Tuesday, March 21, President and CEO of PeaceTech Lab Dr. Sheldon Himelfarb presented a guest lecture titled “Misinformation: How to Manage the Greatest Threat to Peacebuilding Today” in Tucker Theater. The English Department, the Arts and Sciences Faculty Grants Fund and the Judaic Studies program sponsored the lecture.
Mildred and J.B. Hickman professor of English and humanities Henry Hart introduced Himelfarb, honoring his diverse series of achievements. Himelfarb has previously worked as a commentator for National Public Radio, written articles and published films on topics such as politics and popular culture and supervised peacebuilding programs in countries such as Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. He has also been involved as a director for the Center of Innovation for Media, Conflict and Peacebuilding at the United States Institute of Peace.
“One of the things that I really admire about Sheldon is that he’s not just talking about the problem and how difficult it is to solve,” Hart said. “He’s taking concrete steps to come to some kind of solution.”
Himelfarb was the recipient of the Capitol Area Peacemaker Award from American University and the Prometheus Social Enterprise Award, sponsored by Prometheus Publishing and the Rothman Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
“I think we all agree that these are very, very dangerous times in which we live,” Himelfarb said. “But I am equally sure that these are exciting and hopeful times when we have in our grasp new opportunities to create a safer, more peaceful and more prosperous planet, if we seize the day.”
Himelfarb began his lecture by discussing the frequent use of technology by global and authoritarian regimes as a strategic implement to undermine trust in elections, scientific organizations and individuals. According to Himelfarb, much of government policy is centered on the removal or censorship of negative content online.
“I wonder if the occupation of these sorts of questions is actually preventing us from focusing on a different set of problems, problems that in the end can actually make us more secure,” Himelfarb said.
From Himelfarb’s perspective, technology remains a neutral player. By considering the potential of modern technologies as a component of peacebuilding on a global scale, Himelfarb believes progress can be made.
Himelfarb then introduced stories of various innovative individuals from a diverse set of locations, all of whom used technology to combat conflict in one way or another. He began with the story of Dlshad Othman.
“Like so many who managed to leave, he would worry constantly about the family there facing the daily horrors of that war,” Himelfarb said. “He created, as you see, AYMTA – Saving Lives in Syria, which was a mobile app to track the trajectory of fire missiles to send warnings to get out of the way by email, text and social media.”
Similarly, in Dharavi, India, a series of apps have been created to address everyday issues such as water safety, emergency management and waste management. Himelfarb previously met with three young girls demonstrating the functions of their mobile app “Women Fight Back” which assists with issues impeding women’s safety. The app features a distress button, capable of contacting emergency contacts and mapping the user’s location.
Himelfarb acknowledged the capability of technology to not only empower courageous local peacebuilders, but also to power authoritarian regimes and violent extremists.
“The real question I think we need to be asking today is how do we amplify the potential of technology to save lives, rather than its potential for harm and hatred?” Himelfarb said. “This was the question my colleagues and I set out to answer when the PeaceTech Lab was developed at the U.S. Institute of Peace.”
According to Himelfarb, PeaceTech’s original mission was to put technological tools into the hands of local peacebuilders. PeaceTech created an accelerator with 36 companies from around the globe to offer mentoring opportunities on topics such as raising funds and engineering work. The accelerator allowed for companies to achieve funding for startups in fields like job building, food distribution and refugee empowerment.
“This is what we’ve done for nearly a decade since the PeaceTech lab came into being and putting the right tools in the right hands for world peace,” Himelfarb said. “Our programs reached over 100,000 people in the U.S. and overseas. We worked in more than 30 countries with more than 2000 organizations who were tackling election violence, gender violence, inter-ethnic religious conflict, food insecurity, gang wars and other drivers of violence.”
In today’s world, Himelfarb noted that these drivers of violence are exacerbated due to the threat of misinformation, which develops as a result of the implementation of technology into our day-to-day lives.
“In other words, we have all become broadcasters: broadcasters of information and misinformation,” Himelfarb said. “And herein lies the danger.”
Himelfarb gave a comprehensive list of the drastic effects of misinformation, including its intensification on wars in places such as South Sudan, Myanmar, Ethiopia and Ukraine. He also mentioned misinformation in action with the use of deepfakes in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and misinformation in relation to health concerns, such as falsified death tolls and vaccine information throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
He also mentioned the effect of misinformation on climate change, noting that misinformation contributes directly to the worsening of the climate crisis.
“So where does this leave us?” Himelfarb said. “Obviously, you can’t uninvent the internet. We believe that the solution begins with a better understanding: asking different questions, gaining a better understanding of the magnitude and the urgency of the problem.”
The lecture concluded with a brief question and answer session.
Co-director of the Disinfo Lab, a student-run project at the College’s Global Research Institute, Aaraj Vi ’21, asked Himelfarb about the specific role of the IPIE in future efforts at combatting disinformation.
In Spring of 2021, PeaceTech partnered with the University of Oxford’s Programme on Democracy and Technology to create the IPIE, International Panel on the Information Environment. Their goal was to begin combating misinformation on a global scale.
“The importance of this issue is not lost on me by any means,” Vi said. “The IPIE idea is something new and despite doing research in this space for the last three years, I haven’t heard of something like this before.”
Since the PeaceTech lab’s initial proposal in 2021, 50 research scientists from around the world have been recruited as misinformation research scientists, planning to expand to 300 by the date of the Nobel Prize Summit on May 24-26, 2023.
“We are generation PeaceTech: the first generation in human history with the power to send powerful ideas, lifesaving information, vital funds around the world with the push of a button,” Himelfarb said. “The first generation with easy access to do-it-yourself app makers to crowdsourcing, to satellite imagery and more. The first generation with a super computer in our pockets every single day. And therefore, the power of PeaceTech in our grasp.”