There is a heated debate going on about the effect of social media on politics. There are those who are sceptical about whether social media indeed had any impact with the recent upraising in North Africa and other places. According to this camp the revolutionary discussions on Twitter were simply a representation of an infectious social movement that was waiting to happen. Others see that social media has widened the democratic space in these countries by removing the monopoly of information previously enjoyed by the government, to the extent that it finally enabled the voice of the people to be heard. Even researchers on the topic have reduced this debate into a war of anecdotes aligned according to these two camps.
And then there was the story of UK. Why would people in a state perceived to be one of the forefathers of democracy start rioting?
I’m currently participating in Aalto Camp for Societal Innovation (ACSI) at the Aalto University. My group is working on creating a social media tool to ‘enrich negotiation for common ground.’ We gave ourselves the task to figure this thing out. Why do people use social media, who drives it, and how can it lead to conflict?
Our discussions have delved into the topic from a number of perspectives and levels. The concepts that seem to constantly reappear are attention, engagement and empowerment. Conflict and violence, which by the way are not synonyms, are both ways of getting attention. Whether you live in the a repressive state that breaks your human rights, or you feel like you have been ignored by the government you have elected, what you want to do is draw attention to your plight. Violence or a loud conflict will empower you. It will give you the feeling you matter, have a voice in this world and stroke your ego. However, if you are engaged in a peace process or perhaps even in local politics, you are more likely to feel like you are being heard.
I for example don’t feel the need to take violent action against my government, because I feel that my voice matters in the Finnish society since I voted. (Although the last election results might have made me a less proud ‘Finn.’)
Now, the real question on the topic of social media and politics concerns the spillover effect. How can a debate on a forum or Twitter spill over and turn it into something physical? I believe the answer lies in the observation that the relationship between the virtual and ‘real’ world is artificial. Social media is, in the words of Manuel Castells a renowned sociologist, ‘smart social logistics.’ As such it is both a tool of communication and a representation, or a mini cosmos, if you will, of society. It is simply an extension of who we are, what we do, and why we do it. As a result, it would make more sense to participate in a riot also offline than not to.
Whether or not an individual chooses to do that or not depends of course on the risks, but also on the degree that the person is engaged with the issue at hand. It is often argued that social media creates more space between individuals, which can lead to polarization and escalation. There are those who participate on heated online debates, but don’t take action. Social media is therefore also an avenue for venting out frustrations. Anyone can have an audience and attention on Twitter, whatever the background of the person. This effect might have in fact lead to a reduction of conflicts, but as conflict means attention, we don’t hear about these cases.
I recently returned from Kenya where I did fieldwork for my graduate thesis on how social media impacts reconciliation in the current post-conflict situation. While conducting interviews in the informal settlements of Nairobi I observed that while social media had indeed generally had a polarizing effect during the 2007-2008 election violence, it was now being used in creative ways to spread the message of peace. Not only was it actively used by the civil society actors to educate people, but also to perform their task as the watchdog of society. They were encouraging people to get engaged in a constructive discourse with the politicians, but also in a more general way.
I met an abundance of youths who told me: ‘at least I’m doing something, I’m blogging.’ By engaging these ‘idle youths’ online, who by the way are the demographic majority in Kenya and largely the group that perpetrated the violence in 2007-2008, the civil society actors were able to empower them. The youth were getting the attention they seeked and as a result were communicating their frustrations in a constructive way instead of violence.
The young Kenyan bloggers are also a fine example of the way in which conflict has incredible potential for change. I would never advocate for violent conflict, but many of the young I interviewed had been nuisances for their communities before the conflict, but were now blogging and highlighting important issues in their communities. This is something that is central to move Kenya away from personality centred toward more issue based politics. Issue based politics, which the people are engaged in is a sign of a functioning democracy.
The Kenyan context is but one, and it is true that instant communication avenues do pose risks. I would nevertheless like to challenge you to see the entire discussion about social media and popular movements with a whole different mindset. Instead of looking at the ways in which social media create or don’t create conflict, why don’t we focus on the ways in which it creates or doesn’t create peace? This shift in the outlook of the topic could have very different and interesting results. Because let’s face it today no news is good news, and what I mean by that is that when social media mediates a conflict we don’t hear about it, but we when it doesn’t.
Please contact me at saila_lindroos (at) hotmail.com or on LinkedIn. I would enjoy exchanging views on this topic in different contexts.
The writer recently completed her MSc in Conflict Resolution and Governance at University of Amsterdam.