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.
By creating direct and inclusive channels of communication and dialogue between conflict parties, communities and mediators, social media can help build trust and confidence. This is especially significant in the early or pre-formal stages of dialogue and mediation when more conventional, diplomatic communication channels have tended to be much more exclusive. Social media can enable mediators to speak directly with a wide range of audiences to gather a more comprehensive understanding of different conflict narratives and potential entry points for peacemaking, including in very hard-to-reach areas. If applied carefully, mediators can also use social media to counter misinformation (false information disseminated unintentionally) or disinformation (false information disseminated intentionally).
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.
Online communications raise serious concerns about security and confidentiality in a mediation process. Hacking and cybersecurity attacks have increased. Sensitive information has been leaked, often via social media. This can quickly lead to a loss of trust among the conflict parties and mediators, especially during the early phases of a peacemaking process when confidence is low and conflict parties are suspicious of the motives of other parties and of mediators.
Disinformation in West Papua
In October 2019, an investigation by researchers at the BBC (Benjamin Strick) and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Elise Thomas) uncovered an online information campaign to distort perceptions of the situation in West Papua – the highly contested province of Indonesia – where there is ongoing unrest and increasing violence over independence, underdevelopment, militarism and endemic racism. The campaign aimed to influence perceptions in support of a pro-Indonesian state narrative of the situation. There were also pro-independence information campaigns, but these were not the subject of this investigation.
The campaign was primarily promoted through ‘branded’ social media accounts that had professional logos. Each ‘brand’ had associated Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube accounts and standalone websites, presenting itself as a legitimate news platform. Notably the content was in English. In some cases, it comprised outright ‘fake news’, but in others it skewed or selectively presented real facts and events in ways that supported the interests of the Indonesian authorities.
The campaign included ‘trolling’ and harassment of government critics, journalists and supporters of independence. For example, multiple Twitter accounts were used to spam the same content attacking human rights advocates inside and outside West Papua. Some of these same accounts were also used to amplify the content of the news ‘brands’, strongly indicating that they are likely to be part of the same information campaign.
Digital forensic methods and open source intelligence identified a ‘communications’ company, InsightID, based in Jakarta as the source of the campaign. InsightID eventually acknowledged its responsibility and defended its actions by claiming to have been trying to counter anti-Indonesian bias. The client who commissioned the campaign has not been identified. While it remains extremely difficult to evaluate the impact of social media operations, this example illustrates how misinformation campaigns of all stripes risk further fuelling divisions among conflict actors.
Elise Thomas, Researcher, International Cyber Policy Institute, Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Facebook issues apology for its role in the 2018 anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka
In May 2020, Facebook released the findings of three independent human rights impact assessments that the company had commissioned in 2018 to examine the degree it may or may not have contributed to human rights violations in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Cambodia. The assessment on Sri Lanka prompted Facebook to issue an apology for its role in the violent communal unrest that afflicted Sri Lanka in 2018 after the investigation by Article One found that hate speech spread through the platform may have provoked anti-Muslim violence. In April 2019, Facebook Executive Mark Zuckerberg apologised to human rights groups in Myanmar for not devoting sufficient resources to take down hate speech content. These apologies provoke further discussions on the role and responsibility of social media platforms, like Facebook, and the policies that they need to implement to protect communities from content that risks inciting violence against them.
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.
In contrast to the humanitarian field, the peace and security sector is only starting to get a better sense of how to harness the potential of social media and how to mitigate its risks. This section traces social media’s double-edged nature in three key areas crucial to the early or pre-formal phases of peacemaking: assisting data collection and conflict analysis; framing peace narratives and messaging through online targeted engagement; and shaping mediation agendas and fostering dialogue.
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.
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. This knowledge, Aastha Nigam and others have argued, could have prodded peace practitioners to better explain the peace accord to the Colombian people.
Despite its great potential, complementing conflict analysis with social media poses significant challenges and risks. Social media data is skewed. Many users, according to We Are Social and Hootsuite research, are young and male. Media mapping assessments reveal that, in general, social media users predominantly use their platforms for social not political reasons – connecting with friends and family – while political content primarily comes from already politicised individuals, tilting the data gathering and analysis process. Social media includes distracting ‘noise’, especially computational propaganda distributed by fake accounts, bots and trolls, whose significance needs to be analysed and filtered. Finally, social media analytics programmes rely on algorithms distorted by cognitive and social biases. It is therefore important to identify these biases, to be candid about their origin and meaning as well to complement any social media analysis with other more traditional methods. (For more on the application of digital analysis in peacemaking, see the article 'Digital analysis – Peacemaking potential and promise' in this edition.)
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’. Strategic communications should be included as a central pillar from the onset, not as an afterthought, and communication from day one should have the end goal in mind. The narrative of the mediators must anticipate any opportunities and challenges on the horizon and communicate accordingly.
This approach was used effectively by the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) in 2012 and was essential in helping the UN gain access to conflict areas to conduct factfinding visits after security incidents had occurred to witness and monitor the implications of the incidents. Moreover, UNSMIS established a YouTube channel to bring to light the impact of the conflict on the Syrian people. According to journalists who cover the UN Security Council, pictures of the aftermath of the massacre of men, women and children in the Syrian village of Houla in May 2012, helped to convince China and Russia to support the Council’s condemnation of the Syrian government for using heavy weaponry against civilians. This provided an all-too rare example of the Security Council sending a strong unified message on Syria.
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.
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. Several projects in Yemen, such as Manasati 30, provide online platforms for Yemenis to express their views and concerns. However, the low internet penetration in the country – the World Bank states that only 27 per cent of Yemenis currently have access to the internet – constitutes a significant challenge to widening participation virtually. This underscores the importance in many conflict affected regions of complementing high-tech online tools with other low-tech, off-line activities, such as in-person surveys or focus groups.
Social media is increasingly used to complement face-to-face mediation and dialogue processes at the local and national level. From Kenya and Libya to Sri Lanka and Ukraine, digital platforms are being built to promote online dialogue among communities in or at risk of conflict, and to undertake online consultations. The Donbass Dialogue is one of the most prominent examples. Established in 2015, it currently connects around 400 people from divided Ukrainian communities into a shared ‘virtual’ space to consider issues of mutual concern that have been identified using sophisticated crowdsourcing methodology. The principal concerns are then discussed during a weeklong ‘offline dialogue’, which is conducted using new talk service technology providing for anonymous connection and a safe environment for participants. Since the launch of the initiative, seven such dialogues have been organised, providing the opportunity to discuss issues usually considered taboo among the divided communities.
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.
Social media has clear potential to enhance peacemaking, including in the delicate early phases when space for dialogue is squeezed and relationships are formative and highly sensitive. It has been transforming data collection and analysis, enabling access to more and more granular information from different sources, and has been providing new avenues into peace dialogue, shaping conflict and peace narratives and diversifying participation.
A growing number of mediation practitioners are promoting the development of provisional codes of conduct on the use of social media to lay down some basic rules of external communication among the conflict parties and maintain a degree of confidentiality. The agreement on a provisional code of conduct can itself constitute a confidence-building measure and promote trust among the conflict parties and mediators as it signals the parties’ commitment to the process. The compliance with the code can further strengthen confidence since it shows that the parties can be trusted to fulfill their commitments.
Many practitioners engaged in or supporting early dialogue and mediation processes shy away from interacting with both traditional and new media. They need the skills to know when to engage on social media and when their engagement will impede their efforts; when it will help them to shape the narrative, and when it will amplify anti-peace voices or hate speech. They need to ask challenging questions about local ownership, public perception, the social and political fabric of the country, and political sensitivities when deciding if and when to use social media to engage with the public and attempt to shape the narrative around the mediation process. Practitioners need to be thick-skinned enough to handle online attacks and should engage strategic communications experts who have worked on social media in conflict-affected countries and have sound experience in shaping narratives and countering disinformation.
This field is still in its infancy. Careful experimentation and practical research using a multidisciplinary approach can help to find out more about the potential and risks of social media in early peacemaking, and to further develop and expand toolkits for mediators. Increased interaction between peace practitioners, technology experts, communication specialists, policymakers and the owners and users of social media platforms, as well as parties and communities involved in or affected by violent conflict, will support effective and conscientious progress.