15 Apr 2011
Bridging the Void: Social Media’s Potential to Transform Intergroup Relations in Fractured Societies
In post-conflict environments marked by enduring intergroup hostility, a lack of physical contact between disparate groups creates a void that inflames stereotypes and paralyzes reconciliation. A recent Caucasus Barometer report shows a stunning 97 percent of Azerbaijanis and 70 percent of Armenians reportedly disapprove of intergroup friendships.[i] In this context, both mainstream and agenda-driven media present a bifurcated “good versus evil” narrative, ossifying intergroup rifts and denying moderates the space in which to learn about and explore peace with the outgroup[ii] “other.” Participatory social media—digital platforms promoting uninhibited people-to-people interaction—provides a way to bridge this gap and engage otherwise non-integrated groups. Moderated discussion fora in particular may improve intergroup relations in fractured post-conflict societies.
Caucasus Edition, an online journal dedicated to discussion on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, exemplifies this potential. Its key attribute is fostering a sense of trust through moderation by preventing vitriol and ad hominen attacks. I define the region surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh as a fractured society in which physical intergroup contact is virtually nonexistent. Based on a literature review of conflict resolution theory and computer-mediated communication (CMC) processes, I propose three hypotheses of how social media tools facilitate intergroup attitude transformation: 1) Social media may complexify perceptions of the outgroup, 2) Social media creates space for an inclusive intergroup dialogue and 3) External moderation is critical to create civil discourse. I test these hypotheses by analyzing eight threads on Caucasus Edition and seven participant questionnaires.
The following three findings suggest that social media’s potential to affect social change cannot be dismissed:
- Caucasus Edition participants state that mainstream and agenda-driven media has entrenched their stereotypes about the outgroup and indicate that their perception of this “other” has changed through social media engagement.
- Caucasus Edition provides an otherwise unavailable platform for intergroup contact and helps individuals overcome alienation from the outgroup.
- Based on the data sample, moderated fora present fewer ad hominen attacks than seen in mainstream media or non-moderated fora and catalyze more civil discourse.
Social media are no panacea; human input, not the platforms themselves, ultimately determines whether social media can improve intergroup relations. The road toward attitude transformation is torturous; on its own, CMC may be incapable of transcending intergroup prejudice. Future research should engage a larger sample and seek to pinpoint how contact transforms intergroup perceptions. Despite these qualifications, new technology is here to stay. Peacebuilders should leverage these new tools to fill contact voids that would otherwise breed spiraling hostility and inhibit eventual reconciliation.
[i] Arpineh Porsughyan, “The Media in Armenia and Azerbaijan: Effective or Affective?” In Onnik Krikorian, Caucasus Conflict Voices 1 (December 2010), 6.
[ii] A social grouping that “ingroup” members feel distinct from and possibly hostile toward.