Authors: Katrin Wittig, Sausan Ghosheh
Site of publication: Conciliation Resources
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: September 2020
Social media has transformed the tools available to conflict parties, civil society, peace practitioners and the public at large to engage in both peace and war efforts. It has created opportunities in the early phases of peace processes, including assisting with data collection and analysis, bolstering peace messaging and diversifying dialogue. But it also brings risks. Violent conflicts have become increasingly complex and protracted, and harder to prevent or resolve. Information and communications technology, including social media, have added to this complexity in new ways. Social media can create new hierarchies due to discrepancies in internet access or exacerbate propaganda and hate speech.
The use of social media as a tool for peace is still in its infancy, but there is already much to learn from looking at the risks and benefits for early peacemaking and at how peace practitioners, including mediators, have been using it to advance dialogue and mediation processes.
Setting the stage: Pros and cons of social media
Social media is an umbrella term for a wide range of interactive websites and applications, which enable users to create and share content and ideas within an online community. According to We Are Social and Hootsuite’s Digital 2019 Report, 56 per cent of the world’s population is currently online, while 45 per cent use some form of social media platform, a proportion that is likely to at least double over the next 20 years. Young people between 18 and 34 constitute over half of the global social media audience, with those around the age of 30 currently accounting for the largest share of the world’s social media users.
The media landscape is drastically changing with more and more people getting their information online. Social media has effectively challenged the role of traditional media, turning everyone into a potential creator, consumer and target of online content. Cyberspace has its own rules and norms. Social media is populated by virtual influencers who may be different from people who exert ‘traditional’ influence over political processes.
Understanding the virtual environment of a conflict and its impact on peace processes requires careful analysis of specific social media infrastructures. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp have become important tools of public diplomacy, leaving peace practitioners struggling to catch up on how to use such tools, as David Lanz and Ahmed Eleiba have described. Social media has become an important mobilising force: it drives debates, social movements and political change, but it is also used to divide societies, incite violence and as a key recruitment tool for armed groups.
Pros: States, armed groups, conflict-affected communities and mediators all use social media to present their own distinct narratives of conflict and peace efforts to influence national and international audiences directly, without any intermediary. Social media provides space to hear more, and more diverse, voices than traditional media outlets and can play an important role in ‘levelling the playing field’, allowing different state and non-state actors to share their narratives and perspectives. In turn, it provides new tools for fostering dialogue and enhancing data collection and conflict analysis.
Cons: Social media risks creating new hierarchies rooted in discrepancies in internet access, including gender and class imbalances across social media users and audiences. Social media, instead of creating a connected global community, often creates silos – with many users interacting predominantly with like-minded people, exacerbating polarisation of narratives and societal divisions. It can also be a breeding ground for extremist views and hate speech. The volume, variety and velocity of information available through social media has introduced new challenges for initiating and sustaining peace. Conflict parties sometimes use social media to leak information, spread disinformation or promote divisiveness, hate and violence. Online hate speech is on the rise, leading United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to launch a UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech in June 2019. The document identities social media as a key medium for enabling virulent hate speech and distributing it at lightning speed.
Understanding the virtual environment of a conflict and its impact on peace processes requires careful analysis of specific social media infrastructures. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp have become important tools of public diplomacy, leaving peace practitioners struggling to catch up on how to use such tools, as David Lanz and Ahmed Eleiba have described. Social media has become an important mobilising force: it drives debates, social movements and political change, but it is also used to divide societies, incite violence and as a key recruitment tool for armed groups
Empowering early peacemaking through social media
The negative impacts of social media may seem daunting for peace practitioners. Yet, social media is here to stay and will increasingly have an impact on conflict resolution. Peace practitioners therefore need to learn how to understand and employ these digital tools while at the same time responsibly mitigating associated risks. However, many practitioners, including mediation teams, lack the expertise and capacities to launch effective social media campaigns. These require dedicated communications experts, a strong understanding of the media landscape, a multilingual team as well as know-how on safely and astutely using digital tools. Before launching any social media campaign, practitioners need to carefully weigh the risks, benefits and appropriateness of taking this step, and evaluate whether they have the requisite personnel experienced in designing and administrating such campaigns.
Data collection and analysis
Social media can be a tool for data collection and conflict analysis, including mapping different conflict stakeholders, tracking military movements and armaments, as well as monitoring public positions towards the peace process. It can provide insights into conflict dynamics and power balances, including military capacity or tactics that can potentially be leveraged in the process of persuading parties to agree to talk.
Peace practitioners therefore need to learn how to understand and employ these digital tools while at the same time responsibly mitigating associated risks. However, many practitioners, including mediation teams, lack the expertise and capacities to launch effective social media campaigns
During the early phases of peacemaking, dealing with large amounts of data and developing an overview of the social media landscape can be especially challenging. The set-up of a social media monitoring system demands time, resources and careful adaptation to the local context. Analysis can be done manually or automatically using big data analytics technologies. Ideally, it should include a mapping of social media influencers, the extent of their impact and an assessment of whether they are or should be engaged in the efforts to build peace.
Early warning systems have received a lot of attention in terms of the possibility of identifying potential conflict patterns and risks, but their predictive capacities remain limited due to the complexities of processing large quantities of data. So far, social media has been most promising when used to complement traditional conflict analysis techniques. The field of election observation is probably the most advanced in monitoring and identifying hotspots for electoral violence using crowd-sourcing reports and geolocation technology. It has inspired many other fields, including, for example, ceasefire monitoring mechanisms.
The United Nations used social media analytics in Libya before, during and after the signing of the Tripoli Ceasefire Agreement in September 2018 to track armed groups’ movements on the ground, which then had to be verified. In Syria, the opposition groups’ access to heavy weaponry first became evident via social media in 2012, altering the scope of the conflict. In Colombia, many observers and mediation practitioners had not anticipated the scale of opposition to the 2016 Peace Agreement, as expressed in the subsequent referendum. Recent research indicates that social media analysis could have revealed critical views of the agreement, where traditional media analysis failed to.
Early warning systems have received a lot of attention in terms of the possibility of identifying potential conflict patterns and risks, but their predictive capacities remain limited due to the complexities of processing large quantities of data. So far, social media has been most promising when used to complement traditional conflict analysis techniques
If used strategically, proactively and in a timely manner, social media can help peace practitioners to influence perspectives in favour of early engagement, dialogue, violence reduction and ceasefire. Social media allows practitioners direct access to the general public, unhindered by politicised state, opposition or regional media. Such direct engagement with communities enhances practitioners’ understanding of people’s priorities, concerns and views. It provides inclusive communication channels as well as direct and immediate feedback to the messages and actions of different actors, permitting practitioners to evaluate their course of action and adapt.
The shaping of narratives is a complex and challenging endeavour, particularly for mediators, who must maintain impartiality, integrity and credibility always. They must make sure to provide accurate and truthful information through constant triangulation of sources and data and to manage people’s expectations. They should identify reputable social media influencers who can champion and advocate a ‘peace narrative’.
Mediation agendas and dialogue
Social media has the potential to become an important tool in shaping the agenda for informal and formal peace talks. The use of social media analytics and digital platforms can help mediators consider a broad range of views, sustain an inclusive dialogue with the conflict stakeholders and modify the agenda.
If used strategically, proactively and in a timely manner, social media can help peace practitioners to influence perspectives in favour of early engagement, dialogue, violence reduction and ceasefire. Social media allows practitioners direct access to the general public, unhindered by politicised state, opposition or regional media. Such direct engagement with communities enhances practitioners’ understanding of people’s priorities, concerns and views
Twitter feeds can help to gather different views on the issues to be covered in a mediation process. While mediation processes need to bring together the key warring factions to strike a peace deal compromise, social media can assist in bringing in civil society voices to flag key issues to be included in negotiations. Together with UN Women, Afghan journalist Farahnaz Forotan launched the Twitter campaign #MyRedLine to collect women’s concerns on the peace negotiations with the Taliban. It is extremely difficult to assess its impact, but tweets were retweeted thousands of times, including by the Afghan president, and the campaign helped to protest the lack of adequate female representation at the peace talks.
In 2018, the UN Support Mission in Libya and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue launched a face-to-face and online platform to give Libyans the opportunity to feed into the outcomes of the National Conference intended to assist in achieving national reconciliation in Libya. This was complemented with social media and provided the opportunity for around 131,000 followers to interact on Facebook and 1,800 on Twitter. In total, about one-sixth of the population from a broad cross-section, including from hard-to-reach areas, contributed to the online consultations, during which Libyans articulated their visions for the future, highlighting points of consensus and divergence.
Calling for a methodological shift
The growth in the importance of social media calls for a methodological shift in dialogue and mediation processes. Its relatively new role as a peace tool means that associated risks are acute, and so precautionary measures are essential. Peace practitioners need to capitalise on the strengths of social media while putting risk-mitigation mechanisms in place to protect the peace process.
Peace practitioners, including mediation teams, need to be trained in cybersecurity measures to ensure that their online interactions are protected from any potential hackers. Even then, they are advised to operate on the assumption that everything could be leaked, and plan accordingly to mitigate associated fallout. They need to include social media in their scenario development and agenda planning.
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