These days, you can wake up and within minutes see what your friends living seven hours away did while you were sleeping, all without ever having to talk or even message them. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other platforms have become part of people’s daily routine. A new friend is a just a click away.
The way that people use social media has changed a lot during the past ten years. When I joined Facebook in 2007, friends regularly (and probably too often) posted status updates and photos from their various excursions. Now, my Timeline is dominated by news sources instead of posts from my friends, and is constantly being updated with the latest news and local events. Facebook has become a platform for keeping in touch with far-away friends or for planning group activities with those who live nearby. In some instances social media can connect people and create online communities of like-minded people who are working towards political change, as it did in 2010-2011 in Tunisia when platforms such as Facebook and Twitter helped galvanise young people during the Jasmine Revolution.
On the other hand, social media can also contribute to fueling divisions within societies. These days, Facebook filters my Timeline and fills it with posts that most closely reflect my own views on politics and other affairs. As those of us who were introduced to Facebook in their teens have grown older and realised they do not need or want to share everything from their current lives with childhood friends, new platforms such as Instagram and SnapChat have allowed us to further limit the people with whom we share information and those that we follow. We are virtually surrounded only by like-minded people. The actual space for being able to have contact with people holding different opinions seems to be shrinking.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of the adoption by the Security Council of Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security in December 2015, it is important to recognise how the use of social media can affect the engagement of young women and men. The positive and negative roles these platforms play in engaging young people were discussed during a recent consultation in Amman, Jordan, on efforts to sustain peace in the West Asia – North Africa (WANA) region.
Participants noted that social media can raise awareness by informing young people about various ways to engage in their communities. These platforms can also provide excluded groups with a means to raise their voices on various issues and to participate in political conversations, promoting dialogue and cooperation among groups. The Youth4Peace Portal, which includes information on Resolution 2250 and the Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security, provides a space for the global exchange of ideas. But social media cannot replace personal interaction and relationship building.
These platforms can at times limit youth participation in countries when programmes focus on using social media to engage young people rather than actually promoting physical spaces for youth to converse and cooperate face to face. Online discussions can be quite negative in tone, and statements easily misconstrued. Conversations can quickly turn away from the issues at hand to name calling and personal attacks, and in some cases have led to young people in the WANA region being threatened with violence for expressing their opinions. Discussants raised the need to provide a safe space, through proper oversight by law enforcement and companies, for youth to share their perspectives without the fear of threats and bullying. Ensuring that such regulation is not manipulated by governments to censor and suppress opposition is also vital to creating a space for the constructive exchange of ideas.
Peacebuilding online and in real life
Social media campaigns can be very successful in reaching a wider audience, but they should be used strategically to ensure that initiatives effectively reach and engage their target audience and provide an interactive platform for dialogue and follow up activities. Just because I am young does not mean that social media is the best way to reach me. Among the constant notifications, updates and event invitations that I may receive in a given week important information or opportunities for engagement can easily be lost. Not all youth have access to technology or the ability to actively participate online. Online awareness drives conducted in official languages might not reach those who only speak local languages or dialects. In constantly employing campaigns that might deliver faster and cheaper results, there is also a risk that personal contact in sustaining peace efforts, and particularly in engaging youth, will be lost.
Building peace should be primarily about connecting with people and promoting relationships between groups. Social media campaigns should be accompanied by sustainable projects on the ground that actively engage young women and men in their communities, promoting cooperation and exchange between youth from various sectors of society and facilitating their voices being heard in national and international peace processes.