The role of the media in violent conflicts in the digital age

EPA/BERND VON JUTRCZENKA

Germany's Justice Minister Heiko Maas (L) and European Union's Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, Vera Jourova (R), speak on the possibilities for fighting hate crimes on the Internet at the Conference on Hate Speech and Freedom of Expression in the Federal Ministry for Justice and Consumer Protection in Berlin, Germany, 26 September 2016. 

The role of the media in violent conflicts in the digital age


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This article is part of New Europe’s: Our World in 2017

Israel-Herzliya – One of the more significant questions in the field of political communication today concerns how the role of the media in violent conflicts may have changed in the digital age.  It is impossible to ignore the fact that the Internet and especially the social media appear to play a major role in some of the most significant events of the last decade.  Prominent examples include the Arab Spring, the ongoing civil war in Syria, and the debate in the United States about the police killings if African-Americans. It is clear that both researchers and policy makers need a better understanding of this new reality.  All forms of media have the potential to play either a destructive or constructive role in such conflicts.

This is one of the topics being examined under the framework of “INFORCORE” which is a collaborative research project with researchers from seven different countries and funded by the 7th European Framework Program of the EU.  The major goal of the project is to investigate the role of the media in escalating and de-escalating conflict in three main conflict regions: The Middle East, The West Balkans, and The African Great Lakes area.  While this research produced a very rich set of data and findings this essay will focus specifically on two major findings that relate to changes brought about by the dawn of the digital age. The first finding has to do with the increasing difficulty authorities face in attempting to control the flow of information and images concerning violent conflicts. Just the fact that citizens are now able to use their phones to record and upload events that happen during violent confrontations has made it more difficult for abuses by security forces to be kept under wraps.  Interviews with both Palestinian and Israeli political leaders on this topic were especially revealing.  Palestinians depend on the new media as a major tool for bringing what they see as unjustified killings to the world’s attention.  More generally, the fact that every problematic action on the part of the security forces around the world has the potential of being recorded leads in some cases to a certain restraint in the use of force.  This suggests that one of the more positive consequences of the digital age is that the media can sometimes provide a certain amount of protection to the weaker side in such conflicts.

This does not mean however that such changes necessarily increase the chances for conflict resolution.  Consider for example the case of the Syrian Civil War.  Despite a flood of horrific images which have been uploaded to the Internet and the enormous cost in terms of civilian lives, the international community has be unwilling to devote sufficient resources to bring about an end to the suffering.  Placing an issue on the international agenda does not necessarily solve the problem.

The second research finding has to do with the issue of whether the advent of the Internet has in any way led to the media playing to play a more constructive role in attempts at conflict resolution.  Previous research on the role of the traditional media in this area has been extremely discouraging. 

It suggested that there was an inherent contradiction between the “needs” of news and what is required for a successful peace process.  A peace process requires patience and the news media demand immediacy.  A peace process requires a calm environment and the news media focus almost exclusively on violence, a peace process requires at least a minimal understanding of the other side’s perspective, and the news is inherently ethnocentric.  Digital optimists may have hoped that the Internet would have made a positive change in this area.  Perhaps the potential for citizens embroiled in conflict gaining access to a less ethnocentric set of information and images might have contributed to a political environment that was more conducive for reconciliation among antagonists. 

Unfortunately, the findings from our study lead us to exactly the opposite conclusion.  The Internet and especially the social media are a much more effective tool for spreading hate and violence than for tolerance and reconciliation.  The adage “if it bleeds, it leads” is just as true for the new media as it always was for the traditional media.  As a way of demonstrating this point consider the likelihood of two competing images going viral.  One contains a video of an ISIS militant decapitating a prisoner and the other a report about peace negotiations going on behind closed doors.  It is the nature of almost all audiences to be fascinated by violence and this has a major impact on what they are willing to “share”.

Are there any policies that might improve this problematic situation?  One controversial suggestion is to no longer permit people to remain anonymous when making posts.  People will be reluctant to engage in hate speech and death threats if they can be identified.  While it will obviously be impossible to completely enforce such a policy it should be adopted by the major social media platforms.  A second recommendation is in keeping with discussions currently going on in Europe and North America.  The leading social platforms have an obligation to better regulate the flow of hate speech and incitement.  Here too, the more extremist elements in the world will always find a way around such regulations.  But lives depend on our ability to better control the massive spread of hate that has become a major part of the digital world. So as with every technological innovation in the field of communication the Internet has the potential to be used for both good and evil.  It is up to the international community to increase the incentives for those forms of media to play a more positive role and punitive measures towards those whose intentions are destructive.

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