Peace on Facebook? Online platforms in post-conflict societies

By Dr Paul Reilly

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“Hands Across the Divide” sculpture in Derry, from Wikimedia Commons

As far back as the late sixties, Johan Galtung, Founder of the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo predicted that the rapid growth of media technologies would favour associative peace building approaches, which increase contact between warring parties, rather than dissociative ones that kept them apart. The assumption was that strategies to keep antagonists apart would likely fail due to the quicker, more efficient modes of communication like digital technology, bringing them closer together.

Since then, there has been a multitude of literature on cyber spatial technologies and whether the internet can facilitate intergroup contact within highly segregated societies (where neutral space might be difficult to access, if it even exists), and what types of communication work most effectively within certain groups in improving attitudes towards out group members.

My research explores whether online platforms have the potential to facilitate positive intergroup contact in ‘post-conflict’ Northern Ireland. In my forthcoming book Digital Contention in a Divided Society, I investigate how Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were used during public demonstrations between 2011 and 2016, during events such as the Ardoyne Parade Dispute and the Union Flag Protests. The contentiousness of these parades and protests illustrated the ‘ethnic poker’ that continues to divide Catholic and Protestant communities within the highly segregated ‘post-conflict’ society.

Whether accidental or intentional, public Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags exposed members of the two main communities to oppositional viewpoints on issues such as parading rights. Comment threads on Facebook pages used to coordinate the flag protests also appeared to facilitate informal learning about the legality of the nightly protests blocking arterial roads across the region.

The 2014 and 2015 Ardoyne Parade Disputes suggested that social media’s most significant contribution to building peace in Northern Ireland might lie in its empowerment of citizens to correct misinformation and disinformation that might spark inter-communal violence.

Exchanges between supporters and critics of the flag protest movement were typically antagonistic in nature. The negative stereotyping of loyalists as ‘inbred sectarian bigots’ directly contradicted one of the key tenets of the reconciliation framework articulated by Brandon Hamber and Gráinne Kelly, namely that individuals treat each other as human beings rather than anonymous members of an out group. Although this activity was attributed to a relatively small group of digital citizens, extended/indirect contact hypothesis (which states that knowing a member of one’s own group has a close relationship with a member of an out group can lead to more positive attitudes towards that out group), suggests in this instance that any antagonistic interactions between Catholics and Protestants on social media were likely to increase prejudice towards out groups among their respective social networks.

Positive direct contact with members of the ‘other’ community remains the most effective way of fostering reconciliation in contested politics such as Northern Ireland. However, it would be premature to dismiss the potential of shared dialogue in ICTs and social media around societies transitioning out of conflict. Rather, intergroup contact should be re-imagined in recognition of the fact that online platforms have become so integrated into many people’s lives. Social media infrastructures may underpin inter-community cooperation, dialogue and friendships, but they are not machines of peace and reconciliation.

Exchanges between supporters and critics of the flag protest movement were typically antagonistic in nature. The negative stereotyping of loyalists as ‘inbred sectarian bigots’ directly contradicted one of the key tenets of the reconciliation framework articulated by Brandon Hamber and Gráinne Kelly, namely that individuals treat each other as human beings rather than anonymous members of an out group. Although this activity was attributed to a relatively small group of digital citizens, the extended/indirect contact hypothesis suggested that any antagonistic interactions between Catholics and Protestants on social media were likely to increase prejudice towards out groups among their respective social networks.

Positive direct contacts with members of the ‘other’ community remain the most effective way of fostering reconciliation in divided societies such as Northern Ireland. However, it would be premature to dismiss the ‘dialogic’ potential of ICTs and social media in societies transitioning out of conflict. Rather, the ‘gradual model’ of intergroup contact should be re-imagined in recognition of the fact that online platforms have become so integrated into many people’s lives. Social media infrastructures may underpin inter-community cooperation, dialogue and friendships, but they are not machines of peace and reconciliation.

The evidence thus far suggests that prospects for peace are unlikely to be enhanced via intergroup contact on social media, with platforms such as Twitter more likely to be used to spread hatred and violence than resolve sectarian conflicts, as seen in Israel-Palestine. Siva Vaidhyanathan, Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia, argues that the architecture of these platforms ‘energises hatred and bigotry’ and ‘turbocharges’ the spread of misinformation and disinformation that undermines public trust in news media and democratic political institutions.

My research suggests that social media may both help and hinder efforts to moderate the sectarian tensions caused by contentious public demonstrations. Yet, there was no identifiable causal link between misinformation and disinformation shared on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and the civil disturbances that occurred during these incidents, nor between the correction of false information and the absence of violence. Social media enabled online commenters to debate contentious political issues rather than influence those with the power to resolve them.

Purchase Dr Reilly’s book, Digital Contention in a Divided Society >

The latest social science thinking at The University of Sheffield. World class research, making a difference. http://sheffield.ac.uk/faculty/social-sciences

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