1 Jul 2011
Social Media: A New Track of Multi-Track Diplomacy
The Internet and social media are revolutionizing all aspects of human communication. They are transforming the ways in which people and societies relate to one another, themselves, and other societies. Inevitably, technological advances have profound impacts for conflict dynamics as well. Even so, their effects have not been studied yet.
Web 2.0 Revolution
Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (2008) describes social media having brought down the costs of coordination and organization. This makes it possible for otherwise unconnected individuals to initiate and coordinate large-scale social actions. Considering that such capacity of coordination and organization was previously inaccessible to individuals and limited for states or large organizations due to the high costs of communication and coordination, this development is unprecedented.
We have become accustomed to thinking of the Internet, and social media by extension, as communication tools. They are indeed, and as such, they mirror real life and are a continuation of existing behavior and relationships, helping and enhancing both with greater speed and efficiency. As an example, for those already engaged in peacemaking, social media might be just a tool that helps preexisting behavior.
However, it would be misleading to think of social media only as a communication tool and as an auxiliary phenomenon. For already established media outlets such as The New York Times or the Guardian, social media is just another tool to further promote their already existing work. However, for many pro-democracy bloggers, LGBT activists, or peacemakers around the world with no other avenues to express themselves, social media is the platform that even makes it possible for them to get their voices out, connect and mobilize others to action, even though they may be persecuted by political regimes and marginalized by self-censoring mainstream media.
This seismic shift happened not because of the development and spread of the Internet or the consequent increased speed of communication per se. The Internet initially was just another means of communication that supported existing social norms and behavior. What made the difference, in the last few years, was the development of user-generated interactive social media platforms otherwise referred to as Web 2.0, as opposed to the author-generated and non-interactive Web 1.0 version of the Internet from 1993 to 2003.
Social Media and Conflict Transformation in the South Caucasus
In 2007, Jale Sultanli from Baku, Azerbaijan and I, being from Yerevan, Armenia, established the US-based IMAGINE Center for Conflict Transformation, a small non-governmental organization with a focus on peacemaking between Armenians and Azerbaijanis who share an unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Between 2007 and 2010, the Imagine Center organized a number of dialogue meetings, including problem solving workshops and workshops on historical conciliation for young professionals, a number of conflict resolution and communication skills trainings, and a conference on Nagorno-Karabakh that was held in Boston in cooperation with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Initially, all the initiatives were conducted behind closed doors and social media or the Internet were not part of the toolbox. In 2009, IMAGINE held a project-planning meeting in Tbilisi with its program alumni in which the following problems for fostering cross-border dialogue and improvement of relations between Azerbaijani and Armenian societies were identified:
– Closed borders and absence of communication;
– Difficulties for peacemakers to have on-going communication with their colleagues across the border;
– Absence of freedom of speech and tight government control over mainstream media;
– Information wars and active cultivation of negative images of the “other” through education and media;
– Stereotypes continuously reinforced and unchallenged in the media as well as the Internet;
– Wide-spread zero-sum vision of the conflict;
– Absence of platforms for expressing or discussing alternative or pro-peace views and institutional obstacles for creating such platforms;
– Peer pressure on peace activists and obstacles created on governmental and societal levels, preventing the emergence of a community of peacemakers;
– No space for self-critical voices.
During the 2009 meeting, the IMAGINE group had determined that social media tools can help to overcome almost all the above-mentioned obstacles. Using social networking sites could help overcome the isolation of societies from each other caused by closed borders and the inevitable high costs of meetings in third countries. The social networking sites and online communication platforms such as Skype could allow regular on-going communication for the peacemakers; cross-border partnerships could be formed and sustained with daily communication; online platforms could be created for critical voices and alternative ideas; and social media tools can be used to create platforms for peacemakers to communicate, plan joint actions, and simply create an online community to impede isolation. In the long term, online programs on peace education could be designed.
As a result of the project planning meeting in 2009, the IMAGINE Center conducted two social media tool trainings for young social scientists from Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2010. The focus was to incorporate social media into peacemaking work. IMAGINE Center then ventured to create an online platform: the Caucasus Edition, Journal of Conflict Transformation at www.caucasusedition.net. In the same year, Arzu Geybullayeva, a regional analyst, blogger, and social media expert, joined the IMAGINE Center and further expanded the center’s drive to improve the effectiveness of its peacemaking practices by connecting social media and conflict resolution.
The Caucasus Edition was created as a forum for Azerbaijani, Armenian, and international scholars, practitioners, policy analysts, novice researchers and bloggers to provide critical analysis of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and explore alternatives for its resolution from diverse perspectives. The publication consists of two sections and is published bi-weekly. Each issue features two analytical articles — one from Armenia, one from Azerbaijan, and occasionally, an article authored by an international expert, as well as a number of blog posts and personal reflections on the conflict. The website has an interactive feature and enables online sharing and commenting. Since its launch on April 15, 2010 and up through the end of 2010, the Caucasus Edition has published 34 analytical articles by over 25 authors and over 50 blog posts by dozens of authors. The publication has attracted contributions of established researchers and experts but has mainly remained committed to its main goal of incorporating young and alternative voices within the peace process. Most authors are graduate students, young professionals, or peacemakers whose voices in the peace process have not yet been heard.
One year after the creation of the Caucasus Edition website, the Russian version was launched. By that time, the website had on average close to 20,000 monthly visitors. The articles and the newsletters of the Caucasus Edition have been actively shared through various academic and other electronic lists, Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites.
The Editorial Board of the Caucasus Edition includes three Azerbaijanis, three Armenians, and an American: Susan Allen Nan, a professor at the Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution of George Mason University. The Armenian and Azerbaijani members of the board have worked closely together on a daily basis, using social media tools to edit the articles for balance of opinion and bias, provide feedback to the authors, and maintain a regular publication schedule.
While it is still hard to assess the full impact of the Caucasus Edition, as it is a relatively young initiative and requires a systemic evaluation, some learning points can be discerned. The project started by navigating uncharted waters. The biggest concern when launching it was that as a jointly managed and openly conflict resolution-oriented Armenian-Azerbaijani venture, it would be subjected to various pressures and attacks, including from the governments. Yet to our surprise we received only support. A number of leading researchers submitted articles soon after the publication was launched. This showed that the fears of persecution for “cooperating with the other side” that prevent many from engaging in peacemaking are somewhat exaggerated.
In November 2010, the Caucasus Edition started a News Digest section presenting the summaries of English, Armenian, and Azerbaijani language articles related to Armenian-Azerbaijani relations and Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and peace process. The Neutral Zone – the blog platform of the Caucasus Edition – was launched at www.caucasuseditionblog.wordpress.com/ as a more open interactive environment where the blog posts do not undergo the rigorous editorial process of the journal.
IMAGINE, of course, is not the only group that has taken steps toward incorporating social media into peacemaking in the South Caucasus. In 2009 and 2010, a number of initiatives bridging social media and peacemaking appeared and their numbers continued to grow while this chapter was written. A series of joint documentaries produced by Conciliation Resources on stories of peace and war, called “Dialogue through film project,” were produced in 2009. While social media can hardly be credited for the making of the documentaries in the environment where such films cannot be screened on TV, YouTube and other websites were the main platforms where they have been disseminated. Other similar projects followed suit, including two documentaries: “The Passenger” and “Image of Enemy,” sponsored by the Eurasia Partnership Foundation as part of its “Unbiased Media Coverage” project. In April 2010, Vermont-based Project Harmony International organized a conference on “Social Media for Social Change” in Tbilisi, Georgia where social media experts from around the world and peacemakers in the Caucasus shared experiences and ideas for contributing to social change using social media tools. In October 2010, the Eurasia Partnership Foundation organized an “e-MediaBias workshop” bringing together bloggers from Azerbaijan and Armenia to plan joint cross-border Internet initiatives on promoting mutual understanding and better e-media practices. Global Voices has created a “Caucasus Conflict Voices” section producing reports from English language peace-oriented blogs in the Caucasus. In December 2010 the Civil Society Institute (Armenia), Society of Humanitarian Research (Azerbaijan), and Conflict Transformation and Peace-Building Resource Centre in Stepanakert (Nagorno-Karabakh) organized a series of videoconferences between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh called “Let’s PeaceJam!” A number of smaller-scale cooperative projects between Azerbaijani and Armenian individuals have also emerged, most notably a few joint initiatives undertaken by British journalist of Armenian descent Onnik Krikorian in cooperation with a few Azerbaijani bloggers.
Social Media and Conflict Escalation
Pro-peace, pro-rights, and pro-democracy movements are not the only ones who benefit from the technological revolution. To quote Shirky (2008) again, “falling transaction costs [that facilitate collective action] benefit all groups, not just groups we happen to approve of” (p. 208).
Social media is actively used to identify and intimidate constructive or alternative voices. The Armenians or Azerbaijanis who befriend one another publicly on social networking sites such as Facebook or its Russian version, Odnoklassniki.ru, are often attacked, insulted, and called traitors online by their “offline” friends and peers from their own societies. Pro-democracy or pro-peace bloggers are also similarly attacked. Any public expression of alternative views, criticism of one’s own side, or simple public discussions of critical topics — all necessary components of a successful peace process and sustainable co-existence with other groups — are actively discouraged. Anything but repeating the silently agreed-upon lines dictated by government propaganda becomes taboo, and progress within each society is held hostage to a phenomenon of what a Caucasus Edition columnist, Anahit Shirinyan (2010), brilliantly named “Shut Up! The Enemy Might Hear You!”
Peacemakers or ordinary citizens are actively intimidated to prevent them from having contact with the “other side.” People who have active Internet contacts with the other side are under constant surveillance and are subjected to questioning by security services. While most cases of such surveillance have understandably remained unpublicized, some cases become public. In 2009, a few dozen Azerbaijanis voted through their cell phones for an Armenian singer during a popular European song contest called Eurovision where both Azerbaijan and Armenia were represented. Soon thereafter, the National Security Ministry of Azerbaijan summoned all 43 of them for questioning, revealing the degree of control and intimidation that exists over any kind of contact or positive interest in the other side. Such measures are not unique to Azerbaijan.
Therefore, the openness provided by social media tools is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the costs of organization go down and many more citizens engage in cross-border dialogue and cooperation than was possible before, while many others challenge the stereotypes and taboos and express alternative ideas. On the other hand, the open nature of social media exposes these people to the security apparatus and societies in their countries, thus subjecting them to government intimidation and peer pressure. These intimidation tactics then lead to self-censorship and restraint, thereby limiting the newly opened space for alternative opinion or open discussion.
Moreover, social media itself is actively used to promote hatred and xenophobia as well as to counter and intimidate peacemakers. In November 2010, a Yerevan-based NGO, Caucasus Center for Peace-Making Initiatives (CCPR), was planning to hold an Azerbaijani Film Festival in Yerevan. After two decades of anti-Azerbaijani propaganda and the dehumanization of Azerbaijanis, the event was surely out of the ordinary and some backlash could have been expected. Ironically, the Facebook page of the organizers of the Azerbaijani Film Festival itself became a platform to mobilize Armenian society against the event. The most problematic issue was not the opposition to the festival itself, but the way opposition to the event was voiced. While a few people raised their concerns in a respectful way, the loudest voices directed hundreds of insults and curses toward the organizers, potential attendees, and also Azerbaijani people and culture. The Film Festival was ultimately cancelled.
More developed and damaging are the Internet information wars, often well financed by the governments but are also fed by the enthusiasm of armies of “patriots.” The propaganda on these sites is subtler and often presented as analytical, news, or historical publications and appear to present factual evidence. Often the factual evidence they appeal to is actually valid; however, the facts are selectively chosen to present one’s own side in a positive light and the other in a negative one.
Many of the initiatives described in this chapter affect the dynamics of conflicts and perceptions within societies contributing to peacemaking or conflict escalation. They have implications for collective identities and relations between as well as within the conflicting sides, sometimes influencing policy making. Yet almost none of the activities described above would have been possible just a few years ago, and they became possible because social media tools have become widely used.
Far from suggesting that social media is the key to peacemaking or that it affects the conflict dynamics more strongly than politics, economics, traditional media, education, and so forth, I want to acknowledge that social media today is a distinct factor that influences the formation and dynamics of personal and societal relations and has a major role in redefining and often defining behavior. Many of the old rules regarding cognitive patterns, group formation, and group action do not apply anymore. This change is not necessarily positive or negative: it is neutral. Yet its patterns and its effects on conflict dynamics are not studied and remain unknown.
Most attempts to bridge the worlds of conflict resolution and social media have until today been conducted by individual peacemakers or concerned bloggers. Despite good intentions, these are localized and short-term initiatives that lack adequate resources or methodology to conduct a long-term study identifying trends and dynamics. At the same time, the efforts to use social media for dehumanization of each other and conflict escalation enjoy institutional and financial support of governments and security apparatuses of the conflicting sides.
There is a need for rigorous studies of the impact of social media on conflict escalation and transformation, and for the development of guidelines for more effective use of social media in peacemaking. Learning to effectively engage social media in peacemaking will require a partnership between pioneering practitioners and methodical social scientists. The ground has already shifted — peacemaking today is treading on new grounds.
Shirinyan, A. (2010, June 1). Shut up! The enemy might hear you! Retrieved from http://caucasusedition.net/news-digest/blog/shut-up-the-enemy-might-hear-you/
Shirky, C. (2008). Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. New York: Penguin Press.