Contentious Narratives

Digital Technology and the Attack on Liberal Democratic Norms

World Network Map

The conference focuses on the effects of disinformation on peacebuilding and on efforts to document human rights abuse and war crimes. Trolls, bots — bits of computer code designed to augment social media activities — have emerged as disruptive elements in foreign and domestic politics. 

Soon, generative adversarial network technology — the ability to invert words and images onto video feeds, even live ones — will deepen the epistemological murk surrounding fact-based analysis and discourse. 

The conference begins with a review of the strengths and challenges associated with the role of digital technology in human rights documentation and peacebuilding. From there, we consider specific cases involving the tension and struggle between, on the one hand, the use of digital technology to verify and document events, and, on the other, the uses of technology to obfuscate and delude. We will then turn to a consideration of potential remedies.

The Journal of International Affairs at Columbia University will publish a special issue in association with the conference. Papers will be drawn from conferees and from select external proposals.


Call for Papers 

To request an invitation to attend the conference, email Professor Steven Livingston at sliv (at)



Skip to Day 2 Agenda »

April 2

Coffee & Light Breakfast

8:00 - 8:30 a.m.


8:30 – 8:45 a.m.

Amb. Reuben Brigety, Dean, Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University

The New Global Landscape

8:45 – 9:30 a.m.

The talk focuses on the emergence of illiberal regimes and movements in Europe and North America, the attacks on liberal democratic institutions, particularly the media, and the potential for resilience.

John Shattuck, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

Documentation & Fact-Based Discourse

9:40 - 11:10 a.m.

Disinformation campaigns are but one expression of potential digital affordances, outcomes made realizable by technology. Digital technology also allows non-state actors to discover events and trends on what Elay Weizman calls "the threshold of detectability." As a baseline for our discussions of disinformation, this panels highlights the knowable, the revealed, the understood made possible by technology and scientific truth claims.


Christina Varvia, Forensic Architecture, Goldsmith College-University of London

Malachy Browne, The New York Times

Aric Toler, Lead Researcher and Trainer, Bellingcat; Lead Digital Researcher for Eurasia, Digital Forensic Lab, Atlantic Council

Haishan Fu, Director, Development Data Group, World Bank

AI Effects

11:15 a.m. – 12:45 p.m.

Bots and image-based rendering and manipulation impact the ability to distinguish reality from synthetic representations.  While some technologies help, investigators document events, other technologies seem to undermine fact-based discourse. This sets up the fundamental tension found in technologies role in peace-building and human rights work.  Additional Key Words and Phrases: Audio, Face Synthesis, LSTM, RNN, Big data, Videos, Audiovisual Speech, Uncanny Valley, Lip.


Aviv Ovadya, Chief Technologist, Center for Social Media Responsibility, University of Michigan

Robert Pless, Department Chair & Patrick & Donna Martin Professor of Computer Science, GW

David Doermann, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

Douglas Guilbeault, Member of the Network Dynamics Group, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania; Member of the Computational Propaganda Project, Oxford Internet Institute


12:45 - 1:45 p.m.

Contested Narratives

1:45 - 2:15 p.m.

Miskimmon, O'Loughlin, and Roselle define a "strategic narrative as a "tool for political actors to extend their influence, manage expectations, and change the discursive environment in which they operate.” Disinformation campaigns can be thought of in these terms. This panel considers the major narrative themes found in recent major disinformation campaigns.


Laura Roselle, Department of Political Science & Policy Studies, Elon University

Ben Nimmo, Atlantic Council, Digital Forensics Research Laboratory

Kate Starbird, Human Centered Design & Engineering, University of Washington

Jonathan Albright, Tow Center, Columbia University

Disinformation and Contested Narratives in Conflict-Fragile States

2:25 - 3:55 p.m.

Disinformation, such as hate speech on social media or messaging apps, has the potential to exacerbate existing conflicts in conflict-fragile states. This panel explores some recent examples of this trend in Myanmar, Ukraine, and Kenya amongst other cases.


Catie Bailard, Associate Professor of Media and Public Affairs, School of Media and Public Affairs, The George Washington University

Nic Dias, Senior Research Fellow, First Draft News, Shorenstein Center, Harvard University

Christina Fink, Professor of Practice of International Affairs and Director of the M.A. Program in International Development Studies, Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University

Sharath Srinivasan, Director, Center of Governance and Human Rights, King's College, University of Cambridge

Challenging Disinformation in Conflict-Fragile States Through Digital Technologies

4:00 - 5:30 p.m.

Panelists examine solutions to disinformation-fueled conflict and political violence using the media and ICTs. This panel brings together both academic researchers and practitioners who have implemented projects on the ground in conflict zones.


Camber Warren, Assistant Professor, Naval Postgraduate School

Emile Bruneau, Director, Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab, Annenberg School of Communication

Rachel Brown, Director, Project Over Zero

Craig Hammer, Secretary, Development Data Council and Program Manager, Global Media Development, World Bank

Reception / Dinner

6:00 - 7:00 p.m.

Keynote Address by James Clapper

7:10 - 8:30 p.m.

James Clapper, former director of national intelligence

Moderated by David Ensor

April 3

Coffee & Light Breakfast

8:00 - 8:30 a.m.

Contested Narratives 2

8:30 – 10:00 a.m.

This is the second of two panels devoted to the presentation of case studies of influence campaigns involving disinformation, trolls, bots, and media and political amplifiers.


Gregory Asmolov, Russia Institute, King’s College London

Samantha Bradshaw, Oxford Internet Institute

Natalia Chaban, Professor, University of Canterbury, New Zealand

Ben O'Loughlin, Professor, University of London

Jessica Ludwig, International Forum for Democratic Studies, National Endowment for Democracy


10:15 - 11:45 a.m.


Alexa Koenig, Executive Director, Human Rights Center, UC-Berkeley

Kathryn Sikkink, Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

Maksymilian Czuperski, Director of the Digital Forensics Research Lab, Atlantic Council


11:45 - 12:15 p.m.

Frank Sesno, Director, School of Media and Public Affairs

Babak Bahador, Associate Research Professor, SMPA, GW

Sushma Raman, Executive Director, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School


Sponsored By:

GW's School of Media and Public Affairs and Elliott School of International Affairs with the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and the World Bank.