Can international conflicts be truly resolved ? After all, peace agreements can end armed conflicts but not necessarily hate and grievances between nations that accumulated for many years. Ironically, despite being essential to achieve “real peace”, “nation to nation” peace is hardly encouraged or supported by conflicting governments as it is seen soft and irrelevant to national interests. NGO’s, foundations and individual entrepreneurs are usually the ones that actively engage in peacebuilding activities, mainly by creating intergroup dialogue based on “contact theory” developed by G. Allport in the 1950s. “Conflict Theory” claims that bringing together members of opposing groups will reduce prejudice and discrimination, and lead to more harmonious relationships – given that the meeting takes place under the right conditions. Participants should have equal status and work together towards a common goal. The contact project should be supported by institutional authorities from both sides.
However, in today’s complex, extremely violent conflict environment, treating contact theory per-se as the ultimate strategy to bring peace between peoples, is hardly effective and sometimes could even do more harm than good. Contact theory typically assumes face-to-face meetings to take place under “lab conditions” without being influenced from real-time security concerns in the political environment and with full professional, organizational capacities.
In addition, there are several structural challenges associated with bringing people from rival groups together to a face-to-face dialogue. Some of these include: difficulties in recruiting non-liberals and influential participants, increasing inter-group empathy during a violent conflict, maintaining changes in attitudes throughout the project between meetings and once it ends, allocating expensive resources to conduct cross-border encounters, defining and evaluating the project’s success and above all having a real impact on the conflict which goes beyond the group itself.
Nevertheless, the development of science and technology brought new platforms and tools that can assist in overcoming contact theory’s structural challenges mentioned above. Conducting a process of conflict transformation in which parties change their attitudes and behaviors toward each other on a virtual platform combined with physical meetings can increase its effectiveness and impact.
Virtual platforms are popular, free, fun, and highly accessible. They allow a more inclusive and effective requirement of leading figures, hardliners, and others who find it difficult to meet face-to-ace due to time, geographic and political barriers. They also provide a better platform for “ventilation”: the need to expose and share the unpleasant thoughts and perceptions individuals have on one another – an essential element in any conflict transformation process. In addition, virtual contact offers a solution to “reentry” problem – according to which the physical experience they had slowly fades away, the continuous online connection stays and reminds the participants of the reality of the “other” each time they connect through their Smartphone or computer and also once the dialogue project has finished. In addition, virtual platforms provide the facilitators with better tools to control discussion and the process of conflict transformation. The facilitator can conduct an intergroup discussion in the main platform and at the same time chat individually with those who need advice or want to share a feeling or idea, and even create a small chat group to manage specific issues and problems.
From the organizational point of view, online interaction allows more participation of more people for less logistical and administrative costs than face-to-face meetings which require booking of expensive venues, high transportation costs and other resources such as visas and entry permits. Finally, an online dialogue program offers new methods for monitoring and evaluation – a common challenge for NGO’s that need to demonstrate to their donors a “change” in participants’ approaches and attitudes. When conducting the dialogue online, it is possible to monitor and analyze the change in dynamics of the discussion itself. This evaluation method is based on the observation of actual behavior during the interaction and not only at a certain point in time, as done when using questionnaires.
One of the main challenges in conflict transformation is creating empathy by “putting one in the other’s shoes”. Participants with strong national identity (usually the desired target group) will find it difficult to emphasize with the “enemy” and even if they manage to do so, the emotion usually fades away with time. Nevertheless, as virtual reality technology is advancing, and soon will become an integrated part of the Internet experience, new possibilities for serious games are created (e.g., immersive role play and perspective-taking). VR can create engaging, immersive experiences that provoke empathy in ways not possible before. The rapid development of other technologies such as artificial intelligence, 3D- printing and internet of Things could provide even more tools that can assist peacebuilding projects, once the technology reaches mass usage.
Addressing the issue of bringing peace between peoples from an international conflict resolution perspective, requires the conduct of a long, structured and constructive professional conflict transformation process. Such process will address the core concerns the groups hold against each other and will aim to achieve joint creation to have real impact on the conflict at large. Using technology and in particular virtual platforms and virtual reality as complementary tools can help improve the effectiveness and impact of peacebuilding work. Going back to the initial question, to truly resolve international conflicts, peace agreements between states must be accompanied and supported by peacebuilding-bottom up projects that bring peace between peoples.
Arik Segal is the founder and CEO of Segal Conflict Management; he specializes in using technology as a tool in conflict management processes and facilitating online dialogue projects over social media platforms.
Béatrice Hasler Lev-Tov (PhD, University of Zurich) is a Lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. Her academic work in the intersection of psychology and technology aims to develop practical applications for peace-building and conflict resolution.