Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and two panels of media figures, academics and senior government officials at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum suggested Tuesday that potential developments in technology and social media could help prevent genocide in the 21st century.
The event came as a new poll the museum commissioned found that 94 percent of Americans think genocide is a concern and could occur today.
“The United States and our partners must act before the wood is stacked or the match is struck, because when the fire is at full blaze, our options for responding are considerably costlier and more difficult,” Clinton said in her keynote speech during a museum symposium about preventing genocide.
The symposium’s two panels, moderated by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer and Dana Priest of The Washington Post, discussed the ways the United States could use technology to find and respond to atrocities. But in the high-profile use of social media during the Arab Spring, individuals in volatile political situations used their cellphones, the Internet and social media to highlight violence in their countries.
“Technology has shifted from big government to the individuals,” said Peter Schwartz, who’s a co-founder of the consulting firm Global Business Network.
More than 70 percent of Africans own cellphones, and 60 percent of those who have cellphones use them for social media, said Zimbabwean Strive Masiyiwa, founder of Econet Wireless, a telecommunications provider that operates in Africa, Europe, South America and the East Asia Pacific Rim.
“Access to telecommunications is moving toward a fundamental human right,” Masiyiwa said.
Clinton said such technological developments made it possible that “a bystander with a cellphone and a YouTube account can show the whole world what is happening.”
During last year’s Arab Spring and upheaval across the Middle East, social media provided government opposition activists with a lifeline to convey what was going on in their countries to the outside world, CNN Beirut correspondent Arwa Damon said.
“Had social media not existed, you can almost guarantee that the killings would have far surpassed what we see now,” she said.
Damon described how a young father set up a makeshift satellite dish to broadcast the revolution in Libya to the rest of the world, emphasizing the courage it took and the role of Internet activists’ actions in how much the outside world knows about violence in the Middle East.
Although technology provided the international community with a glimpse into situations in other countries, it also can be dangerous if it’s used in the wrong way, experts warned. Bama Athreya, the executive director of United to End Genocide, from the audience told panelists that the Burmese government was using social media to identify and target citizens for hate crimes, for example.
"We must never lose sight of the fact that at the end of the day technology is amoral," Masiyiwa said. "It’s not about technology, it’s about people."
Clinton said the Obama administration had taken these concerns to heart, creating an Atrocities Prevention Board at the Holocaust museum in April. Since then, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor has started an initiative to root out governments that are using software to oppress Internet activists and to perpetrate acts of violence, Clinton said.
A report by the National Intelligence Council – which compiles mid- and long-term strategic reports for policymakers – on how to identify warning signs of genocide is due out by the end of the year.
“We still struggle with evil and the terrible impulses and actions that all too often result in atrocities and violence and genocide,” Clinton said.
Yale history professor Timothy Snyder said that if the international community could determine these early indicators soon enough, it might be able to prevent mass atrocities.
But panelists cautioned that that it will take much more than social media.
Damon, the CNN correspondent, recalled an incident in Tripoli, Libya, in which she tried to interview a woman who, with her three children, was wounded and in the hospital. The woman said social media hadn’t been enough to save her husband, who’d died in the attack that had hurt her children and her.
“We’ve been talking for 16 months,” the woman said. “If I talk to you will it bring my husband back?”