Are new media tools providing a wider range of stories or creating echo chambers into which new information cannot enter? This is one of several questions about the intersection of digital media and peacebuilding that were tackled by panelists on the first day of the Pulitzer Center’s Beyond War: Causes of Conflict, Prospects for Peace Conference.
Moderated by Tom Lansner, the Connected: Promoting Peace or Exacerbating Conflicts? panel explored the ways in which digital media, in particular social media, has both bolstered and hindered peace promotion.
Kelly Born, program officer for the Madison Initiative at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, approaches the impact of social media from a research perspective.
In regard to bots and attempts to manipulate the opinions of voters, Born says it is difficult to truly understand the scale of influence. “When it comes to how to better hold the platforms accountable my concern is that we are very quickly moving towards solutions when there is so much we don’t understand about the problem. … We can’t measure it because we haven’t defined it.”
Matt Thompson, executive editor of The Atlantic, offered a perspective on the role of social media on the news domestically in the United States. Rather than seeing the use of social media as unprecedented, Thompson looks at how the advent of social media fits into a larger story of media distribution.
“It’s important to not treat everything new as completely discontinuous to what’s proceeded it,” Thompson said at the panel, “At the same time there is at least one thing that is genuinely novel … it is now possible for one person to transmit a message to as many as two billion other people around the world even accidentally. That has never been possible before.”
A Burundian activist with journalism experience and media associate for the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Ketty Nivyabandi relies on social media as an important tool in her activism. Describing it as a modern iteration of the “home fires of traditional Burundi,” Nivyabandi says social media exploded in popularity with people of all ages and is now how stories and information are passed along in a similar way to how they have traditionally been shared on a smaller scale around the fire.
Of its use in Burundi, she said, “I was able, with a few other women, to mobilize hundreds of women onto the streets of Bujumbura which had been shut down by the government.”
Nivyabandi, along with several other journalists and activists, had to flee Burundi for safety reasons.
Using WhatsApp and Twitter, journalists are able to distribute news and information to those still in Burundi where, Nivyabandi says, no independent media exists.
The Burundian government is also utilizing social media and makes significant investments of time and money to control that digital space. Dedicated trolls follow Burundian activists online and work to discredit their statements.
“Very quickly,” Nivyabandi said, “the government realized social media is a tool to shape the narrative. Social media has now become the battlefield.”
Social media also serves to fill in the gap when Western media is underreporting on issues in countries that receive less media attention or receive less in-depth coverage.
Nivyabandi addressed the narratives often ascribed to African countries, “We rarely make the news. And the only time we do make the news is when, indeed, there is a conflict. And very quickly the headline is ‘Burundi, which has suffered from decades of ethnic conflict’, ‘war-torn country’, or ‘landlocked’. … Do we perpetuate the narrative of conflict within countries in Africa through Western reporting?”
Pulitzer Center grantee journalist and PBS NewsHour correspondent Nick Schifrin reflected on how in his international reporting trips he has seen new forms of communication tap into long standing grievances that already exist.
“The fact that a lot of us in this country have fewer resources to cover the world means that there is less journalism in places where, frankly, the Pulitzer Center tries to fill in. And that lack of information creates a vacuum. And vacuums can be filled by people who have access to social media and understand people’s grievances.”