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Social media in peace mediation: a practical framework

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Main authors: David Lanz, Ahmed Eleiba, Enrico Formica, Camino Kavanagh

While mediation remains a fundamentally human-led endeavour, the importance of digital technology in peace processes is growing. Mediators and their teams need to be prepared to use digital tools and address digital risks. This especially applies to social media, given its widespread and rapidly increasing use. According to one estimate, by the start of 2021, there were some 4.2 billion active social media users – 53% of the global population – of whom women users accounted for 45.9%. In 2020, 490 million new users joined social media, a growth rate of 13.2%. On average, users have accounts on eight different platforms and spend two-and-a-half hours per day on social media. As a result, social media increasingly shapes political and social interactions and, indeed, people’s perceptions of reality.

Social media also plays an increasing role in armed conflicts. It impacts how conflict actors communicate with one another and with the public; how information is disseminated; how the outside world perceives conflicts; and, most fundamentally, how armed conflicts are fought. While the impact varies depending on the context and the stakeholders involved, all types of conflicts are affected, even those taking place in areas with limited access to digital technologies.

Social media also impacts efforts to prevent, manage and resolve conflicts. The United Nations has led efforts to understand these dynamics and develop responses as part of its work on the relationship between digital technologies and international peace and security. The UN Secretary-General has highlighted the importance of social media in his Strategy on New Technologies and reiterated it in his Data Strategy 2020–22. In the area of peace mediation, the Mediation Support Unit of the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) launched the CyberMediation Initiative and published the Digital Technologies and Mediation Toolkit to explore the various uses of digital technologies, including social media.

These initiatives all shed light on the fact that the use of social media by both conflict parties and the public is changing the mediation environment in significant ways. For mediators and their teams, this presents both opportunities (for example, facilitating communication and analysis) and challenges (for example, limiting confidentiality and opening a new contested terrain with different stakeholders trying to influence public perceptions of a peace process). What is clear is that mediators need to engage with this new reality in order to tap into the opportunities it presents, while being aware of the related risks and attempting to “Do No Harm”.

Against this background, the DPPA Mediation Support Unit and swisspeace teamed up for an evidence-based conversation about the impact of social media on peace mediation, and in 2020 organized a series of workshops and focus group meetings with mediation practitioners, researchers, technology experts and representatives from social media companies. Participants in these consultations prioritized four issues: leveraging social media for gender-sensitive analysis of a conflict-affected context; using social media for communication purposes; understanding and responding to conflict parties’ use of social media; and understanding and addressing social media as a source of mis- and disinformation, all within the context of mediation processes.

The report is structured around these four issues. Each section outlines the importance of a specific issue, summarizes the state of play with regard to its significance, makes practical suggestions for mediators and their teams, and poses questions for further consideration and analysis. Illustrative examples are provided in text boxes.

For the purpose of the report, “social media” is defined as comprising social networking websites as well as instant messaging and voice applications that are both publicly accessible and private. The report focuses primarily on the role of social media in Track 1 mediation, or peace mediation, involving official representatives of conflict parties. It provides a snapshot of the current state of play in terms of the role of social media in peace mediation, with the understanding that this and related issues require constant monitoring and observation to keep up with the dynamic and rapidly developing character of social media.