Leader of new Parisian forum sets out ambitious agenda for body that will resist dark forces of nationalism, authoritarianism and extremism
Paris Peace Forum launches annual meeting to fight for multilateralism
French organisers have said that a three-day summit held in Paris under the patronage of President Emmanuel Macron will be launched as annual event to strengthen institutions and foster cooperation against malign influence.
Justin Vaisse, the chief organiser of the Forum, said the meeting point would spearhead a fightback against nationalism, authoritarianism and extremism.
Not only did the Forum chose 10 organisations that it would support and promote over the next year but it announced that a second event would be held on November 11 and 12 next year. Mr Vaisse, a prominent Parisian academic and philosopher, will chair a permanent executive committee and the president is Pascal Lamy, the former head of the World Trade Organisation.
The next call to private and public sector bodies to get involved in the sessions that pitch for support at the summit will be held in Spring 2019.
“We wanted to show that in the world where multilateralism is struggling we can still bring a solution,” he said. “One of the things we were looking at achieving is political impact. We wanted to reassert the importance of institutions and regulations.
“We very much hope that by taking the stand, by trying to convince the forces that are against multilateralism, we will defend it.”
One of the main features of the event was that alongside world leaders and non-government organisations was the global corporations like Facebook, Google and YouTube.
This was particularly marked in sessions dealing with religious extremism and radical groups and individuals.
In the halls of the Paris Peace Forum, talks of online radicalisation were at least as common as those on the long-standing issues of climate change and violent conflict, and the proposed solutions just as varied.
Facebook hired 200 people to exclusively focus on countering terrorism as their core responsibility as well as building the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) to share information with other platforms through a shared database.
YouTube developed technology to prevent re-uploads of known terrorist content using image-matching technology and set up ways of stripping the sharing and comment functions in those videos that avoid erasure by straddling the fine between what is permissible and what isn’t.
It also promotes “YouTube stars” – or users with big audiences – and promotes their efforts to spread conciliatory messages.
“We are trying to get moderate voices to produce more content so that they can naturally rise to the top,” Miriam Estrin, policy manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Google, said.
“There is no level of investment that we are not willing to bear to tackle this problem.”
Critics of the big social media operators were also able to put their point of view that it was too little too late. “What is actually the budget dedicated to promoting moderate content?”, Hakim El Karoui, senior fellow at the think-tank Institut La Montaigne, asked the YouTube representative during a debate on online radicalisation. “You cannot be both platforms that promote democracy and work with the enemy to undermine democracy. You have to invest real money in this.”
Mr El Karoui, the author of an influential investigation into the French Muslim community, added “social networks not [working] against us because of what they do but because of what they are”. “They can help us promote a different message but they are never neutral,” he said..
Guillaume Buffet, the 50-year-old founder of the French start-up “Seriously”, argued the first sparks of hate speech and radicalisation online should be tackled before they become a wildfire.
“I believe the best solution is to find a way to maintain the conversation open with those that could be radicalised,” Buffet said. The platform he founded gives users who wish to respond to aggressive online speech the tools to do so, from how to address their online interlocutor to trusted facts and figures that can be cited to build a counter-argument.
“We are building an army of volunteers” to counter the malign influencers online, he said.
Eiman Kheir, Diaspora Policy Officer at the Africa Union, said that African terrorist organisations like Al Shabab and Boko Haram have picked up from the Islamic State and are also increasingly using social media to recruit, but that regulating content can only be one part of the solution.
“You have to have a space to discuss extremist ideas even if they are not politically correct,” Ms Kheir said. “We need to open up safe spaces to have unpopular conversations.”
Whatever action is taken, Mr El Karoui warned that they should not underestimate the appeal of Islamist ideology as an alternative – and not a reaction to – Western values.
“Islamism gives very concrete answers to everyday queries, like how should I behave towards my sister or towards my mother,” Mr El Karoui said. “It also gives a sense to your life and your death.”
Activities that seek to disengage and deradicalise must therefore promote an alternative idea of success, rather than censoring.
“We need to defend freedom of speech, and to promote our values,” he said.
As Robert Azevedo, the current head of the World Trade Organisation, observed, the pillars of multilateralism were as important and as invisible as oxygen. The Forum could provide a much needed fillip.
“Take it away and you will start noticing immediately,” he told a panel.