A workshop on participatory war and peace at the University of Sheffield

‘Participatory war and peace: How social media reshape public engagement in conflict’, was the provoking title of a workshop that was held at the University of Sheffield on July 6th, 2023. The workshop brought together scholars who combine the study of conflict and the study of digital environments to better understand today’s conflict ecologies. The workshop consisted of presentations of recent research reflecting on the main concepts, themes, and realities dealing with participatory war in web 3.0 and a discussion on how digital media usage can help to bring peace.

The University of Sheffield is situated in a beautiful environment, where the green hills and herds of sheep make the traveler feel like they are stepping back in time. Under these lovely hills a conflictual history is hidden, unveiled by the two taxi drivers who offer me the ride between Manchester airport and Sheffield University housing. The history of mining is present,  with the old mines still posing a danger for animals. But the stories of below the surface are also those of workers, and elites, of people dying for the benefit of the nation. The taxi drivers mediate the stories of suffering that belong to the past as stories of the present. A past where these stories were hidden for the public as much as possible. The unveiling of this time-gone-by may lead to new claims and conflicts. The past unseen conflict situation, where people participated without (then) knowing what role they played in history, can unveil a new conflict. Is the Internet, and all its possibilities, a minefield or a uniting space?

At present, it is much more difficult not to be aware of possible stories for the future of which individuals’ actions are part. The participatory culture that was born with web 2.0 is ‘characterized by low barriers to civic engagement, active involvement of publics traditionally regarded as information consumers in the creation and sharing of content, and increased user interconnectedness’ (Chernobrov 2022), which has made being innocent or not appropriating narratives on futures (be it fake, misleading) impossible.

Participatory warfare then speaks about how the ‘citizen’ becomes part of warfare through the digital, in its many ways. Matthew Ford (see Hoskins and Ford 2022) stated that in warfare today there are no bystanders. A bystander is a person who is present at an event or incident but does not take part. The concept got a special meaning in the context of war and conflict, introduced with the analysis of the holocaust: people who are present but do not (want to) see. Today then it is impossible to be a bystander, because web 3.0 makes everybody participant in conflict, so we cannot deny to see.

However, there are many ways to see, also with the digital means, or probably especially with these means. The online information creation, the social media, have become spaces that different groups of people from societies in war use and manipulate, each with its specific aim to steer the conflict. In the workshop the unveiling of the past, with the aim of narrating a story in the present, just like the Sheffield hills, was one of the uses of social media that repeats itself in Ukrainian, Russian, Malian, and Chadian wars.

All presentations in the morning session helped to think through this participation. Firstly, Gregory Asmolov delved into the theories around participatory warfare and how the digital has reshaped participatory warfare. Then, Timothy Peacock (Glasgow) took us with him in his thinking through memes as forms of storytelling in warfare. Thereafter, Dmitry Chernobrov (the organizer of the workshop) revealed us the way the diasporas contest war narratives online, and create their own warfare. Finally, Ilan Manor (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) linked the digital to the influence of Artificial Intelligence, which will lead to the creation of completely different universes of war, where those who know how to manipulate AI create a narrative and fantasy. This was a frightening ending of the first session in the workshop.

The second round of presentations was about more practice based research. Andrew Hoskins (Glasgow)  took us to the reality of Telegram in participatory war in Ukraine and Matthew Ford (Swedish Defense University) tried to understand wars through the reading of all information that is online. For him reading war has never been so transparent. Then Alexandra Pavliuc (Oxford Internet Institute) explained how she seeks to understand elites’ participation in the Ukrainian war. Finally, to change the geographical scene Mirjam de Bruijn (Leiden University) presented her (n)ethnographic work on online participation in the conflicts in Chad and Mali, Africa. These presentations made clear that we are still in search for the right concepts, the right methods (from computational and ethnographic, to political science and anthropological analysis) to understand digital participatory warfare. It has become evident however, that we are facing new forms of participation and indeed that looking away, being there, and not knowing is increasingly difficult. But also, that a lot that we see on social media is not true, or a created truth, where memories, propaganda and other ‘tools’ to create stories are soon to be taken over by AI, which will then make the participation in warfare through the digital media uncontrollable. AI reusing AI data may create a new form of automatized and artificially generated disinformation. In a documentary by Tegenlicht, new media professor Vladan Joler refers to the phenomenon where AI are fed with insufficient or incorrect data and use this to prompt nonsensical or factually incorrect responses as ‘statistical hallucinations’, while other academics prefer the term ‘confabulation’ so not to anthromorphize AI. Mitigating these hallucinations poses additional challenges for the future.

The roundtable in the afternoon was an attempt to introduce the idea of digitally participatory peace building. This is a field of inquiry and practice that is still in its infancy. The taxi ride and the unveiling of Sheffield’s hills’ histories of conflict may serve as an example, for how peace building needs information, but the storyteller will be the messenger who mediates the story he or she wants to tell. It might also be that here AI will have a positive contribution as it can turn digital warfare in digital peacebuilding by creating counter discourses and imagery that may influence the course of history. It is a fact that the struggle for peace is more difficult that the starting of war and the weaponization of social media.

Written by Mirjam de Bruijn
Image: Magpie Mine in Sheffield. Credits

Chernobrov, Dmitry. 2022. ‘Diasporas as Cyberwarriors: Infopolitics, Participatory Warfare and the 2020 Karabakh War’. International Affairs 98 (2): 631–51.
Ford, Matthew, and Andrew Hoskins. 2022. Radical War: Data, Attention and Control in the Twenty-First Century. Oxford University Press.

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