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New Framework: Understanding Social Media, Conflict, and Resilience

By Guest Writer on January 5, 2022

social media peace building framework

Information has been used throughout history as a weapon to stoke or intensify violent conflict by mobilizing fighters or supporters, rallying the public or allies, and undermining or deceiving adversaries. Technology and the internet have been game-changers: the cost of production and dissemination of weaponized information is low, and the reach of the information is comparatively exponential. A superpower’s leaflet drop during the Cold War is today’s altered video shared virally over social media.

To better understand and address the threats and opportunities surrounding social media in conflict-affected environments, Mercy Corps undertook research across four country contexts—Ethiopia, Iraq, Myanmar, and Nigeria. This brief highlights key findings from this research about the dynamics of social media and conflict as well as a framework for assessing these challenges, and provides some recommendations for responses.

Key Social Media Impact Findings

Social media is transforming how, when, and whether conflicts manifest in fragile states. Social media does not simply provide an additional communication avenue; rather, social media spaces—by virtue of their mobilizing, value-setting, and perception-shaping powers—increasingly frame today’s conflicts and guide how they are conducted. 

Social media threats are not restricted to social media users. Online narratives appear to “spill over,” reaching populations with limited or no internet connection. False or inflammatory narratives that become popular online may then travel by text or word of mouth, as a rumor voiced in the marketplace. Also, the desire of radio stations or newspapers to stay relevant amid competition from bloggers and e-journalists leads some editors to publish stories found online without verification or fact-checking.

Ethnic and sectarian tensions appear particularly susceptible to the weaponization of social media. Social media rewards identification and connection within a group, but this can be at the expense of inter-group cohesion. Across the case study countries, online platforms routinely fueled communal tensions that centered on ethnic and sectarian identities.

The dangers associated with the use of social media as a weapon are particularly pronounced during ‘windows of risk.’ Windows of risk are events or periods of elevated danger in any conflict—i.e., times during which an uptick in online and offline tensions provide digital ‘influencers’ with increased opportunities for escalation.

There are a variety of key online ‘influencers’ with the ability to mobilize key constituencies either to promote social cohesion or to sow division. Categories of influencers common across the case study contexts include online diaspora communities, state actors, non-state armed actors, politicians and political parties, religious leaders, and online activists.

COVID-19 has exacerbated inter-group and community-state conflicts that play out online. Political actors, from Iraq to Myanmar, have used online platforms to blame the virus on outsiders, vulnerable communities, the government, or international aid actors, which, in turn, has exacerbated existing grievances as well as undermined public trust.

Top-down efforts to police online disinformation may open the door to a crackdown on speech and activism. Despite the opposition of civil society, these efforts are popular in some quarters, due to a growing recognition of the dangers of digital hate speech and disinformation.

Online and offline civil society actors are important to societal resilience to digital threats. The research documented community-based actors working to counter digital threats, particularly disinformation and hate speech, by countering false narratives in real time, flagging inflammatory content for removal by social media companies, and/or providing non-partisan online spaces for intercommunal engagement.

Understanding Risks and Resilience

Mercy Corps’ Peace & Conflict and Technology for Development technical support teams developed an Applied Framework for Analysis to understand risks and resilience of social media and conflict building. The Framework can inform approaches and methods for addressing the weaponization of social media, as well as advancing online and off-line social cohesion and peace.

This research focused on qualitative community-level assessments to better understand how the interplay of online and off-line dynamics creates opportunities for social media narratives to gain traction and contribute to conflict. With extensive reference to the case studies and to secondary research, this framework employs six categories of analysis to understand pathways to violence between the online and off-line space by way of different risk factors:

  1. The Information Architecture describes how information flows between on- and off-line spaces. Relevant factors include internet access, dominant platforms, the regulatory environment, and user characteristics.
  2. Key Influencers who can shape perceptions and mobilize on- and off-line constituencies.
  3. Underlying Conflict Drivers that are susceptible to social media platform manipulation, such as intercommunal conflicts and community-state tensions.
  4. Windows of Risk during which vulnerabilities to online harms are most pronounced. Examples include elections, religious festivals, and public health crises.
  5. Accelerating Characteristics describe the mechanisms by which social media appears to transform conflict dynamics, for example by heightening perceptions of threat, normalizing hate speech, or facilitating mobilization.
  6. The Sources of Resilience that appear to mitigate digital threats, such as online and off-line civil society actors who counter dis- and misinformation.

In addition to suggesting a framework for assessing digital threats, the research yielded several recommendations for iNGOs and Civil Society:

  • Review strategies and programs, especially those focused on peace and conflict, to incorporate a digital ‘lens’ to assess the impact of the harms and opportunities presented by social media.
  • Ensure that initiatives for countering and strengthening resilience to social media harms are not solely for online activists but encompass offline counterparts from different sectors, given that those harms are spread offline as well.
  • Identify and support existing sources of resilience to social media drivers of conflict, including influential local leaders already working to prevent or counter online harm, as well as sources of social cohesion in online and offline spaces that can serve as a bulwark against digital threats.

A lightly edited version of Social Media and Conflict: Understanding Risks and Resilience; An Applied Framework for Analysis by Keith Proctor, Technical Advisor and Team Lead, Evaluation and Research, International Republican Institute.

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One Comment to “New Framework: Understanding Social Media, Conflict, and Resilience”

  1. DrFerdinand Nabiswa Makhanu says:

    A well balanced perspective about the subject matter of discussion.