Sunday, 8 October 2006

Using power of the Internet to promote peace

One man's quest involves software to resolve disputes

Yair Amichai-Hamburger, who has developed conflict-resolution computer software, at the "Separation Barrier" between Israel and the West Bank. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Sunday, October 8, 2006
Page F - 3

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- While the Internet has become notorious as a forum for spreading messages of violence and terrorism, Yair Amichai-Hamburger believes it could become a key tool in promoting peace.

Amichai-Hamburger, an Israeli social-industrial psychologist who has written widely on the impact of the Internet on well-being, is developing new software and an Internet platform he hopes will become a cybergateway to conflict resolution around the world.

"The Internet creates a protected environment for users where they have more control over the communication process," said Amichai-Hamburger. "The Internet's unique qualities may help in the creation of positive contact between rival groups."

The new Internet platform is intended to enable groups from opposing sides in conflicts to make contact as the first step toward peacemaking. Amichai-Hamburger believes the use of the Internet for such encounters will revolutionize "people-to-people" contacts which have been used to reduce prejudice and conflict for the past half-century, but with mixed results.

From racial strife in mid-20th century America to apartheid in South Africa, Protestant-Catholic relations in Northern Ireland and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, social scientists and public policymakers have advocated "people-to-people" encounters as a key to peacemaking. Positive encounters between groups in conflict could break down barriers, create better understanding and serve as the basis for better relations in future, they contended.

Amichai-Hamburger cited the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that outlawed segregated U.S. schools. "The basic idea behind the decision of the Supreme Court was the psychological understanding that the situation could not continue. That if you want to have one nation, you can't break it up into ghettos. It was assumed that you have to have people meet each other, to see and learn the differences and the beauty of each group and their culture," said Amichai-Hamburger.

"One of the problems of intergroup contact is that members may approach it, and experience during it, high intergroup anxiety -- that is anxiety as a group member about meeting members of the other group," said Professor Miles Hewstone of Oxford University, whose theories on the "contact hypothesis" have been used to enhance contacts between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. "Contact works, when it does, by reducing such anxiety."

"I agree with Dr. Amichai-Hamburger that the Internet could be a major tool in conflict resolution," Hewstone said in a telephone interview. "I think he has got an interesting idea here that's worth pursuing."

Hewstone said he tried to create a similar computer-based platform for dialogue between Protestant and Catholic schoolchildren in Northern Ireland, but was prevented from doing so by strict British laws for protecting children's privacy that restrict external access to school Intranet systems.

"You can imagine the circumstances under which people would be more willing to divulge more personal information more quickly because they are hiding behind a computer screen, but it's still a leap of faith from there to whether they would do that in everyday life and whether it would impact on their face-to-face relations with people from the other group," he said.

The classic expression of the theory behind these encounters was "the contact hypothesis," coined by Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport in his 1954 book "The Nature of Prejudice," in which he suggested that contact between different groups would lessen prejudice.

Allport's theories had a major impact on integrated housing projects and desegregated school systems in the United States, and were used to break down the color bar in the U.S. Army, considered a model of integration for other institutions.

But more than half a century of interracial, interfaith and cross-political encounters have not always produced the desired effect. Studies of encounters in conflict situations around the world have suggested that the "contact hypothesis" works only when a range of conditions are satisfied. The contact must be pleasant, it must be fairly intimate and not casual, the participants need to perceive they are of equal status, and it must involve cooperation between groups working toward a mutually agreed goal.

Amichai-Hamburger said that use of the Internet not only reduced the anxiety that could sabotage any in-person encounter, it could also help to create near-perfect conditions for Allport's "contact hypothesis" to occur.

His theories, which are attracting increasing attention from psychologists and the high-tech industry, have applications for resolving a range of conflicts from war zones to corporate disputes.

Amichai-Hamburger, editor of "The Social Net: Understanding Human Behavior in Cyberspace," is a leading expert on the influence and use of the Internet and has advised major corporations, public service providers and political parties. After several years as vice chairman of the psychology department at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, he begins work this month as head of the Bezeq International Research Center for the study of the Psychology of Internet Use at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herlizya, a private Israeli university.

Although his project does not yet have its own Web site, he is overseeing a team of programmers, and is trying to raise funds from corporations that "have shown an interest in sponsoring the project," Amichai-Hamburger said without elaborating. When it is up and running, he said, access will be strictly controlled; group leaders, experts in intergroup contact and psychologists will be online with participants, who will be restricted to those committed to the aims of the encounters.

He said use of the Internet would help overcome the practical difficulties of bringing together people from warring factions. Since the collapse of the Oslo peace process, Israelis and Palestinians have been unable to engage in people-to-people projects such as Seeds of Peace because of the security barriers Israel has erected around the West Bank and Gaza.

Amichai-Hamburger said Internet encounters have proved to become much more intimate more quickly than face-to-face meetings, and people felt much more relaxed sitting at home with their computers than in a formal group. In addition, people are now accustomed to learning and communicating via the keyboard.

"For a long time, people have used the Internet for e-learning. It's quite comfortable for people to sit in their house and study through the Internet. And we know that millions of people around the world are using the Internet to communicate with others," he said.

Amichai-Hamburger said he hoped the new platform would be launched with the support of political and community leaders from all sides, whose backing would encourage their constituents to participate. It will contain a database drawing on past encounter experiences -- including failures -- as well as cultural information about the groups for participants to study before entering the dialogue.

Contacts will begin at text-only level in order to reduce the anxiety caused by appearing in public, and also in order to increase the "salience" or sense of group identity which studies have shown is crucial to the eventual success of the encounter.

"We want to change people's stereotypes," said Amichai-Hamburger. "We want people to generalize from their positive experience to their whole perception of the other group. The Internet can become a major tool in bringing about world peace."

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