Peace on Facebook?
Peace on Facebook? Problematising Social Media as Spaces for Intergroup Contact in Divided Societies
As far back as the late sixties, renowned peace theorist Johann Galtung (1967) predicted that the rapid growth of new media technologies would favour associative rather than dissociative approaches towards peacebuilding. The assumption was that strategies to keep antagonists apart would likely fail due to the development of more efficient means of communication bringing them closer together. This resonates with the rhetoric employed by Peace on Facebook, a project created by the social media giant in partnership with Stanford University, which claimed that the platform provided space for dialogue between social groups traditionally divided along ethnic or sectarian lines. This contribution critically evaluates these claims by examining the potential contribution of social media platforms to peacebuilding in divided societies. It does so by reviewing the literature on social media peacebuilding initiatives and assessing whether these platforms constitute shared spaces in which positive relationships between members of antagonistic groups can be built in deeply divided societies.
The analysis presented in this seminar suggests that the prospects for peace and positive intergroup contact in such societies are unlikely to be advanced through unstructured citizen activity on social media. These platforms amplify content that reinforces tribalism and political partisanship, thus making it harder to promote reconciliation between antagonists in divided societies. Drawing primarily on the case of Northern Ireland, a society still transitioning out of a thirty-year ethno-nationalist conflict, Paul Reilly suggests that the negative stereotyping of outgroups on social media militates against one of the key tenets of reconciliation, namely that citizens treat each other as individuals rather than anonymous members of the ‘other’ community. Therefore, ‘supervised’ online contact projects, revolving around the use of non-commercial platforms and culminating in face-to-face communication, are much more effective in building peace than the contact facilitated by online platforms such as Facebook.
Dr. Paul Reilly is Senior Lecturer in Social Media & Digital Society at the University of Sheffield. His research focuses on social media sousveillance, digital activism and the use of digital media to promote better community relations in divided societies. He has written two books on the role of digital media in conflict transformation in Northern Ireland (Framing the Troubles Online and Digital Contention in a Divided Society, both with Manchester University Press). His work has also been published in a number of journals including First Monday, Information, Communication & Society, Journalism, New Media & Society, and Policy & Internet.
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