Is Social Media Platform a Recipe for Ethnic conflicts? Lessons for Zambia
Table of content
Table of content
Conceptual and Theoretical Framework
Findings and Discussion
The popularisation of social media through platforms such as Facebook has seen a corresponding increase in fake news, disinformation and hate speech in recent years. In some countries, social media platforms are being used as a tool to foment ethnic conflicts. The central argument of this study, therefore, is that Zambia is slowly diving into ethnic divisions propelled by unregulated social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp. A scoping review was conducted on the role of social media in ethnic conflicts and its potential to disrupt state-building in Zambia. A comprehensive literature search was conducted on social media platforms as part of the scoping review. The study is informed by BojanBlagojevic's (2009) model to understand the causes and complexity of the ethnic conflict. The study revealed that social media play a significant role in stimulating ethnic conflict. The study further revealed that there are political, social, cultural, and religious causes exacerbated by abuse of social media. The study concludes that what happened in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and other countries should set as a lesson to Zambia's social media bloggers to restrain from spreading fake news, disinformation and hate speech.
Keywords: Social Media, Ethnic conflicts, Hate speech, platforms, Role, Facebook
Ethnicity has taken a share of the most world's atrocities and violence. Ethnic clashes that have become the order of the day are responsible for the distractions and have greatly affected social-political and human development in most of the witnessed countries. Bukali (2011) notes that ethnic conflicts have the potential to undermine economic and social-political development because it slows down growth and development as resources are diverted to maintaining peace and security in affected areas. Bukali adds that ethnic conflicts also destroy physical infrastructure; cause brain drain; and curtail foreign investments. Kuffour et al (2014) amplify Bukali's argument by submitting that ethnic conflicts have generated internecine wars of grave effects and truncating development and democratic institutions in many pluralistic societies, thereby destabilising the nation-state in many African countries.
Ethnic conflicts create a haven for tension in people and relationships become strained and as a result, things that could be done within a short time have to go through lengthy procedures or any not done at all. Nyalemegbe (2011) observes that parties become suspicious of each other and the situation saps a lot of energy and may drive people displaced. In such countries, nothing much to talk about can be achieved unless concrete steps are taken to bring down tensions and deal with the conflict situation.
When ethnic conflicts take centre stage in any society, schools and other social services are disrupted; children and teachers fear for their lives. This backpedals educational development. It is common knowledge that education is not only the engine of social development but also the pillar within which economic growth evolves. Coleman (2000) submits that the effects of ethnic conflicts are often pervasive as they affect all aspects of a person or community's social, political and economic life and tend to also affect institutions such as education and health. In the event of conflicts, agriculture is seriously hampered affecting crop yields and animal production. In all these ethnic conflicts, social media has a hand of influence as it has contributed to the escalation of ethnic conflicts in many societies globally.
According to the website www.peoplesunderthreat.org, deliberate misinformation, including false allegations and dehumanisation of targeted groups has been an enduring feature of conflict over the ages. However, in the social media age, the process has accelerated to an unprecedented degree. Ease access to social media has given every violent racist a potential public platform, and the anonymity of social media has given states the ability to incubate and incite hatred across international borders. Conflict narratives, conspiracy theories, and extremist views quickly find a home on platforms where every voice competes for attention, and the moderate voices and restrained language necessary for peace-building are drowned out.
Political leaders, rebel groups, activists, and ordinary civilians have all used social media as a tool for communication. Even in the most fragile and divided societies where internet access remains minimal, such as South Sudan, the role of social media is growing, as traditional media landscapes and technologies rapidly transform.
Social media promises to increasingly influence how conflict and episodes of violence are perceived, their trajectories, and the ways they are responded to. No divided society or context of conflict can be understood without considering how social media firms of accepting too little responsibility for the use of their technologies to foment division and violence in unstable and conflict-affected societies. Many point to Myanmar – where the United Nations (UN) has called for authorities to face charges of genocide – as the starkest example of the link between social media and the commission of atrocities. Their dehumanising language and outright incitement to mass murder were amplified via Face book and Twitter, contributing to the widespread targeting of the mainly Muslim Rohingya minority. In November, Facebook released a report it had commissioned related to the killing of Rohingya which concluded that ‘Facebook has become a means for those seeking to spread hate and cause harm.'
The website www.peoplesunderthreat.org (2019) reports that Social media is a tool in the hands of states brutally oppressing their populations, as in Syria, where supporters of President Bashar al-Assad popularised a #SyriaHoaxhashtag on Twitter to discredit evidence of horrific chemical attacks on civilian targets, such as in Khan Sheikhom and Douma. The website further indicates that social media can also be manipulated by outside powers to generate support for policies that harm civilians. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for example, have used ‘bot armies' to legitimate their bombing campaign in Yemen, while rising hostilities between India and Pakistan following the killing of 40 Indian soldiers in Kashmir were stoked by the trending of rival Twitter hashtags by nationalists in the two countries.
In conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Cameroon, where threats are on the rise, armed groups ranging from the Taliban to Anglophone separatists rely on social media platforms for a range of activities: to coordinate movements, recruit supporters and fighters, glorify victories and dispute opposing narratives, and solicit funds. In Sri Lanka, similarly, rumours on social media sparked anti-Muslim mob attacks in 2018, which have re-ignited in the wake of Easter Sunday church and hotel bombings by ISIS in April 2019. In Syria, social media has played an unprecedented role in the Syria conflicts, with all sides exploiting online platforms to communicate competing narratives, recruit fighters, fundraise and document or deny human rights abuses. Somalia has also witnessed Al-Shabab use Twitter and Facebook as tools to broadcast propaganda and recruit supporters in an environment where mobile phone penetration has been rising steadily in recent years. Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) also saw an upsurge of violence in north-eastern Ituri province, where ethnic Lendu armed groups clashed with ethnic Hema and the Congolese army in 2018. Libya has equally witnessed Facebook and Twitter becoming significant online battlefields, where adversaries - including many pro-Haftar bots – weaponise photos and video footage. In Libya's south, Tebu, Tuareg, and Arab armed groups continue to fight over territory and resources.
India has also been embroiled in escalating violence in Kashmir since 2006 when soldiers killed a separatist commander with a major social media following among alienated locals. In the lead-up to the 2019 general elections, social media played a central role in advancing chauvinist Hindu nationalism in a climate of paranoia and intolerance towards minorities and perceived outsiders. While WhatsApp rumours had already led to deadly mob violence by extremist Hindu groups, members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), supporters and bots ratcheted up the production of inflammatory, anti-Muslim messaging on –and offline. The BJP President Amit Shah called Bangladeshi migrants ‘terrorists' and the party's Twitter account echoed his words: except for Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs, ‘we will remove every single infiltrator form the country.'
Mozur’s (2019) paper titled ‘ A Genocide Incited on Facebook, With Posts From Myanmar's Military' discusses how social media was a key tool in fueling ethnic violence and displacement. The paper posits that Facebook posts were not from everyday internet users but from Myanmar military personnel who turned the social network into a tool for ethnic cleansing, targeting the country's mostly Muslim Rohingya minority group. Mozur further indicates that the military exploited Facebook's wide reach in Myanmar and promoted anti-Rohingya propaganda by inciting murders, rapes and the largest forced human migration in recent history. The paper reveals that in the propaganda campaign, fake names and sham accounts, celebrity pages on Facebook were created. These troll accounts, news and celebrity pages were then flooded with incendiary comments and posts timed for peak viewership. The military team went the extra mile to pump out propaganda such as posts portraying Rohingya as terrorists and one of the most dangerous campaigns came in 2017 when the military's intelligence arm spread rumours on Facebook to both Muslim and Buddhist groups that an attack from the other side was imminent. Mozur submits that such propaganda resulted in more than 700,000 Rohingya flee Myanmar in what United Nations officials have called "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing."
Ndonye (2014) discusses social media, ethnic hatred and peace journalism in Kenya. He posits that twitter and Facebook have emerged as a key media for news and information on major events in Kenya and beyond due to their popularity, versatility and quick dissemination and sharing of information. He adds that Twitter and Facebook are used for political communications, marketing, promotions, and advocacy. The study, however, reveals that social media has provided a forum not only for sharing of life experiences, information and news for citizen journalism but has also provided a forum for conflict, accusations, and word lashing whenever the virtual community is angry at each other. A good example Ndonye (2014) gives is the online war experienced in Kenya after the March 4th elections results were released on March 9 and the 2013 violence which was a war of online words on twitter and Facebook. He adds that just like the post-election violence of 2007/2008, the 2013 social media war was full of ethnic and tribal overtones. Ultimately, social media generated heated ethnic attacks and war of works among members of identifiable ethnic groups.
Quoting Kriegler's report (2008), Ndonye argues that the cause of ethnic conflict in Kenya is political rivalry and historical injustices. He adds that in most cases ethnic conflict is born of nationalism and a feeling of national superiority among a certain ethnic group. The study further indicates that ethnic conflict may also stem from the feeling of real or perceived discrimination by another ethnic group; a condition called reverse ethnicity. Ndonye argues that ethnic hatred in Kenya has been exploited and generated by nationalist and regional politicians who want to serve their agenda as they seek to consolidate the nation or electorates against a real enemy. The enemy is also imaginary but understood in whatever code that the leaders use to refer to the other.
Conceptual and Theoretical Framework
In as far as the causes of ethnic conflict are concerned, the current study is conceptualised by Bojanna Blagojevic's (2009) model as indicated below:
Figure 1. Causes of Ethnic Conflict: Conceptual Framework
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In the above model, every conflict has a context. As Ndonye (2014) has observed, a context to a conflict is a complex phenomenon that varies from conflict to conflict. It is from this context where a group or groups which do not belong or share an interest partake in divisive factors. In the case of Zambia, there are factors such as historical injustices, ethnic exclusion, social and economic inequality among other factors. These factors usually have been suppressed for a long time and harboured in people as they live with competition and intolerance. Once a chance presents itself for a conflict to occur, ethnic conflict erupts spontaneously as has been the case in North Western Province in Zambia, Kenya in 2007, Rwanda in 1994 and Germany before and during the Second World War. Likewise, social media conflict undergoes the same process and is not different only that instead of physical violence and bloody attacks; social media violence involves the use of violent words divisive updates.
According to Fearon & Laitin 1996, as quoted in (Issifu 2014), a good theory of ethnic conflict should be able to explain why, despite the greater tensions, peaceful and cooperative ethnic relations are by far more typical outcome than is large scale violence. In the context of this paper, two (2) theories underpinning ethnic conflict inform the study and these are the Instrumentalism theory and the political entrepreneur theory. Many other theories are underpinning ethnic conflict but for this study, the researcher confines himself to the two theories stated. Varshney (2009) submits that Instrumentalism theory sees ethnicity as "neither inherent in human nature nor intrinsically valuable" while Collier(2002) considers ethnicity as a strategic basis for coalitions that are looking for a larger share of scarce economic or political power and so it is a device for restricting resources to a few individuals. The instrumentalist theory argues that it is rational for parties to organise along ethnic lines depending on the benefit it brings to them. They further argue that greed is stronger than grievance as a strong cause of ethnic conflict. This results in ethnic conflict among rational agents over scarce resources driven by the aims of political leaders for political or economic gains or a deliberate manipulation based on a rational decision to incite or encourage ethnic violence (Chandra, 2004). Instrumentalism also explains why some people take part in ethnic violence even when they are not personally convinced but follow the crowd.
Political entrepreneur theory, on the other hand, contends that the instability and uncertainty that results from a major structural change and institutional inability to regulate inter-ethnic relations provide a perfect condition in which political entrepreneurs manipulate ethnic emotions to mobilise groups for their political gains (Issifu, 2014). Political entrepreneurs take advantage of ethnic differences in societies by drawing upon historical memories of grievances and whip up old hatred to gain or strengthen their chances of winning political power. Koufman (1996) notes that belligerent leaders stroke mass hostility; hostile masses support war-like leaders and they both together threaten other ethnic groups, creating a security dilemma which in turn encourages even more mass hostility and leadership belligerence. According to Issifu (2014), the general idea of the political entrepreneur theory is that ethnic conflict in societies are caused and influenced by these political entrepreneurs whose aim is to capture political power through an ethnic system of divide and rule. They look out for ethnic groups with large numbers and align themselves with the majority group thereby relegating the minority groups to the background albeit may be having a good case. Political entrepreneurs take advantage and tend to side with the warring majority group in the clash just to gain favour during political elections and win power since winning an election is about majority votes.