Conflict Sensitive Approaches to Social Media

This module will provide concepts and tools to enable users to: 

This module will address the following Core Competencies

  • Establish conditions for learning and transformation
  • Support skillful communication
  • Evaluate and improve relationships and systems

The line between real and virtual is increasingly blurred in the age of social media. Our social and political lives are reflected and broadcast on social media and, in turn, social media shapes the narratives that transform our world. While references to social media and politics immediately bring to mind polarization, fake news, and animosity, social media also has vast positive potential for connecting widely disparate people and communities.

A conflict sensitive approach to social media usage can help individuals and organizations leverage this potential and avoid some common pitfalls.

Hallmarks of a Conflict Sensitive Approach to Social Media:

  • Resisting the trend toward anonymity
  • Humanizing social media users
  • Utilizing reflection, awareness and mindfulness to avoid needless escalation
  • Decreasing the risk of misinformation
  • Fostering connection and collaboration across geographic and social separation via new platforms and technologies
  • Privileging face-to-face or audio communication whenever possible to avoid loss in non verbal information

Risks and Possibilities of Social Media:

Social media’s capacity to cause and exacerbate conflict is due in part to the “attention economy.” A common business model in the tech world, the “attention economy” relies on content intended to produce as much internet traffic as possible, resulting in content that appeals to emotions such as fear, outrage and anger. Another potential risk of social media is the reduction in person-to-person communication in favor of brief, remote, text-based communication, which is more prone to miscommunication, simplification, and a loss of emotional exchange and empathy. Finally, social media algorithms tend to show users content based on their previous clicks, which means that users are often exposed to posts and news media that confirm their existing beliefs, thus exacerbating polarization.

The downsides of social media may, however, be counterbalanced by its positive potential, as indicated in the chart below. Some social media engineers are now focusing attention on how to design information technologies to “promote constructive consensus building over destructive polarization.”

Risks:

  • Disinformation, propaganda, shaming
  • Security and privacy risks
  • Polarization and isolation
  • Text-based communication leads to lower trust levels and less satisfactory outcomes than person-to-person negotiation

Potential:

  • Citizen education, information sharing, empowerment and engagement
  • Access to data for research and analysis
  • Communication and connection across geographic and other borders; sharing of narratives
  • Video-conferencing and emerging applications can promote constructive communication and connection

Summary

Social media poses specific risks as regards communication and conflict, but reflective and strategic social media use can help users avoid these risks and even contribute to connection and collaboration across lines of difference. Users can refer to the reflection questions and tools and tips below for guidance on how to engage in conflict sensitive social media usage.

Next Steps

Reflection Questions to encourage intentional, conflict-sensitive social media usage:

Examine these questions within the context of your own work or a contemporary global issue that relates to your work in social change.

  • What role does social media play in my professional/political/community relationships?
  • How does social media help me or my organization achieve my/our organizing goals?
  • Does social media ever damage relationships or hinder the achievement of organizing goals?
  • Does my identity or communication style differ online vs. offline? How?
  • What types of online content, messaging or communication style tend to evoke strong reactions for me?
  • Do I recall experiences of positive online engagement? What made them positive?

Note: Organizations or individuals may choose to consult with a communications or conflict resolution coach to assist in changing patterns of social media use to promote positive conflict management and community building.

TOOLS AND TIPS

Here are some strategies for taking a conflict sensitive approach to social media.

Imagine the person behind the profile

  • On social media, it is harder to imagine that there is a human being behind the user name.

Pause before you click!

  • Remember that communication skills and conflict resolution techniques (see Foundations of Conflict Resolution) can work on social media too, but they may take a little extra time and effort than typical for our social media interactions

Consider the source of your information

  • See the Humanitarian Dialogue Centre’s Peacemaking and New Technologies for tips on how to mitigate disinformation risks and use counter-disinformation tools

Before things get heated, consider face-to-face communication via online video-conferencing platforms, phone or in person.

This can offer:

  • empathy and relationship-building
  • less risk of misunderstanding
  • more opportunities for dialogue

Note: always consider the potential risks in making direct contact with any individual online. Remember, one can never be sure of who they are talking to online.

Join initiatives to promote connection and collaboration on social media, or create your own. Civil society organizations are increasingly looking to social media to connect people with opposing viewpoints:

  • Make America Dinner Again: In addition to in-person bipartisan political dialogues, Make America Dinner Again hosts a Facebook discussion group devoted to civil political dialogue.
  • Better Angels: In addition to in-person Red/Blue Workshops, Better Angels streams “Better Angels-style” debates to model civil conversations about politics.
  • Soliya: Virtual Exchange dialogue programs for youth around the world using an online platform for dialogue, relationship-building and collaboration

Resources:

How Technology and Media Shape My Experiences with (In)Civil Discourse. Poem by New York University Freshman Garcia, Aspen Institute’s 2017 Youth & Engagement Programs’ convening, Civil Discourse in a Fractured Age.

Report by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue: Peacemaking and New Technologies.

Social Media and Conflict Prevention. United States Institute of Peace. (Lists examples of international peacemakers harnessing the power of social media to prevent conflict.)

Our team of highly skilled conflict professionals can support you.

For more information and support, or if you are interested in becoming a member of the DPACE team, please contact Wendy Wood, Project Director: dpace@mediatorsbeyondborders.org