Leadership Academy: Social Media and Challenges of Conflict and Prejudice

By India Fahy, Washington Ireland Program Class ’15

We have hosted the third #LeadershipAcademy last month. As you may be able to tell from my perpetual hash-tagging, the focus of the session was social media and its relevance to the challenges of conflict and prejudice. We heard from Nick Pickles, Head of Public Policy at Twitter, Enda Young, founder of Transformative Connections, and Oxford researcher Lydia Wilson.

Nick provided a fascinating insight into the concept of positive messaging and really drove home the responsibility borne by social media platforms, such as Twitter. I was inspired by some of the facts and figures presented, which demonstrate that users are standing up more and more often, challenging what they think is unacceptable content. Nick stressed that people are much more likely to have a healthy debate, conducive to productive outcomes, if they see that negative narrative challenged. That being said, Nick stressed that although social media now plays a role in conflict, with that comes immense challenges. He stressed the fact that whole teams of people are dedicated to drafting ‘responsible posting’ guidelines, and that Twitter are very aware that they have a responsibility to ensure that they respond appropriately to any irresponsible usage of their platform. The question that Twitter are facing, Nick said, is ‘how do we ensure that our platform is used to challenge the narrative, and isn’t a platform for people to promote terrorism.’ In typical Twitter fashion the presentation ended with a 21st Century ‘If you have any questions… you could always Tweet me’.

Enda Young, co-founder of Transformative Connections, gave a wonderful presentation about the use technology for peace building, or #PeaceTech. How can we effectively harness the power of social media, and technology, to harmonise conflict? How do we ‘de-jargonise’ social media so that we can effectively harness its power to harmonise conflict? How we measure the real life impact of social media will be crucial to our understanding. How do we translate tacit support i.e. a ‘like’ on Facebook into action? Social media presents an unprecedented opportunity for crowd-sourced information. Where does this data meet government focused statistical analysis?

One thing that particularly sparked my interest was the concept of fact-checking. Enda is involved in the launch of FactCheckNI, a platform designed to allow users to check the accuracy of the information they are viewing on online platforms. After the presentation we discussed the dangers of misinformation, citing recent examples such as an incident in Belfast when a Facebook user posted a photo of a flag supposedly being burnt by City Hall. This provoked a riot, despite imaging software being able to prove that the image had previously been posted years before.

Enda discussed the possibilities for the use of #PeaceTech in furthering the peace process specifically in NI. He presented a project which he is involved in, using virtual reality to engage with a community group and create a community interface, to show them what their community would look like after the interface walls came down. Through this project the offline world has met the online world; they have gathered information offline about what members of the community would like their community to look like, and have created a real life representation, complete with a 3D walk-through. Studies have shown that the use of virtual reality in such circumstances increases the level of empathy and understanding, by helping people to visualise the change and see tangible opportunities for their community.

All of the research carried out by Transformative Connection has been compiled into a concise and accessible report, which Enda presented to us, complete with a super high tech code to scan to access the report (cost-effective, and quite impressive really) – apparently ‘good old fashioned’ QR codes are now old news, who’d have thought?

Lydia Wilson, a researcher at Oxford, presented ‘The Allure of the Islamic State’. Lydia praised Twitter for its record of identifying repeat content, evidenced by the immense difficult she faced trying to track down content. She warned that it would be remiss to describe their attempts as a game of ‘whack a mole’, because contrary to public belief, Twitter is actually slowing them down. Lydia presented a number of stark examples of ISIS’ sophisticated use of technology and social media, including a version of Call of Duty. When it came to Q&A it was fascinating to hear that one of the attendees, a social worker working with youth at risk of radicalisation, had had her eyes opened by the presentation to a whole new possibility of ensuring that the children are not exposed to propaganda.

This #LeadershipAcademy provided a compelling insight into the phenomenon of social media and technological advances, coupled with their immense potential for challenging conflict and prejudice. What is also clear however, is that with this comes an increased risk of hijacking, so we must work to keep it neutral, to ensure that it fulfils its potential as a platform for free and open conversation, conducive to solving disagreements and engaging new voices.

The next Leadership Academy on 26th April 2016 will focus on Understanding and Countering Violent-Extremism. Sign up here: https://getinvited.to/cdpb/leadership/