things that are politically difficult is amazing.


Wasn’t he the most wanted man in Africa?

Exactly. He had sent her death threats. He didn’t make it easy to advocate for negotiating. That’s what she did because she very strongly believed that this would be at least one avenue that should be pursued in ending this brutal war. She remarkably built up a degree of trust with him. She talks about this, frankly, in the interview that she dealt with some really difficult conversations she had with her own president about that dialogue process. You get a sense of that early on in the process. It takes brave people to dare to explore a peaceful settlement.

The other thing which comes out is people knowing at what point you need to keep a process confidential and at what point you need to broaden outreach to the public at large or particular constituencies. This comes out in the interviews that I’ve done on the Colombian peace process. You have the Norwegian facilitator talking about secret helicopter trips that he’s doing undercover for the Red Cross in order to bring the FARC rebel group to discussions with the Colombian government. There’s no other way to do that unless it’s kept incredibly close hold. If it becomes public, it prompts a backlash and the talks stop dead in their tracks.

Much later in the process, once it had matured and ripened, there was an extensive effort to reach out to different constituency groups, particularly victims of the conflict. The Colombians are very proud of how they brought them into the negotiation room, brought their voices in, and listened to them seriously in more than a tokenistic way.

Even then, the process faced problems because the peace agreement was put to a referendum, and that was rejected at first. You begin to appreciate that peace is made in stages and that there might be a certain point of it where it’s going to be a small number of people in the room. Given that it’s about communities and the shape of your country, there’s a point at which you do need to secure legitimacy from a broader group than the people in the room.

Peace is made in stages. Click To Tweet

That’s an amazing answer. I love it for a number of reasons. The thing that stands out to me the most is the sentence pieces made. I love that because that goes against these common narratives of, “We need to go to war. We need to fight a war. We need to win the war to get peace,” as though peace somehow mysteriously emerges after the war. That’s not how it happens. Peace is built by people who are in the shadows who recognise that, at some point, we need to stop killing each other.

I also find that there’s then the risk of being seen, whether domestically or internationally, as speaking to the enemy. We know this very well from the West. We don’t negotiate with terrorists, which I find such a perplexing narrative to embrace. A) It’s wrong because we ultimately end up doing it as we’re seeing in Afghanistan. B) It sets us up for the scenario of Afghanistan, where we haven’t spoken to those who we are trying to shape and influence. Your executive director, David Harland, put out a poignant opinion piece on the Afghanistan crisis and how that’s a perfect example of how negotiations are not to be done. We touched on this offline, but what are your thoughts on the situation in the context of what you said?

I don’t want to be, especially not being an Afghanistan expert, add my voice to the flood of commentary that’s going on at the moment and claim any expertise there. What I would say is something about the broader mediation and negotiation lessons, which our director touched on in that piece that you mentioned which he entitled a lesson on how not to negotiate.

If you look at all the debate that’s going on around what went wrong in Afghanistan, surprisingly, little of it is focused on the negotiation and mediation questions. To the extent that it is, it generally is focused on the ideas of, “The US did a dodgy deal with the Taliban, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re in this mess.” There’s relatively little attempt, at least in the mainstream media, to reflect on the mistakes that were made a little before that.

In particular, in the aftermath of the US bombing campaign in 2001, when the Taliban was at its weakest and you had the UN envoy at the time, Lakhdar Brahimi, organizing a law conference of all the Afghans to determine the future makeup of the country and advocating for the Taliban to be included, and the US rejecting that. It was thinking, “We were going to pursue this on the battlefield, and that will be the end of that. We’re not going to bring those with blood on their hands into a political process. With the benefit of hindsight, that looks like a very rash decision.

What’s most important to those in the mediation community is that we reflect on that mistake. It is not only with respect to Afghanistan but think about the other wars that are going on in the world at the moment where arguably, we’re making the same mistake. You look at the counterinsurgency counter-terrorism operations which go on in the Sahel and places like Marley at the moment. That has been tried for four years, and I’m not sure because I’m not a regional expert there but without a great deal of success. Negotiating with armed groups, specifically those of jihadists, is unpalatable for many. If nothing else, I hope that the tragedy of what’s happening in Afghanistan does make us question that and make us think about what are more effective diplomatic approaches might have been.

VOW 30 | Conflict Negotiation
Conflict Negotiation: Negotiating with armed groups is unpalatable for many. If nothing else, the tragedy of what’s happening in Afghanistan does make us question and think about what more effective diplomatic approaches might have been.


You can’t bomb yourself to peace. This is one of the things that I explore at length in the show, and that’s the action-reaction component. You can’t fight against someone and expect through bombs that they will change their view or that they will come to see the world as you’d like to see it. They may submit to your power for a time, but you are not necessarily building a bridge or a common language understanding to move forward. There’s one example. If we had engaged with the Taliban back then, we would’ve been engaging with a far less radicalised Taliban than the Taliban that we’re engaging with. That’s something we know as a fact.

Maybe we can, from here, launch into an area where you certainly have a lot of experience or region, and that’s Myanmar. You’ve spent 6 or 7 in Myanmar as the Head of the HD operations there. Conscious that you may not be able to talk about the intricate operational side of things, but perhaps you can give us an insight as to what was the kind of work you did and the outcome of the work you and the team did.

When I was there, it was at a very different time to the tragic situation which you see at the moment. At that point, when I started visiting the country and getting to know people there, it was the very beginning of this reform process led by a former general who became president, Thein Sein. This was back in 2011. His ministers were thinking seriously, “How do we open up the country? What should we be doing to the economy? How should we end some of the longest-running civil wars in the world?”

My early experiences were talking to them and many of the armed group leaders about what a negotiated process would look like. There had been some ceasefires in the past, but none of them that were particularly successful. None of them tried to address the political root courses of the conflict. You had this effort over a number of years by the government to take a different approach. However bad the situation is, at least at that phase in the country’s development, people were doing quite bold things.

Our rather modest role was to share some of the experiences that we had internationally and provide advice to armed group leaders to the government and others who requested it on how to structure those negotiations, what they might cover, and so on. They did it themselves. Even though HD’s a mediation organisation, we were not mediating members. It was their process. It was their show. We were trying to assist on the margins a little.

You are reminded of your own impotence in these situations as well. It forces you to be a little humble. There is a crisis and the undoing of so much of the progress that had been made. Even before then, we were faced with the Rohingya crisis, which was unfolding while I was there in the country. These are forces that are so far beyond your control, working for a small organisation. All you are trying to do then is a damage limitation exercise on preventing the worst outcomes and consequences. You are trying to open up channels between different communities to mitigate the worst of it.

It was, for me, a lesson in how the peaceful development of a country is not a linear path at all. You can delude yourself while you are there into thinking you are chipping away at a problem and things will continue on a positive track. The country’s experience proves otherwise. In that sense, I feel like it was an important lesson for me on knowing what you can and can’t do from an organisation like HD.

Also, it was an important lesson about when you have to step away when there’s very little that can be done or when the conflict is raging and has a lot of fuel to burn. That’s maybe even talking about that idea of conflict ripeness when mediation and the next stages can even exist, I suppose. It’s building the initial touches, right?

Yeah. That’s a fundamental and difficult question to answer because it’s almost impossible to know when you are there on the ground whether your presence is entirely useless or not. What you do have to have in this work is a great deal of patience in being able to ride out the storms. If I look at some of the work that my other colleagues have done in other parts of the world, there will be times when there will be an uptick in violence, and they can do no meaningful mediation work for several years at a time. You still maintain a discreet and modest presence because that won’t necessarily be forever.

You need to have those working relationships in place so that when circumstances do change, you are there to try to encourage peace to the extent possible. We try to take the long view as an organisation. We’re lucky enough that we have donors and supporters who are willing to see it as a multi-year process and acknowledge that, at times, it’s going to move backwards. That doesn’t mean that it’s irretrievable. It means that you change your approach.

At times, things are going to move backward. That doesn't mean that it's irretrievable. It means that you change your approach. Click To Tweet

While they may not bear fruit because the circumstances of the broader environment are such that the time is not right, having those relationships and that presence and being that trusted face over a longer period of time would be a huge strength of the organisation. It’s particularly the fact that it’s a private one. That’s a point you highlight at the start. You cannot be accused of bias or siding with the US, the UK, China, or any of the big major powers because you are a privately funded organisation that you have your fingers in every pie.

For you, personally, and maybe this has to do with Myanmar, was it because of the impact of technology? I’ll ask you to elaborate on it a little bit as well. Was that what ignited your passion for your job, the digital conflict piece? I suspect a lot of my audience will know, but maybe not everyone, that social media had a huge impact in Myanmar. Maybe you can touch on that a little bit.

It has become the case study almost for how hate speech on Facebook can abet a violent campaign and fuel it. The fact that it was so unrestrained online, seeing that first-hand, was deeply jarring. People who have studied this have known for a long time that what happens online doesn’t live online. It has a real impact on people’s lives. In the worst-case scenario, it can lead to more people dying. That is an obvious point, I suppose, to many people. What’s hard to know is what you do about that problem.

Where we were historically as a mediation community is a deep acknowledgement that this was a big problem. It was that mediators would often see the peace processes they were involved in undermined by disinformation campaigns or harassment of negotiators or mediators. The response to it had not been that well-formulated. That’s the weird world of mediation that I’ve stepped into. It is to try to define what that response means, what agreements are possible, and what we should be talking to the social media platforms about and trying it in the field and testing what works and what doesn’t because it’s a fairly new frontier. We’ve got to get past the point of saying, “It’s a problem,” to work out what solutions work.

Even defining the problem because it’s so easy to say, “It’s the algorithms.” They are, but that’s also the business model. You can’t turn a key and change it, right?

Absolutely. I’ve been on a digital education of sorts. A couple of years ago, when we embarked on this as an organisation, we did not have that deep expertise at all. We had to turn to a lot of the experts in the field to even understand when people talk about digital threats and what they mean. That, for example, has led us to make a fairly clear distinction between offensive cyber operations. It is largely state-sponsored but not exclusively attacks into, for example, a country’s critical infrastructure. It is quite a nichè capacity.

A nichè why? Is it because of the capabilities required that you can suspect it is state-sponsored? Is that what you mean?

Independent hacking groups and private individuals can achieve a certain amount themselves, but the thing that you worry about is being able to get into another country’s water supply, for example. Generally speaking, those people have to have some backing and support from the government. The number of governments that have those capabilities is rapidly growing but still is comparatively small compared to the set of people who are able to cause harm online through social media. The barriers to entry are much lower, so you can have pretty much anyone organise an information operation online. You see armed groups doing that. You see political parties doing that. You see governments doing that, of course. That’s much more widespread as a problem.

Part of our job is to get those different kinds of threats clear in our heads and then begin to come up with different solutions to those problems. We particularly think about what kind of agreements and restraints are possible. Can you negotiate with the government about what kinds of cyber-attacks will and won’t conduct? Can you negotiate with people who are conducting information operations on social media to define the terms of what’s acceptable or not? I don’t think we have the definitive answers to those questions, but those are the questions we’re asking ourselves.

Undoubtedly, it’s a great focus of the organisation, given the ubiquitous nature of technology and the misinformation you find in your pocket. You don’t have to go looking for it. Do you do that then where physical conflicts already exist, and you’re the supporting effort to try and minimise the social media influencing any potential peace negotiations? Is that the primary focus?

Yeah. You do see that very much. Often, online work and offline work go hand-in-hand. You are most worried about what’s happening online affecting things that are happening in the “real world.” To give you an example and make that a bit more real, we’ve been looking quite closely at Libya. The UN has experimented a lot with digital tools there. We’ve tried to invest heavily to understand what’s happening online.

There, you’ve seen key points in political negotiations. For example, in what they call the Libya Political Dialogue Forum, this body was tasked with coming up with a roadmap and inclusive government for the country. They are sophisticated information operations being run to circulate fake agreements, harass the mediator involved, or set up fake accounts to impersonate the negotiators. It is narrative laundering being done by certain governments that undermine the talk.

Those are things that have a concrete impact on peace processes. It is working out who is responsible for those things, whether you can come up with some limits on their behaviour, and also what the social media platforms should be doing in a context like that. Places like Libya are not always at the top of their entry and working out what more they could be doing. That’s one example of where we do see that it has a real consequence. We think that more can and should be done about that problem.

I suspect, particularly in the cyber domain, the “grey zone warfare,” you have states who deny and will deny any presence or any activities in the cyber domain. I suspect, in Libya, there will be a problem given the various significant players that have, if not direct, tertiary interests. How do you get them to the table? What stops them from saying, “We’ve got nothing to do with this. This is not us.”

It’s a question we get asked a lot. It’s a very good one. It’s one of the things that makes the job that I’m doing even more difficult than the traditional forms of mediation, which we’ve done in the past. In any conflict, you’re going to have warring parties who say, “That wasn’t me.” Clearly, what happens online, they see it as more deniable. It’s easier for them to say, “It wasn’t us.”

Technical attribution has got a lot better over time. It’s harder for people to deny it, but they still try to. You’re never going to have a perfect insight into what’s happening online and who’s exactly waging that. People feel that they have a little more wiggle room and the ability to escape accountability. That makes mediation really hard.

VOW 30 | Conflict Negotiation
Conflict Negotiation: You’re never going to have a perfect insight into what’s happening online and who’s exactly waging that war. People feel that they have a little more wiggle room and the ability to escape accountability. That makes mediation really hard.


There are a few things that you can do in response. One technique is to focus more on future norms of behaviour rather than past incidents. If you go to a government and point the finger and reference certain things that have happened in the past, you open up that conversation to, “That wasn’t me. That was someone else.”

Whereas if you are focused on, “We’ve identified a problem which you and your adversary have. We all agree that that’s a problem we want to avoid in the future because this is a particular form of critical infrastructure which we regard as off-limits. This is something we’re going to commit to in the future,” that’s a more plausible basis for the mediation exercise. It’s implicit that those things might have been done in the past, but you’re not pointing at it directly. I won’t lie. It’s really hard. There is not a deep evidence base yet for what kind of agreements work or not, but that’s very much what we’re trying to create.

You’re building that plan as it flies, so to speak. In many ways, you are not only mediating at the point of conflict, but you have to then mediate in the digital domain, which could be on the other side of the world. You start building a much wider net of support for that conflict, which makes it inevitably a lot more difficult.

Another issue that I’m sure you get asked all the time as well, but it jumps to mind, is one of the things that if you are trying to shape the narratives or the discourse on social media, I have no doubt that you are then therefore accused of some censorship or at least denying free speech of those who are using, perhaps in their view, the only medium they have, and that is social media, to have their voice heard. How do you deal with those challenges? I’m sure you get them.

You are right. We’ve seen this debate play out when we’ve tried to forge what we call social media peace agreements or codes of conduct. We tried to do that in Indonesia for the local elections. We were working together with an NGO there. We’ve tried it in Nigeria, forging an agreement between three communities there. Those people who participate in those dialogues ask exactly this question. They are like, “What are the limits? Are we curbing that freedom of expression?”

What I would say to that is if you look in the real world, not online, we generally accept that there are some limits to your freedom of expression. This differs by whatever country you are in and your culture, but those things which are explicit incitements to violence, for example. As a society, we consider that a bad thing. In that case, what agreements can do is focus on the forms of speech which are most likely to lead to civilian harm. If there are particular forms of hate speech or explicit calls for attacks on another group, we would say that that’s beyond the limit of what’s considered free expression. The other side of it is to think about what’s not the content of what people are saying but what’s the behaviour online that we think is problematic.

There, to use the parlance that Facebook has, it’s coordinated inauthentic behaviour. It is to say, if you are operating a large network of fake accounts, impersonating other people, or trying to shape the narrative around something, the common sense view of most people would be, “That’s not a good thing. That is not legitimate. We should work out ways of restricting that.” There are at least two ways where you can begin to draw some lines. I agree it’s really hard, but you do need to make people feel that they have legitimate space to be able to express their views on a conflict and criticise others without it descending into certain things which are considered unacceptable.

VOW 30 | Conflict Negotiation
Conflict Negotiation: You need to make people feel that they have legitimate space to express their views on a conflict and criticize others without it descending into certain things that are considered unacceptable.


There is the obvious question, and you touched on it already. What role do the social media companies play in this? The business model is such that they thrive on not necessarily a conflict per se, or maybe it is even conflict. It thrives on it because that’s what we share. In a time of crisis, that’s what we go to. What role do they play in it?

There are certain algorithmic changes that you point to. They are very hard to alter because they are so fundamental to having the platforms operate. There are other things that are more feasible in terms of policy changes that we and others in the mediation community would like to see. It starts with something basic, which is being more aware of the countries where social media is undermining peace processes.

The sorts of countries in which we operate are not the sorts of countries which social media platforms invest that much resources and attention into. If you look at structurally how they’re set up, they will sit down on election day at the beginning of each year. They have a formula that they will use to gauge, “What’s the risk level of this election? How bad could social media undermine it? We will invest some company resources in trying to prevent that in response to that calculation.”

Our view is that it’s important but not enough. We should be as aware of peace talks that are going on. The Libya example that I gave is a good one because the way the platforms are set up at the moment, those things are not systematically entering into their risk assessment. There is nobody in the social media companies who is looking at peace talks that are going on around the world and thinking, “Where could my platform undermine them?” That should change. That’s a conversation that we and others are trying to have with them.

I suspect that would be a difficult conversation to have. Australia has been quite vocal, particularly with Facebook, in changing some laws about advertising on Facebook, publishing news articles, and so on. The response by the organisation was quite significant because the organisation does have a lot of power. Were you about to say something?

I was going to say that what you say is right in that this broad trend towards increased government regulation and accountability that’s essential. I suppose the plea that I would make is not to forget those countries where social media can do the most harm. From a Western policy perspective, it becomes an introverted discussion in that everyone focused on, “How can this undermine what’s happening in Australia, the US, the UK, or Germany?” All of that is incredibly important. My retort to that is if you think it’s bad there, come to Libya, the Philippines, or Cameroon. You will get a real sense of how unbridled social media space could badly be.

The whole debate around the harm that social media is doing to our societies tends to be focused on defending democracy. I come with the bias of where I’m sitting and working where the places where we are. There’s not necessarily a democratic government. There might not even be a government at all. You are trying to focus on something perhaps even more fundamental than democracy, which is people’s basic peace and right to live without violence. I would like to see that be a bigger part of the debate on how the platforms change and be regulated.

The whole debate around the harm that social media is doing to our societies tends to be focused on defending democracy. Click To Tweet

We also forget our “privileged positions” in wealthy countries where we have other sources of information. I spent some time in Iraq not long ago. I was blown away to realise that everything happens on Facebook in Iraq. All the emotions I experienced is through Facebook. It is the principal medium through which information is shared between people from one side of the country to the other and from the government down, etc. We don’t give that much thought because we have other sources of information, but there are countries where there is no institutional support.

This is filling a gap or a vacuum and not necessarily leading to the outcomes the organisations would like to exactly propose. I am conscious of the time. You’d been very gracious with it. Maybe we’ll start heading toward the end of our discussion but also do something positive. I’m sure that there are positive aspects of technology and social media to the work that you do and the work that HD does, right?

There is a whole world of peace tech where there is a large community of people, not just in HD but in the rest of our peace-making community, who are experimenting a lot. They are trying to see exactly what’s possible. While our main focus at HD is mitigating the downside risks and the threats, there’s a huge positive potential to harness technology and for mediators to be savvier about that. As an industry, we’re not known for being technologically savvy. We’re playing catch up to a lot of other industries. The level of interest has surged. We are beginning to build the evidence base for what works and what doesn’t.

In particular, we spoke earlier about how technology can be used for inclusion in a peace process. That’s where there is a huge amount of potential. In Libya, it’s been quite well-documented there the UN’s efforts to reach out through different tools for digital assemblies almost and to complement the work they were doing in the negotiating room with outreach to the public at large. On our side at HD, there are a number of pilot projects which we are running, focusing on digital citizens assemblies, for example, in the Philippines. We’re running work in Sudan, engaging the diaspora. We are trying to support clubhouse discussions in Yemen.

The point of all of that is to bring people into a conversation who might otherwise be excluded from a negotiation process. It is not for the sake of it but because their support is going to be essential for the legitimacy of any agreement. There’s a huge amount that can be done. You do see that people are willing to engage. You can’t always bring people into a meeting room, but you can quite easily reach them on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. We’re silly if we don’t take advantage of those opportunities.

You can't always bring people into a meeting room, but you can quite easily reach them on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. We're silly if we don't take advantage of those opportunities. Click To Tweet

You can have Zoom meetings. It might sound funny, but I suspect you guys would’ve become quite good at holding mediations over Zoom.

You try to. Especially if you know people already, you can hop online with them, and it works. It is a little more challenging when you’re in the early stages of building trust with people. I have quite a long list of places where I’ll probably need to head to in person since pandemic restrictions are easing because they’re not the people who hop on Zoom.

I could imagine. Restrictions are easing maybe for the rest of the world but certainly not for us in Australia.

I’m sure.

I know the rest of the world is watching and perhaps shaking their heads. I’m not quite sure. On that note, it’s been an absolute pleasure. I take my hat off to you and the organisation for what you do. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing some people in the organisation and having some outsider’s insights into some of the work that you do. I’ve followed your work, the organisation’s work over the years, as well as your podcast. Congratulations on everything you do. Good luck with the small challenge of dealing with digital conflict.

Thanks so much. I really enjoyed the conversation.


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