Although most studies on social media have focused on a vertical approach by analysing their consequences on the relations between states and citizens, it becomes interesting to apply the ideas previously developed to a horizontal approach in conflict contexts, looking at the consequences of new media in interethnic relations.
The media play an influential role in conflicts by broadcasting live information to wide audiences and they impact people’s perceptions of events as well as of the opposite side. The more uncertainty there is in conflicts, the more people tend to depend on the media. Their influence does not have a singular outcome and it can be both positive and negative according to the way they are being used.
In order to lead to reconciliation in identity conflicts, the media of each party have to integrate the national narratives of the other side to show sensitivity and tolerance towards the other group. Yet both sides are reluctant to do so because ‘protagonists in the conflict stick tenaciously to their truths, fearing that the acceptance of even a small part in the narrative of the other will shatter their identity’ (Auerbach and Lowenstein, 2010). Likewise, traditional media have also been instrumentalised, amplifying and legitimising ideologies and thus persuading audiences back home to rally behind their governments. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for example, young people participating in peace workshops argued that this experience made them open their eyes about the consequences of traditional media. As explained by a Jewish participant, ‘I thought Palestinians were all against peace. This is what you see in television. The media relayed to us only the negative things’ (Maoz, 2000).
In conflict settings, the more a state controls its traditional media, the more it tends to favour information that support and justify the government’s position on the conflict thus favouring one-sided perceptions of events. In situations in which the traditional media are biased and where interethnic knowledge is made difficult because of the consequences of the conflict, it is thus easy to see parties develop negative images and stereotypes of each other which further dampen the chances for peace and reconciliation. As different perspectives are unlikely to be broadcasted through traditional means, digital media can appear as being a solution. Citizen journalism initiatives are critical when the traditional media are biased as they give random people the possibility to express themselves and counter traditional media through online or mobile tools . Social media can thus help overcome intergroup stereotypes and favour reconciliation by challenging traditional misinformation. Committed low prejudiced citizens can develop through the Internet a peace narrative that is traditionally absent in society. This new narrative can then influence other people’s perceptions of the conflict and the other conflicting party. As the term ‘digital media’ refers to different kinds of platforms with different audiences - such as blogs, social networks, or video broadcasting websites – they can all be used for different purposes and be complementary in order for a message to reach more people. Blogs for example enable people to develop their arguments in a detailed manner and then engage with others by inciting them to leave comments. Interactivity is essential to determine the impact of the message, to understand ways of adapting it and to encourage the audience to reflect about and contribute to the ideas they are being exposed to.
The effects of new media can be studied at different levels (Sean Aday, 2010). When dealing with reconciliation amongst people involved in interethnic conflicts, it is necessary to focus on two levels of analysis, individual transformation and intergroup relations, and two theories of change that are somewhat related. According to the individual change theory, social media promote peace by affecting people’s knowledge, attitudes and behaviours (Arsenault, 2011). Also, according to the healthy relationships and connections theory, these transformations at the individual level can then affect intergroup relations by reducing interethnic prejudices and stereotypes. So far, not much research has been carried out about the consequences of social media in conflicts and analyses are mainly based on dual anecdotes. These anecdotes refer to both the polarising and bridge-building effects of social media. As explained by Sean Aday (2010), two similar experiences in conflict settings have led to opposite results. For the first experience, an activist managed to build a friendship with someone from an opposing group thanks to his willingness to criticise the negative behaviour of his own government. For the second experience, a peace activist received nationalist responses and the two conflicting groups resulted being more polarised. Beyond the fact that social media can broadcast hate speech as well as peace narratives, the very effectiveness of the latter is not always guaranteed and will depend on the characteristics of the audience and its propensity of accepting a different narrative than the one it is familiar to. Also, people’s values and opinions can themselves influence the type of media they consume. Peace narratives might not be accessed by highly prejudiced people because they might only be interested in sources that support their pre-existing views, in order to avoid cognitive dissonance. However, by exposing ideas online that are usually rejected by the traditional media, digital media can change perceptions about the real distribution of opinions in society (Sean Aday, 2010). This means that people having ‘taboo’ opinions (such as accepting dialogue with so-called enemies in nationalist settings) might feel more confident to support their opinions after having seen online that other people have the same ideas.
The likeliness of an online peace narrative to get through also depends on the accessibility of the Internet in conflict areas. The global digital divide might have a dampening effect. As defined by Hatem Ali, it refers to ‘the unequal distribution of information and communication technology across nations’ (2011). This digital divide can also be regional as in some countries access to the Internet is mainly possible in urban areas. Consequently, in some places, the traditional media are still much more consumed by the people than the Internet. To measure more precisely the impact of new media, it is essential to consider what percentage of the population of the conflict zone has access to the Internet. Studying the demographic characteristics of Internet users is also essential in order to determine who is more likely to be subjected to the content of new media. Beyond the structural issues of Internet accessibility, the digital divide also refers to the way Internet is being used. Even in areas in which the Internet is broadly accessed, everybody does not use it the same way and is not subjected to the same content. For the Internet to be used to its full capacity, awareness and peace-building workshops among the people might be needed to complement physical access to the Internet in order for new media to bring about the change it has the capacity to make. To conclude, let’s use the Internet, let’s express our ideas. We might not resolve conflicts on our own but we can always contribute to changing one person’s perceptions, incite others to express themselves too and trigger a virtuous circle that will challenge conflict and preconceived ideas.
Aday, Sean; Farrell, Henry; Lynch, Marc; Sides, John. Advancing New Media Research. Special Report 250. September 2010. United States Institute of Peace.
Aday, Sean; Farrell, Henry; Lynch, Marc; Sides, John; Kelly, John; Zuckerman, Ethan. Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics. Peaceworks n°65, 2010. United States Institute of Peace ; Aday, Sean; Farrell, Henry; Lynch, Marc; Sides, John. Advancing New Media Research. Special Report 250. September 2010. United States Institute of Peace.
Arsenault, Amelia; Himelfarb, Sheldon; Abbott, Susan. Evaluating Media Interventions in Conflict Countries: Toward Developing Common Principles and A Community of Practice. Peaceworks n°77. 2011. United States Institute of Peace.
Auerbach, Yehudith; Lowenstein, Hila. The Role of National Narratives in Reconciliation: The case of Mohammad al-Dura. The International Journal of Press/Politics. Vol 16, n°2, (Nov 2010), pp 210-233.
Hatem Ali, Amir. The Power of Social Media in Developing Nations: New Tools for Closing the Global Digital Divide and Beyond. Harvard Human Rights Journal. 2011. Vol 24, pp 185-219.
Maoz, Ifat. An Experiment in Peace: Reconciliation-aimed Workshops of Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian Youth. Journal of Peace Research. Vol 37, n°6, (Nov., 2000), pp. 721-736.
Written by Anais Chagankerian and published on 13-April-2013