Speak your peace: words matter in avoiding conflict

In a time of global conflict, researchers at Columbia University in the US have posed the question: what can societies do to maintain peace? and what role do words play?

While a lot of research has been done into ‘hate speech’, Dr Larry Liebovitch and colleagues wanted to investigate the characteristics of ‘peace speech’, starting with the words frequently used by news media.

Analysing more than 723,000 press articles across 18 countries, using machine learning, they found words relating to hope, fun and family appeared more frequently in more peaceful nations. 

Liebovitch tells Cosmos, “the words were really about hope, fun and the future, and activities of daily living; words like ‘home’, ‘believe’, ‘game’.”

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More frequently used words by news media in higher peace countries / Credit: Larry S. Liebovitch

“In less peaceful countries, the news media were really dominated by words about control and fear, and words like ‘government’, ‘state’, ‘law’, ‘security’, ‘court’,” he says.

Countries analysed in the study had substantial English-language online news. They included: Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Ghana, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, United Kingdom, and the United States. 

To analyse the level of peace in each nation, the researchers trained the machine learning model on 5 peace indices: the Global Peace Index, the Positive Peace Index, the Human Development Index, the World Happiness Index and the Fragile States Index.

Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Ireland ranked as more peaceful countries across the five peace indices. Kenya, Bangladesh and Nigeria were considered lower peace countries.

Published in PLOS One, the paper uses ‘word clouds’ to show the model outputs for high frequency words – green for high peace, red for low peace.

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More frequently used words by news media in lower peace countries / Credit: Larry S. Liebovitch

Some words are common to both high and low-peace countries, but with subtle differences. 

For example, Liebovitch says, ‘government’ appears in both high and low peace countries, but is more prominent in the latter – “if everything is going well, you don’t need to talk about politics and the government”.

“There’s no single complete clear definition of what peacefulness is,” he says, adding there can be conflicting aspects. For example, a country might be peaceful in some ways – function reasonably well and meet the needs of its people – but lack freedom of expression.

The next step for the researchers is to use these findings as a starting point to understand the social processes that underlie differences in high and low peace countries.

“We really need to think of peace, not just as the absence of conflict. That societies do things to maintain peace, and it doesn’t happen by magic. What are those things? And that would give us ideas in terms that might be useful for policy makers to enhance that,” Liebovitch says.

Journalists might play a role too.

“Maybe the words that journalists use sometimes, have more meaning than they realise. Phrasing things in one way or another, wouldn’t change whether it’s more or less accurate, but might have more peaceful implications,” he says.

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