Social media, in the context of peace and conflict, can be an enabler of political agency and a positive social connector, but it can also be a driver of polarisation, hate speech and violence.
While significant time has been invested in understanding social media as a threat, how it can be more effectively harnessed for building peace is a question of increasing interest to elected officials, donors and peacebuilding practitioners alike.
This paper offers reflections in answer to that question, drawing on perspectives from interviews with peacebuilders in Lebanon, Nigeria and the Philippines, and survey responses, as well as the wider literature on the subject.
This paper suggests that social media has the potential to play a greater role in building peace in the following ways:
- Offering new perspectives in understanding conflict contexts and so informing how interventions are designed, including mapping actors and conversations, gathering data about conflict dynamics and overcoming traditional programme design challenges.
- Amplifying peaceful voices while shaping the public and political narrative, including countering fake news and threat narratives, addressing potential trigger points such as rumour management and acting as a bridging function between local, national and international spheres to mobilise action.
- Creating new spaces for people to connect, coordinate and mobilise around peace, including as a vehicle for collective coping, augmenting traditional dialogue activities, engaging people in dialogue who may not ordinarily participate in offline activities and strengthening peace processes.
A number of challenges are also highlighted, including technical skills within peacebuilding organisations, access to infrastructure, assessing the impact of social media interventions, access to data, design and safeguarding considerations, and a lag in social media companies’ uptake of conflict-sensitive approaches. There is also a tendency for peacebuilding organisations to rely primarily on social media as an extension of existing (largely communications) work rather than as a vehicle for peacebuilding in and of itself.
To take full advantage of social media’s potential, the paper recommends the establishment of partnerships between donors, social media companies and peacebuilding organisations; increased support for and emphasis on social media as a public space for positive political dialogue and countering misinformation; investment in a stronger evidence base; increased flexibility in design and funding for social media peace-oriented programming; and the safeguarding of civil society space in regulating the sector.
While this work was commissioned prior to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, it has significant resonance in the current context. Anecdotal evidence from peacebuilding organisations highlights the impact of the virus and the responses to it on conflict contexts and methods of peacebuilding. Social distancing is impacting on traditional approaches such as in-person dialogue. In the absence of face-to-face interactions, people, where possible, are gravitating towards social media and online platforms as a means to connect.
There is emerging evidence of rumours on social media relating to COVID-19 that are eroding trust in government and fuelling divisions in a number of contexts. The onset of what the UN has described as an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation has once again thrust social media into the spotlight.
As such, this paper offers ideas about how to work around current physical constraints, and how peacebuilders might leverage current reliance on virtual platforms.
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