To defuse political violence across US, conflict mediators apply lessons from gang disputes and foreign elections

The U.S. isn’t the first country to suffer election-related violence. Activists are learning from other countries how to keep the peace. (Photo: Roberto Sschmidt/ APF via Getty Images)

Joseph G. Bock, Kennesaw State University; Marta Poblet, RMIT University, and Per Aarvik, Chr. Michelsen Institute

After a violent American election season, activists are trying to keep the peace using technologies and techniques more often applied in unstable democracies.

As inflamed supporters of Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, members of the DC Peace Team – a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that promotes nonviolent conflict resolution – were at Black Lives Matter Plaza, a few blocks from the Capitol, monitoring the convergence of predominantly white pro-Trump supporters and mainly Black counterprotesters.

When a white Trump supporter pulled a knife on a Black counterprotester, team members in bright vests approached the man, hands in the air, encouraging him to “slow down,” according to the group. Soon, he put away the knife, and friends pulled him away from the scene.

Five people died in the Capitol attack. But in this one incident, at least, violence was stopped before it could start.

Man in reflective yellow vestA DC Peace Team activist at Black Lives Matter Plaza on Jan. 6. DC Peace Team, CC BY

From Kenya to Minnesota

Interventions by volunteers trained in keeping the peace when tensions are high have long been used to reduce election-related violence in the developing world.

After Kenya’s bitterly contested 2007 presidential election, which left over 1,000 people dead, Kenyan activists created an online map to monitor and try to prevent political violence. Their efforts inspired the development of Ushahidi – Swahili for “witness” – a crowdsourced mapping tool that shows peacekeepers exactly where a conflict is developing.

Ushahidi has since been used worldwide to document countless political problems and humanitarian crises, from violent incidents in the Syrian Civil War to sexual harassment in Egypt. In 2013 and 2017 Kenyan activists once again used this technology to predict and defuse potential violence before, during and after their presidential election.

Now, political violence is threatening democracy in the United States. The Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection was the culmination of a violent year that saw clashes between police and racial justice protesters, a right-wing plot to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor and death threats against election officials.

For humanitarian workers and crisis responders who, like us, have worked abroad in conflict zones, the scenes looked terribly familiar. In late 2020 we joined with other conflict experts – including both local community groups and global nonprofit organizations – to found the Trust Network, a nonpartisan group dedicated to detecting and trying to prevent political violence.

Four young Kenyans sit at a table with computersLeaders of Ushahidi in their offices in 2013 in Nairobi, Kenya. Simon Maina/AFP via Getty Images

Conflict mapping in action

Online teams at the Trust Network gather intelligence on the activities and stated intentions of extremist groups gleaned from both think tanks and research institutes that monitor the violent fringes of U.S. society. Based on that information, we identify potentially violent outbreaks – whether at protests or political rallies – then mark the site on a digital map.

The map is shared with member organizations, among them the local conflict mediators that work on the ground to de-escalate violence at marches, demonstrations and the like. Physically inserting themselves between opposing groups, they talk to each side and attempt to persuade people to step back from violence. This strategy, also called “violence interruption,” is often used in gang disputes.

From October to December 2020, the Trust Network mapped 193 incidents of violence and harassment related to the U.S. general election on Nov. 3.

US map with pins dropped nationwideA crisis map of the United States, documenting violent incidents between October and December 2020. Trust Network, CC BY

Sometimes, just mapping a crisis draws enough attention to deter violence. When instigators know they are being watched – and potentially recorded with smartphones – they may withdraw.

On Election Day, Nov. 3, three vehicles filled with people wearing camouflage, their license plates covered, started circling polling stations in Minneapolis. On-the-ground volunteers from Nonviolent Peaceforce alerted the Trust Network. The incident was mapped, and an alert went out to police, government officials and community members about the potential danger at voting sites.

The vehicles soon left, apparently deterred by seeing Nonviolent Peaceforce volunteers in semi-official-looking orange vests wielding smartphone cameras.

Twitter time

Over time, however, it has become clear that digitally mapping election violence is not the game changer in modern America that it was in Kenya in 2007. People are so plugged in to smartphones that conflict-mediating groups can quickly and easily find out when and where violent events are unfolding.

What their street mediators need, the groups told us, is real-time information about potential violence at protests and rallies to better navigate chaotic conditions.

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This year, we’ve begun using Twitter, local news sites and other digital platforms to track the size, location and movements of extremist groups like the Proud Boys. Collating the posts of credible journalists and independent videographers, we send up-to-the-minute information about emerging hot spots to street teams using Signal, an encrypted text-messaging app.

The Trust Network also seeks to deter violence between protesters and police at such events, using a combination of de-escalation strategies.

Before a Nov. 6 “Stop the Steal” protest planned at Detroit’s TCF Center over vote counting, for example, the Wayne County Dispute Resolution Center suggested local police wear baseball caps instead of riot gear to avoid escalating tensions. The officers complied.

On the scene, Trust Network representatives wearing bright green vests introduced themselves to police, protesters and counterprotesters, signaling to all their intention to keep the protest peaceful. An unrelated group called the Election Defenders was also working to prevent violence between opposing groups.

People in orange and yellow sweatshirts labeled 'Defenders' talk in a circle at nightDefenders were on hand to keep the peace while votes were counted in downtown Detroit on Nov. 4. Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images

The combination of pre-event communication with police and dialogue at the scene helped lower the temperature of a potentially explosive situation. Several Detroit protesters were carrying weapons, according to the Detroit Free Press. But that “Stop the Steal” protest stayed calm.

Brendan O’Hanrahan, media-monitoring lead of the Election Incident Reporting Project, contributed to this story.The Conversation

Joseph G. Bock, Director, School of Conflict Management, Peacebuilding and Development, Kennesaw State University; Marta Poblet, Associate Professor, Graduate School of Business and Law, RMIT University, and Per Aarvik, Affiliated writer on Contemporary Technology , Chr. Michelsen Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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From Athens to the Blockchain: Oracles for Digital Democracy

By  Marta Poblet, Darcy W. E. Allen, Oleksii Konashevych, Aaron M. Lane and  Carlos Andres Diaz Valdivia

Oracles were trusted sources of knowledge for public deliberation in classical Athens. Very much like expert and technical knowledge, divine advice was embedded in the deliberation and decision-making process of the democratic Assembly. While the idea of religious divination is completely out of place in our contemporary democracies, oracles made a technological comeback with modern computer science and cryptography and, more recently, the emergence of the blockchain as a “trust machine.” This paper reviews the role of oracles in Athenian democracy and, stemming from the renewed use of the term in computer sciences and cryptography, analyses the case of oracles in the nascent blockchain ecosystem. The paper also proposes a sociotechnical approach to the use of distributed oracles as informational devices to assist deliberative processes in digital democracy settings and considers the limits that such an approach may face.

[Read the full article at https://doi.org/10.3389/fbloc.2020.575662 ]

 

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The Governance of Blockchain Dispute Resolution

By Darcy W.E. Allen, Aaron M. Lane, and Marta Poblet

Blockchain technology acts as infrastructure for self-executing smart contracts. Because contracts are incomplete and some parties are opportunistic, these new contracting possibilities create dispute resolution challenges. For instance, will smart contracts be recognized, and any disputes resolved, within the existing territorial courts? In this article, we first map some institutional governance possibilities for contracting parties (e.g. mediation, private arbitration, and courts) to create a Dispute Resolution Possibility Frontier (DRPF). Second, we provide case studies of emerging blockchain-based dispute resolution mechanisms. Blockchain-based smart contracts create a source of new disputes requiring resolution, but also can serve as a technology that facilitates new methods of dispute resolution, including for disputes arising from traditional legal contracts. Contracting parties will subjectively make tradeoffs for their most effective dispute resolution mechanism, and the costs of dispute resolution will change over time through a process of institutional innovation.

Read the full paper at [https://www.hnlr.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/75-allen-et-al.pdf ]

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The Catalan tsunami: encrypting swarm intelligence

A Mediterranean tsunami is a rare, once-in-a-century event. A black swan. In Catalonia, the abnormal surge has taken the unique form of a “Democratic Tsunami”.

On Monday 14 October, the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced 12 Catalan politicians and grassroots activists to long jail terms for sedition and misuse of public funds. Sedition laws are a thing of the past in many liberal democracies. To date, the penal category of sedition had rarely been applied in post-1978 Spain.

The Supreme Court sentence puts an end to a lengthy trial judging the failed secession bid of 1 October 2017. Yet, the harshness of the ruling, qualified by the International Commission of Jurists as “disproportionate and ultimately unjustifiable” also marks the start of a new wave of pro-independence, pro-human rights activism and protest in Catalonia.

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Stop repression in Catalonia, by Steve Eason (Flikr)

Tsunami Democràtic emerged a few weeks ago as a grassroots activist initiative to prepare “the citizens’ response to the Supreme Court sentence”. As with other digital-born activist movements, Democratic Tsunami thrives on social media platforms. Especially on Telegram, Catalonia’s hottest messaging app. In a matter of days, the Tsunami Democràtic Telegram channel has grown from a few thousand to nearly 330,000 subscribers at the time of writing.

Tsunami Democràtic deploys activism tactics mirroring some of the nimble forms of ongoing protest in Hong Kong. Among them, a leaderless online presence to preserve anonymity; unidirectional communications via “official” channels to discourage fake accounts; short-notice, bullet-point calls for people to pop up in local meetups (or “picnics”). With these tools, activists have coordinated large sit-ins at Hong Kong and Barcelona international airports.

 

Underpinning these tactics, Tsunami Democràtic activists leverage encrypted, privacy-enhanced technologies. This week, the group has released an app that requires a QR code to open. Users can only get the code from other users within their “trusted circles” and are expected to share it likewise. The app requests users to share their approximate location and time preferences to “know how many people are available in each area and when available for peaceful actions of civil disobedience”. Notifications will only pop up for those people within the area.

The new generation of activists is as tech-savvy as their immediate predecessors of the Umbrella Revolution, the Spanish 15-M movement, or the 2017 independence referendum in Catalonia, to name well-known examples. Yet, both Hong Kong and Catalan activists have grown weary of exposing their identities in a world where state surveillance, data (and metadata) breaches and engineered misinformation are the new normal.

The new layer of decentralised, encrypted protocols may offer greater resistance to surveillance, censorship, and hacking. But, as many blockchain projects show – to mention a technology where full decentralisation is the Holy Grail – architectural decentralisation does not necessarily entail decentralised governance. In fact, there is an interesting paradox here, for decentralised, trustless governance requires first and second-order levels of trust: (i) trust the code, (ii) trust the [team of] coders. If coders remain anonymous for strategic reasons, second-order trust becomes a leap of faith (we trust you, whoever you are). The suspension of disbelief to allow centralised management of collective intelligence is a new form of “swarm activism” in political conflict scenarios. A digital social contract with a post-modern, encrypted Leviathan. Perhaps a sophisticated “human botnet”, as Enric Luján has recently argued on Twitter.

Will it work for Tsunami Democràtic? In the thick of another complex cycle of protests, demands and repression, it is too early to call. Stay tuned.

Marta

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Linked democracy: Foundations, Tools, and Applications

Citizens’ trust in democratic institutions is reaching new lows globally. The trust deficit primarily affects governments and representative institutions, but also media outlets and platforms spreading misinformation. In parallel, new forms of digital populism—bots, fake news, micro-targeting—are on the rise, degrading public debate and disempowering citizens and their voices. In the age of social media, paradoxically, citizens’ isegoria—the equal right to participate in the public debate—could come to an end.

LinkedDemocracyYet, these trends also coexist with ongoing experimenting and testing of innovative tools and strategies for civic action, such as crowdsourced data curation, deliberation, or decision making. A new generation of civic technologies is now enabling citizens to blend offline and online resources to achieve new goals and reinvent democracy in the 21st century. The interplay between people, civic technologies and open data can create participatory ecosystems where collective knowledge emerges and further civic action develops. Our book examines these formations as ‘linked democracy ecosystems’ and analyses their emergence and governing principles.

Check out and download our book at:

https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-3-030-13363-4

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Sac i sort: vells i nous models de democràcia aleatòria

La tria aleatòria de ciutadans per ocupar diferents càrrecs i responsabilitats polítiques era un dels trets característics de la democràcia atenenca clàssica. Què suscita l’interès contemporani per la democràcia aleatòria i pel disseny d’institucions basades en el principi d’aleatorietat?

El meu post sencer a Pensem:

https://www.pensem.cat/noticia/34/sac/sort/vells/nous/models/democracia/aleatoria

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Apunts breus sobre la democràcia a Europa: reptes i sortides

L’escenari polític europeu s’ha vist sacsejat amb la irrupció de partits i discursos d’arrel populista que impugnen principis i valors democràtics i laminen les institucions representatives arreu del continent. Però, és aquesta, realment, l’única resposta possible a la creixent apatia electoral i a la desconfiança en les institucions? La Unió Europea té al davant el gran repte de dissenyar institucions que articulin les capacitats polítiques de la ciutadania en tots els nivells, i construir així un veritable demos europeu. Perquè, en definitiva, sense més democràcia no hi haurà més Europa.

Llegiu l’article sencer a:

https://irla.cat/articles/apunts-democracia-europa/

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Is Blockchain Hashing an Effective Method for Electronic Governance?

My paper with Oleksii Konashevych on the use of the blockchain for e-governance is now published. Check out the online version at: http://ebooks.iospress.nl/volumearticle/50851

Abstract

Governments across the world are testing different uses of the blockchain for the delivery of their public services. Blockchain hashing–or the insertion of data in the blockchain–is one of the potential ablockchain-3012026_640pplications of the blockchain in this space. With this method, users can apply special scripts to add their data to blockchain transactions, ensuring both immutability and publicity. Blockchain hashing also secures the integrity of the original data stored on central governmental databases. The paper starts by analysing possible scenarios of hashing on the blockchain and assesses in which cases it may work and in which it is less likely to add value to a public administration. Second, the paper also compares this method with traditional digital signatures using PKI (Public Key Infrastructure) and discusses standardisation in each domain. Third, it also addresses issues related to concepts such as “distributed ledger technology” and “permissioned blockchains.” Finally, it raises the question of whether blockchain hashing is an effective solution for electronic governance, and concludes that its value is controversial, even if it is improved by PKI and other security measures. In this regard, we claim that governments need first to identify pain points in governance, and then consider the trade-offs of the blockchain as a potential solution versus other alternatives.

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Distributed, privacy-enhancing technologies in the 2017 Catalan referendum on independence: New tactics and models of participatory democracy

My paper on how civic groups leveraged distributed technologies in the 2017 Catalan referendum on independence is now available at First Monday.

https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/9402/7692

Abstract

This paper examines new civic engagement practices unfolding during the 2017 referendum on independence in Catalonia. These practices constitute one of the first signs of some emerging trends in the use of the Internet for civic and political action: the adoption of horizontal, distributed, and privacy-enhancing technologies that rely on P2P networks and advanced cryptographic tools.

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2017 Catalan referendum on independence, by HazteOir

In this regard, the case of the 2017 Catalan referendum, framed within conflicting political dynamics, can be considered a first-of-its-kind in participatory democracy. The case also offers an opportunity to reflect on an interesting paradox that twenty-first-century activism will face: the more it will rely on private-friendly, secured, and encrypted networks, the more open, inclusive, ethical, and transparent it will need to be.

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Assigning Creative Commons Licenses to Research Metadata: Issues and Cases

Check out our new book chapter discussing licensing options for research metadata:

https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-00178-0_16

Pre-print available here: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1609.05700.pdf

Abstract

This paper discusses the problem of lack of clear licensing and transparency of usage terms and conditions for research metadata.
2000px-Cc-by_new.svg_ Making research data connected, discoverable and reusable are the key enablers of the new data revolution in research. We discuss how the lack of transparency hinders discovery of research data and make it disconnected from the publication and other trusted research outcomes. In addition, we discuss the application of Creative Commons licenses for research metadata, and provide some examples of the applicability of this approach to internationally known data infrastructures.

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