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

GREECE-ATHENS – Social media are transforming the way people transmit and share information, while at the same time they provide the tools for building innovative structures of organization and mobilization of different actors. These sweeping shifts have intensified the discussion on their actual role in contemporary conflict-burden societies, especially after their role in Iran (2009), Tunisia (2010), Egypt (2011) and the following so-called ‘Arab Spring’ movements. The changing dynamics between political actors, journalists and citizens, mainly through the Web 2.0 platforms, have stimulated several claims for the transformation of their relations as well as for the facilitation of new forms of political participation. While their actual impact on the transformation of politics remains widely debatable, the unquestionable massive popularity of social networks in conflict-ridden societies and the profound changes in the flow of information across online social media are challenging the timeliness of mediated political participation in the contemporary globalized world.

The last few years we have witnessed a growing heated debate among scholars, politicians and journalists regarding the role of the internet in contemporary social movements and conflict-ridden societies. Social media appear as aspiring tools for the creation of new opportunities for social movements. Web 2.0 platforms allow protestors to collaborate so that they can quickly organize and disseminate a message across the globe. By enabling the fast, easy and low-cost diffusion of protest ideas, tactics, and strategies, social media and networks allow social movements to overcome problems historically associated with collective mobilization. At the same time, it allows politicians to establish direct communication with the citizens free from the norms and structural constraints of traditional journalism, while providing professional journalists with new sources and ways to interact with their audience.

But why is it important to study social media in the context of conflict-ridden societies? Social media and networks are transforming the global media landscape by redistributing the power of information and communication among all involved actors, political actors, journalists and citizens. Social media influence political participation and civic engagement in the contemporary complex geopolitical terrain and in this way they (re)shape politics and political discourse. At the same time, political campaigns are based increasingly on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. As a result, all actors strive for online attention and social mediated visibility.

In our study on social media within the international research project INFOCORE we approach social media and networks as an online interactive ‘arena’ that is evolving as we speak. The speed and growing popularity of social media marks the online environment as a rapidly evolving and dynamic sphere, where important interactions and debate take place. At the same time, the expanding employment of social media by authoritarian regimes in order to articulate their governmental stance and influence the international public opinion, as well as the increasing use of computational propaganda and the growing diffusion of fake news among internet users, pose serious challenges for the study of social media. Investigating the role of social media in violent conflicts in retrospective is important because it provides us with the tools to understand and interpret the use of the most popular and rapidly growing platforms for communication and information, inform the debate on the role of media in conflicts from the social media side and suggest crucial issues that need to be addressed in current or future emerging conflicts.

At the same time, it is necessary to identify major problems when working with social media and networks. The field of study is complicated due to, among others, language limitations, identification of online active actors, anonymity issues and internet bots spreading fake or manipulated content. Examining this new media reality makes us also realize that beyond tweets and Facebook posts there are deeper meanings that are connected to ideological, political and sociocultural factors.

An analysis of social media texts can not be limited to numbers or linguistic means. It has to be linked to people, discourses and contexts. For all these reasons, interdisciplinary and multi-methodical approaches should be interweaved in order to provide a holistic meaning to the role of social media in conflict-ridden societies.

Studies focusing on social media especially in violent events or long-lasting political turmoil need to also study the possible patterns of homophily that emerge online. Network analysis can help us in monitoring how interactions demonstrate strong homophily patterns between polarised groups and how users are commonly segregated within like-minded communities forming isolated echo chambers and in-group and out-group affiliations are thus formed. Another point that needs our attention is to not overstate the impact factor of social media in the fuelling or the resolution process of a conflict. At the same time, we can learn more about the conflict itself by monitoring the debate online and start recognizing patterns that emerge during the evolvement of the conflict and during its escalation and de-escalation phases.