Crowdfeeding early response: SMS that create space to reflect

In her famous essay on Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt described what she called the banality of evil: that Eichmann was no evil mastermind, and that more generally terrible things are often carried out by ordinary people, not by sociopaths or fanatics. In a nutshell, her argument was that situations where terrible acts are repeatedly and systematically perpetrated by many people cannot be explained by extreme behaviours. This is not a mob in a spree of violence, it’s rather ordinary seeming people going about their daily lives – and doing terrible things with apparent ease. Arendt suggested that evil was a lack of thought, it was a situation where there is no space for critical reflection. Evil, then, is the lack of reflective space. To avoid terrible acts, to bring peace, we should foster space for reflective thought processes.

Ceasefire’s approach to reducing gang violence in Chicago in some ways speaks to this theory. The organization believes that violence is a disease. Thus, if disease prevention is about behavior change, so is violence prevention. Ceasefire’s methodology (developed over years of practice and validated by an independent report of the National Institute of Justice) is to understand violence as a disease and then treat it accordingly. Ceasefire projects do this by identifying potentially violent incidents, intervening to interrupt them, and designing responses that promote behavior change through a change in the pervasive narrative of violence.

It’s in this last step – behavior change through narrative change – that the link to Arendt’s theory of evil is apparent. One way to change a narrative is to create the space for reflection. Ceasefire recently piloted an SMS-based response to violence that aims to do precisely this. The project sends SMS reminders to people likely to participate in gun violence in an attempt to interrupt violent acts. The approach is based on similar campaigns in the public health field, where it’s been shown that SMS reminders can help change behaviors. This has also been used to stop drunk driving in the US. In all instances, the underlying idea is that a short message when someone is about to act in a harmful way is enough to create a moment of self-reflection and change behavior.

And if it works to deter urban violence why not try it for other types of conflict early response. This is what Sisi Ni Amani, a Kenyan NGO that works to build local capacities for peace, is testing with its PeaceTXT project. PeaceTXT aims to contact people in areas at risk of violence in order to propose an alternative narrative, a moment of reflection. The PeaceTXT messages are meant to counter potentially violent narratives or reactions at critical times. PeaceTXT responds to early warnings of possible conflict – it is crowdfeeding for early response.

This is a very interesting approach, charting new territory. There are many questions to answer about the best way to implement it. Who do these behavior change messages go to? Ceasefire had identified youth at risk of engaging in violence. Perhaps their system was a little simpler – stop those doing the shooting. When violence is more varied and follows less patterned responses, those fighting or perpetrating the violence might not be the best target. Perhaps it’s the agitators that the campaign should target. The people who call to arms. The ‘spoilers’, the ‘dividers’. [As an aside to Sudan lovers, how about a text message campaign to Hakamat participants to counter mobilization?]

Linked to the question of audience is what topic messages should convery. What is the key characteristic or narrative that will elicit change? Similarly, when should this message be conveyed? Can we interrupt violent acts – is that the change moment? Unlike with gang violence in Chicago, in more complicated conflicts it’s unlikely to work as violence peaks. Messages need to arrive earlier to percolate through a broader societal network and effect change on the many small acts that contribute to escalation to violent conflict.

These questions are all really asking what the theory of change is for PeaceTXT. Patrick Meier, an advisor to the project, suggests that PeaceTXT should focus on amplifying new narratives via SMS in a preventive way. That is, proposing another way to look at things and giving time for this alternative to be shared, discussed and adopted. Which brings us back to Hannah Arendt. PeaceTXT can create a moment of reflection. The kinds of messages that foster reflective space are those that trigger critical processes: questions. The exact messages will of course have to be developed by the Kenyan audience, and be contextualized to the experiences of people in the areas targeted by the project. But experience from other peace interventions shows that questions around sameness can promote positive critical thinking on violence related to group identity. At a peace conference in Sudan, a participant said at the end that next time she heard someone talk ill of the neighboring tribe she would ask them: “Do the people on the other side of the hill not live like you? Go take a walk, have a look and think about that.” Arendt would tell us that it’s not so easy to do evil after that walk.

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