In 2018 social media has become both the place for conflict resolution and violence proliferation. In conflicts, such as the Arab Spring, the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement, though the virtual world aided participants to challenge and improve the status quo, the very same online platforms also obstructed political deliberation between the left and right in many Western democracies.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, rapid technological developments in communication industries and unlimited access to traditional news outlets, such as TV and radio stations (at least in Western democracies) have been strengthening the interconnectedness between many parts of the world. As a result of this higher exposure to information people have become less ignorant, and their passivity has been transformed into indirect and perhaps direct involvement in conflicts — from the ones taking place in their cities to those thousands kilometres away from them. This phenomenon has become more widespread than ever, due to a single invention: easily accessible social media platforms.
Whereas TV and radio stations have historically been used to spread information (both unbiased reporting and ‘fake news’), currently more people are social media users (3,196 billion people), and social media is not merely used to stay informed. It has become a key communication tool, through which individuals can instantly connect, exchange ideas and opinions on a variety of issues, and exercise their right to freedom of association in the virtual world.
This is the advantage that social media exercises over traditional news outlets — it is on their territory that people form groups with a specific cause in mind, and thereafter transcend their ideas from the virtual to the real world with the intention of challenging or further reinforcing the status quo. The reverse process takes place just as often — the second a political decision is made, economic actions undertaken, or a war erupts people on social media become immediately divided into different ‘camps’. In the past, traditional news outlets’ materials would also spur outrage (e.g., the movement against US involvement in the Vietnam War), yet the extent to which people would organise into a group with a common cause remained uncertain, as they are naturally prone to free-riding.
To put it in a different way; social media platforms help groups overcome their collective action problem. They foster instant low-cost communication between group members, help individuals exchange resources, and spread awareness on a massive scale — larger than any communication method has done before. This is not to say that revolutions and peaceful demonstrations have not been successful in the past, or that violent conflicts have not intensified as a result of political decisions alone; however, it is essential to take into account that social media has become a vital factor in shaping the trajectory and lifespan of social and political movements.
Take the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings in 2011. Research has found that protest activity increased in response to higher usage of protest-related content on online platforms, such as Twitter, despite the fact that not all protestors had internet access. The evidence goes on to suggest that the main drivers of the demonstrations were, in fact, situated online, even though they were significantly outnumbered by ‘offline participants’ — this is the power of social media. Another benefit of social media platforms is the large-scale exposure they offer. The Women March in 2017 and the #MeToo movements all begun online and gathered worldwide support, once more demonstrating the increasingly blurred line between the virtual and the real world. From this standpoint social media has become focal for uniting individuals, regardless of their personal experiences, nationalities or religions. It has provided us with a tool to facilitate peace and justice.
Yet, overcoming the collective action problem via online platforms is not exclusive for what society would normally consider ‘noteworthy’ causes. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have famously worsened conflicts by transforming ideas into ‘dead dogmas’, voluntary participation into obedience, and freedom of expression into hate speech.
This phenomenon can be observed in Myanmar, where tensions between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya people have been on the political agenda for more than 10 years. Military crackdowns of Western Rakhine villages had already become a daily occurrence, when an online ‘battlefield’ opened as well. A recent Reuters investigation exposed more than 1,000 examples of hateful posts, images and comments against the Muslim community within the country. Hate speech against the Rohingya has also started spreading on Twitter, where lots of people have been actively insisting on expelling the minority group outside the country. The ‘tool for peace’ has suddenly become an isolation mechanism.
In some cases, however, groups on social media do not explicitly aim to isolate their opposition or themselves from everyone else — yet both of these events can be an unintended consequence of their activity online. This is certainly the case in many Western democracies, in which identity politics has been dominating social media. Paradoxically, it is the instantaneous communication via social platforms that has significantly contributed to the polarisation of the political left and right — groups find new members faster, enhance one another’s similar standpoints and stand up to their opposition more frequently and effectively. The problem with this type of group behaviour stems from group members’ tendency to strongly base their identity on their political preferences, and often disregard the opposing side’s ideas and opinions. Remaining in the same ‘bubble’ eliminates the possibility of questioning any information and knowledge — a perfect recipe for radicalisation.
As social media’s presence in our society grows, its role within conflicts will persist as well. The end result — online platforms will continue altering our traditional understanding and trajectory of conflict. Due to the increasing speed at which groups can organise, gather resources and convey their message, the dangers of polarisation have grown both in the physical and the virtual world.
What we can do to prevent or at least minimise the dangers of conflict intensification due to social media, is to firstly expose ourselves to opposing viewpoints — if something does not change your opinion, it will at least solidify the truthfulness of what you have chosen to believe. Secondly, staying politically literate and aiming to understand the root causes of conflicts will also help in fusing the extremes of the political spectrum. Finally, perhaps distancing ourselves from the virtual world and reflecting upon the information we have been exposed to could also contribute to a more balanced group behaviour.