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Good practices Misinformation Social media and its impact

After the new media and ICT4D backlash – what’s next in peacebuilding?

In former blog posts during this course I’ve explored social media and its impacts. My aim has been to write about both negative practices that can become setbacks for development – such as the spread of misinformation, the presence of right wing populism online and trolling – as well as good practices and strategies to contest harming social media activities and contribute to social change.

 

Before, there has been a reliance on the potential of new technologies to grant peacebuilding and solve inequalities, a view that is becoming contested. The initial optimism about Facebook revolutions and such has experienced a backlash when clashing with government surveillance and control over the internet (Kahl & Puig 2013, Denskus 2019). When the internet, that was expected to bring open societies and democracy to the world, instead has been used to block protests and attack human rights defenders there is a need to develop new ways of analyzing its effects (Denskus 2019). 

 

But what follows after this backlash? Can we find new solutions to contest the negative outcome of ICT and new media? I previously wrote about two different initiatives that are contesting negative practices online. I will present a more comprehensive theoretical framework about new media and ICT in this text, to enable a further analysis of the same projects. 

 

Co-inform is an intra-European project that aims to recognize and tackle misinformation online with the outspoken mission to foster critical thinking and digital literacy. Based on the theory that informed and engaged communities constitute the foundations of a healthy democracy, the project targets three main stakeholder groups that could help turn this problem around: policymakers, journalists, and citizens. The question asked is: how can you provide citizens with tools to spot ‘fake news’ online, understand how they spread, and obtain access to verified information?

 

The Swedish Facebook group and hashtag #jagärhär – Gör sociala medier bättre (#iamhere – Make social media better) have over 74 000 members and describe themselves as a support group for those who actively want to stop the spread of hatred online. The idea is that the hashtag will make other members of the group aware of a hateful discussion and step in as supporters. 

 

How can new media and ICT build peace? 

 

New media and ICT does have potential to several positive outcomes for peacebuilding, such as mitigating conflicts, policy change, coordinating protests and collaboration, change of attitudes and the creation of alternative narratives (Aday et al. 2010, Kahl & Puig 2013). Poell and van Dijck (2018) argues that social media platforms “not only enable activist social media activity, but also fundamentally shape it”.

 

Yet the evidence that social media can contribute to peacebuilding is mainly anecdotal and there are not always confirmed connections between input and outcome (Rohwerder 2015). Perhaps the group of people protesting through new media would have done so even without social media platforms? We cannot know which consequences new media will have on contentious politics in a long-term perspective – if any (Aday et al. 2010) and the risk is we only promote the same hegemonic practices in new channels (Tellidis & Kappler 2016). 

 

Overall there has been a shift towards looking at ICT and new media as tools that needs to be integrated with other aspects of peacebuilding. Cooperation with new allies, open-source activists, geographers and IT experts, is stressed by Denskus (2019). In one of my blog posts I wrote about the mapping project Forests 2020 where engineers cooperate with both governments and civil society to provide insights in deforestation. More projects like that will probably emerge in the future. 

 

To conclude this section: there are no given outcomes when using ICT which also lies in the nature of a tool which is created to be participatory. When we view ICT and new media as merely tools, the important question becomes: who uses the tool and for what purpose?

 

ICT4D gone ICT4Bad 

Even though new technologies can lead to positive change there are, unfortunately, several examples of ICT4D gone ICT4Bad. New media that has led to negative results and technology ending up in the “wrong” hands, government surveillance being one example (Kahl & Puig 2013). Some researchers even view new technologies as aggravating conflict or to not having any effects at all, according to Aday et al. (2010). 

 

Liberal actors may get empowered by new media, but there is no way of making sure that opposing agents will not get a piece of that empowering cake as well (Aday et al 2010). As discussed in one of my previous blog posts, the rise of the right wing populism around the globe wouldn’t have been possible without new media (Schroeder 2018). 

 

For example, an often-used argument by members of the Swedish right wing populist party SD is that traditional media is biased (Schall 2016) – a common rhetoric among anti-establishment populists – and therefore SD has instead created their own news channels. The “alternative media” cover the same news as mainstream media but with a different interpretation, particularly in respect to immigration (Holt 2016 in Schroeder 2018). 

 

A factor that cannot be foreseen is the economic crisis experienced by traditional media due to digitalization. Thus clickbait is prioritized in most media outlets and it’s becoming a common practice to simply repost content directly from Twitter. As stated by Denskus (2019), “using (social) media to create provocative, contentious or divisive content can be more lucrative than working toward traditional values of dialogue and consensus often associated with the initiatives supported through peacebuilding efforts.” 

 

A common critique towards social media is that it encourages self-segregation and polarization “as people seek out only information that reinforces their prior beliefs, offering ever more opportunities for the spread of hate, misinformation, and prejudice” (Aday et al. 2010). When misinformation de-legitimizes the message of public institutions and experts it can have widespread consequences on our lives and democracies. Before the internet, publishers served as media’s gatekeepers and we could assume a certain level of quality when picking up a newspaper (Rettberg 2017 in Schroeder 2018). But digital technology has changed the scenery and today anyone can become a publisher. At the same time, social media enables people to spread information rapidly without confirmation of truth. All of this puts more responsibility on the reader to have strong (digital) literacy skills to detect misinformation. 

 

On a different note, social media as a new arena for communication also changes the way we behave and interact with each other. Trolling, cyber-bullying and spamming “belongs to the wider domain of social media practices that resulted from the popularization of Internet access and participatory digital media platforms” (de la Seta 2018). de la Seta (ibid.) describes the development: “The rapid pace with which digital media platforms introduce new affordances for interpersonal interaction complicates the sociotechnical context, and along with evolving interactional norms and situational rules of etiquette emerge new ways of disturbing, harassing or abusing each other online.” 

 

Sadly, it’s easy to see why the “second generation” of social media and peacebuilding is marked with less optimism and more with the limits and backlashes of social media platforms (Denskus 2019). 

 

How can we analyze the outcome of social media and ICT?

 

As stated in previous sections, the outcomes of new media and ICT for peacebuilding and social change are not given. Aday, S. et al. (2010) criticize sweeping assumptions of the democratizing power of new media and urges scholars to “adopt a more nuanced view of new media’s role in democratization and social change, one that recognizes that new media can have both positive and negative effects.” To be able to make good policy, Aday et al. (2010) suggests that “policymakers and advocates need to understand not only who is winning and who is losing, but why one side is winning or losing”. If certain patterns of communication lead to certain behavior, e.g. greater likelihood of violence, we need to understand those patterns. 

 

Aday et al. (2010) suggests a framework when analyzing the impacts of new media consisting of five different levels on which new media can matter: individual transformation, intergroup relations, collective action, regime policies, and external attention. These five levels  “capture distinct pathways by which change might be manifest and measured” (ibid.). We need to ask if new media tend to “bond” group members to one another, or if they “bridge” members of different groups. 

 

Similar to this is the suggestion made by Kahl and Puig (2013) to apply the Do No Harm framework when introducing technologies into peacebuilding programs. The approach “recognises the presence of ‘dividers’ and ‘connectors’ in conflict and seeks to analyse how an intervention may be implemented in a way that supports local communities to address the underlying causes of conflict rather than exacerbating conflict” (CSC 2012). Even if technologies can be used to prevent violent conflict they can also become dividers in a context of conflict (Kahl & Puig 2013). What we need to take into consideration is access – does people have equal access to new media or can access and information flows get manipulated and hijacked? The use of the technology must also be designed to encourage empowerment and positive participation by different groups and not prioritize one group over another. 

 

Can Co-Inform and #jagärhär lead to actual change? 

 

In the introduction of this article I presented two projects that I’ve written about in my blog posts, although without any extensive analysis on their contribution. Both examples are projects created to contest the negative development that new media has had on peacebuilding and social change, eg. misinformation and hatred online. But can we make sure that those initiatives have an actual impact? 

 

Co-inform suggests to create socio-technical tools for misinformation detection and to effectively combine technology and social science. Tech companies are facing more and more suspicion as reliable fact-checkers and Co-inform therefore suggests a method named Co-creation which includes a combination of both tech and citizen engagement. One part of the suggested solution is a browser plugin to “raise citizens’ awareness of fully or partially misinforming content, of related fact-checking articles and corrective information, of average citizens’ perceptions towards this content, and of key pro and against comment from fellow citizens”. Co-inform is also working on a dashboard for fact-checking journalists and policy-makers, “showing what misinformation is detected, where it originates from, how and where it spreads and will spread in the near future, what’s the current and predictable public perception, and what are the key comments about it from the public”.

 

ICT and new media are important tools in sharing information rapidly, and accurate and verified information is a substantial aspect of conflict prevention and peacebuilding (Kahl & Puig 2013). The right information at the right time can prevent violence from happening or stop it from escalating. I think that Co-Inform can have positive effects on peacebuilding in various ways. It can both lead to individual transformation, for example achieve greater consciousness about the negative consequences of misinformation and the responsibility that must be undertaken by each individual to stop fake news from spreading. The Co-creation method encourages collaboration between different groups and boosts collective action. Sure Co-inform will be contested by groups who wish to continue the spread of misleading and unconfirmed facts, but in the longer run I believe that instruments such as Co-inform will be mainstreamed and used by a majority. As I mentioned when writing about the project before, I believe that Co-inform will not solve the whole problem. If we rely on one tool to tackle misinformation, that can also diminish our individual responsibility and critical thought. We need to educate about the consequences that misinformation can have and focus on enhancing digital literacy for everyone. If we do, Co-Inform can have actual impact on individual transformation. 

 

New media can reshape discussions and debates which can lead to a change in attitudes and generate positive connections (Aday et al 2010). The initiative #jagärhär aims at spreading positive messages in comment sections on Facebook and to support others to do so. “(…) conflict management and peacebuilding is about changing attitudes and behavior to avoid a tense situation escalating into violence” (Galtung 1969; Mitchell 1981; Miall 1992 in Puigi and Kahl 2013) – which is one of the purposes of the group. It’s not about changing the opinion of others, but to have the courage to express your own. This can lead to both individual transformation, a change in intergroup relations and to collective action. And that way social media and the internet can be used the way it was intended to: contributing to a more open and democratic world. 

 

When looking at how new media affect intergroup relations some important questions to pose are whether connections between opposing as well as like-minded groups are being fostered or undermined, if new media has a role in spreading hateful images and if new media can be used for cross-community communication. I can only speak for myself, but when seeing the comment section which was the result of the Facebook group’s first international call of action as described in another blog post I felt assured that there are positive forces that work for change on social media. Unlike other similar posts about refugees and the right to asylum the thread is filled with positive messages. When digital media creates a sense of community around an alternative narrative and brings in new voices that challenge divisive messages this can have a real impact on peacebuilding (Corlazzoli 2013 in Kahl & Puig 2013).

 

Final reflections 

 

During this course I’ve tried to focus on what interests me the most and what is also a help for me as a communications officer working in Swedish civil society. I’ve spent a lot of my professional time challenging misconceptions and hatred online and what has guided me during this course has been an urge to understand the mechanisms behind these harmful social media practices. To not get depressed by only looking at the dark sides of new media and ICT I’ve wanted to look at initiatives with an outspoken wish to contest them. 

 

I think that I have realized to a greater extent that we need to look at new media as a tool that when in the hands of different groups never has a given outcome. On the internet as well as on the political arena and in real life there is a constant interplay between negative and positive practices. Writing about social media is like writing about society since more and more activity is being digitalized. The different design of social media suits different kinds of messages and therefore will benefit different kinds of groups and new media of course is not independent from the surrounding context and societies where they are being used. Even though it’s hard to imagine a world without the internet it is helpful to remind yourself that it is something very new to human history and that we are still learning. When more and more of our interaction is moved to the internet the behavioral and anthropological analysis must follow as well. 

 

References 

Aday, S., Farrell, H., Lynch, M., Sides, J., Kelly, J., & Zuckerman, E. (2010). Blogs and bullets. New media in contentious politics. Peaceworks No. 65. Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace. 

 

Co-inform. Co-inform 2019. Retrieved 2020-03-10 from https://coinform.eu/

 

de la Seta, G. (2018). Trolling and other problematic social media practices. In: Burgess, J., Marwick, A. & Poell, T. (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Social Media (pp. 390-410). Sage Publications Ltd. 

 

Denskus, T. (2019). Social media and peacebuilding. In: S. Romaniuk, M. Thapa & P. Marton (Eds.), The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Global Security Studies. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

 

Kahl, A. & Puig Laurriari, H. (2013). Technology for Peacebuilding. Stability: International Journal of Security and Development. Centre for Security Governance. Retrieved 2020-03-23 from: stabilityjournal.org/articles/10.5334/sta.cv/

 

Poell, T. & van Dijck, J. (2018). Social Media and New Protest Movements. In: Burgess, J., Marwick, A. & Poell, T. (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Social Media (pp. 546-561). Sage Publications Ltd. 

 

Rohwerder, B. (2015). Social media and conflict management in post-conflict and fragile contexts (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1184). Birmingham: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.

 

Schall, C. (2016). The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Welfare Machine: Immigration and Social Democracy in Twentieth‐Century Sweden. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 

 

Schroeder, R. (2018). Social Theory after the Internet: Media, Technology and the Internet. London: UCL Press. 

 

Tellidis, I., & Kappler, S. (2016). Information and communication technologies in peacebuilding: Implications, opportunities and challenges. Cooperation and Conflict, 51(1), 75–93.

 

The Conflict Sensitivity Consortium, CSC (2012). How to guide conflict sensitivity. Retrieved 2020-03-22 from https://conflictsensitivity.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/6602_HowToGuide_CSF_WEB_3.pdf 

 

#jagärhär (Private Facebook group). Retrieved 2020-03-07 from  https://www.facebook.com/groups/548170525365320/

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