Friday, July 9, 2010

New Media and Conflict Resolution: Cyber-Utopia?

On Thursday the US Institute of Peace held a series of panels within the framework of its long-term media and peacebuilding project: "Blogs and Bullets: Evaluating the Impact of New Media on Conflict". The impressive list of speakers included Alec Ross, Marc Lynch, Onnik Krikorian, Golnaz Esfandiari, and Adam Conner, among others. The timely subject and its multiple aspects certainly provided for a great discussion. They also raised many issues directly or indirectly relevant to public diplomacy. I'll try to touch upon some of them here.

(Image courtesy of Smartbrandblog)

The first panel gave the audience a preview of the forthcoming report - "Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics" - which tries to analyze the role of new media in political conflict. The project had many limitations, as outlined by researchers themselves (most notably: data collection, research design and methodology). Important considerations involved the identification of relevant and credible sources, the identification of appropriate and relevant networks, and the tracking of ideas and how they spread in the  information space. A major issue they addressed here was the seemingly prevalent bias in the West: research on new media mostly focuses on English-language (even when it concerns the non-English-speaking majority of the world's population) and universally-available content.

These seem to be among the foremost problems in communication-related research, especially when it comes to evaluating the effects of communication. PD faces similar problems. Then, perhaps, researchers and practitioners in the field could look into and learn from some of the ways that the authors of the report addressed the issue? We will have to wait till the report is officially released, though.

Another major issue discussed at the event was the use of social media and the blogosphere for bypassing the official state-sponsored information channels and for enhancing people-to-people contacts. The second panel, which featured prominent bloggers from Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, and Madagascar, focused on these points and provided for a very sobering discussion about the Western perception (or, rather, misperception) of the use and effectiveness of social media in other parts of the world.

The most interesting discussion, in my view, was that on Iran's misunderstood and misrepresented "Twitter Revolution" of June, 2009. I was very grateful to hear Esfandiari and Tehrani talk about how the story of the Green Movement exploded in non Iran-based and/or English-language Tweet-o-sphere, while having little or no significance, of its own, in Iran itself. There was also the issue of security of the Tweeters and the fact that the authorities themselves made use of the online social networks to crack down on protesters: these seemed to be largely ignored by the media (and not just media) in the West, which went up in the euphoria of "regime change" in Iran. (But of course, this is a very simplified summary. Read more on the subject here.)

(Image courtesy of Political Graffiti)

Later, Raed Jarrar made a comment, which I found very relevant too: in the early days of the Iraq invasion in 2003 several Iraqi articles and blogs, which glorified the "liberation", were overblown and given too much attention by the American and British media (while those that truly reflected the situation on the ground were conveniently ignored), simply because they served certain interests. Perhaps, the case of Iran in 2009 can be described in similar terms, too?

How is it relevant to PD? There had been many calls for "utilizing the right moment" to actively support the Iranian people - PD would be one of various channels - in their struggle for political change. The first thing to recognize, however, is the difference between "political change" and "regime change", because there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the Iranian people were fighting for the former. It is also necessary to recognize that in order for PD to be truly effective, it should tap into the pressing needs and prevalent opinions of the local population and into how these relate to the interests of the initiating side (instead of being driven by assumed and misperceived needs, largely "inspired" by self-interests).

Thus, for example, Twitter certainly helped many Iranians to get their story out to the world; however, because of the exaggerated perception of its effect and the West's (unstated) obsession with "regime change", the U.S. arguably lost what could have been a great PD success story. After all, Iranians inside the country - who knew what was going on - would, most probably, expect a more sensible approach to their problem.

It is also important to consider - again - the use of social media for conflict resolution, through fostering relationship-building and encouraging independent conversations between civil society groups in various countries. People-to-people, or "open source" PD, will certainly be served well by such media and networks. After all, they can provide a more or less direct contact between conflicting sides that have, most probably, been saturated with negative perceptions and stereotypes of each other, especially when it serves "certain" interests.

Yet, there is the ever-present question of utility and purpose, especially in the case of PD. I had touched upon the issue in an earlier post, and I could not but agree with the panelists in that these virtual networks are good as long as they eventually transform into real-life relationships (or are used to maintain previously established in-person contacts). The ability of new technologies and social media's to contribute to conflict-resolution or establish long-lasting, meaningful relationships is also undermined by the fact that - as Colin Rule pointed out - short virtual messages do not provide the time or space necessary for engaging in a substantial conversation.

Nonetheless, citizen and social media's potential for PD remains strong, as long as they are recognized and utilized as tools to facilitate dialogue among troubled societies. Besides providing a platform for "popular" PD, the very promotion and facilitation of such dialogue among external "troubled" parties can earn many brownie points for the facilitator (as, in fact, is already the case). Yet, such PD attempts should be carried out with great care and sensitivity so as not to compromise the integrity or the credibility of the initiative.

In short, the belief in the potential of new media and technologies to enhance international relations and promote peaceful dialogue is certainly not cyber-utopianism. However, the development of such tools is and will remain merely as means to achieve much greater ends.


As a side note:

- I found it very amusing that Ross referred, with outrage, to Hezballah's use of video games as a means to promote anti-Israeli sentiment and to recruit members. Amusing: because just a couple of weeks ago I talked about the very same issue - perception management, stereotype creation, and recruitment through "militainment" - in the U.S. At the same time, this is alarming, since either Mr. Ross is not aware of this fact, or is not willing to acknowledge it.

- Apparently, Facebook has come up with a "Peace" initiative, tracking the number of "friend" connections between people from different conflicting sides: geographic, religious, and political. For example, they currently indicate the "geographic" connections between Israel and Palestine, Albania and Serbia, India and Pakistan, Greece and Turkey. A great idea! I cannot but support Krikorian's suggestion: would be lovely to see the connections between Armenia and Azerbaijan there, too!

Yes. I still do have some hope..

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