The Impact of the New Media on Civil and International Conflict
The media has always played a major role in conflicts. Ivan Sigal emphasises that “governments seek to hold onto power through persuasion as much as through force” (Sigal, 2009, p. 9). In the WWII the Nazis used the radio to broadcast their propaganda in and outside Germany. In Rwanda the radio was used to contrive the genocide of 1994, further the Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic used a government-controlled media to promote his nationalist ideologies in former Yugoslavia (USIP, 2011). Mass media such as radio, newspapers, television or even blogs and websites follow a one-to-many mode of communication. The mass media can stay active (supporting one side or actor) or independent in a conflict. Dependant on the orientation or suppression, the mass media becomes more or less part of the conflict. It can inform or influence the home audience, the opponent’s audience or the world. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, as a part of the new media, on the other hand is founded on a many-to-many mode of communication. This many-to-many communication gives everyone with internet access or even just a mobile phone the chance to provide or get authentic, transparent and reliable information to build a free opinion or report grievances. Social media spreads information virally so that one single actor is enough to spread a message globally. New media’s large influence has gained traction with a wide range of actors. From citizens over governments, protest movements or even terrorist groups, all these want to use the new technology to their own aims. I will discuss in this essay the impact of the new media on civil and international conflict situations in the contemporary era.
New media is a broad “term used to define all that is related to the internet and the interplay between technology, images and sound. (…) The definition of new media changes daily, and will continue to do so” (Bailey & Eber-Schmid, 2014). The Oxford Dictionary defines new media as “means of mass communication using digital technologies such as the Internet” (Oxford Dictionary, 2014). These definitions include not only the above mentioned social media networks as representatives of the Web 2.0 but also mobile phones, digital cameras or other devices for communication in today’s technological world.
New media has changed how people can report about grievances, deception or repressions and therefore can step out of their own unconsciousness. After the United States of America (USA) bombed the small village of Azizabad in Afghanistan on 22 August 2008 the Afghan citizens used their mobile phones to gain publicity (Gall, 2008). Their reports, pictures and videos generated controversy about the air strike and questioned the official military report, which stated that 35 insurgents were killed. In fact the United Nations (UN) reported later that 90 civilians, two thirds of them children, were killed in the bombing (Eide, 2008). Another example is the Burmese’s monk protest in 2007. Despite the government’s censorship and prohibitive mobile phone ownerships, the activists managed to send media outside Burma and ensured that the world got information about the unrests and the state’s oppressive actions (Sigal, 2009). Similarity can also be found in Kenya 2008, the new media helped to denounce anti-democratic developments after questionable elections. The government had restricted media coverage about the election results but the people managed to inform themselves about the elections, as well as any other harassment or violence in this context, with the help of e-mail, sms, websites and Google Earth (BBC World Service Trust, 2008).
Recent demonstrations and protests in Pakistan, the Arab Spring and Hong Kong’sUmbrella Movementshow how social media enables the formation of protests. The Pakistani protest movement organised demonstrations with blogs (The Emergency Times) and Short- Message-Service (SMS) and even wrote an instruction booklet (The Emergency Telegraph)which explained to others how to organise their own demonstrations (Sigal, 2009). In Tunisia and Egypt long-ruling leaders were brought down during theArab Spring.Facebook, TwitterandYouTubewere an important factor in the movement as they showed live coverage from the happenings and gave the participants a place to plan and form their protests (Aday, 2012). However, the relevancy of these networks should not be overestimated, protests are made by people and not by technology. An example for overestimating a movement asNew MediaRevolutionwas the Iranian Green Movement in 2009. International media saw a large impact of Twitter within the movement but in fact Twitter played just a little role (Aday, 2012). Three problems rise if protest movements rely on social media to plan and form their protests. The first is that mostly the young generation knows how to use it. This brings a young and inexperienced generation in the focal point of the movement. Beneath organisational matters this generation has also to deal with growing influence and growing psychologic and maybe governmental pressure. Hong Kong’sUmbrella Movementis, among others, led by the 17 year old student Joshua Wong. He seems capable to organise mass protests and even started his political career with the age of 14 (Putz, 2014). But how resistant he and theUmbrellaMovementis, in aiming for more democratic rights in China’s special administrative region, will be a matter in the future. Papic and Noonan say that “a dependence on social media can actually prevent good leadership from developing” (Papic & Noonan, 2011). This introduces the second problem in as much as that the swarm-intelligence lacks in the capacity of strategic thinking (Sigal, 2009). The third problem of the reliance on technology is that governments can try to influence the movement. They can either use the same methods the protestators use, they can prevent the use of communication technology or manipulate the technology to get information. After theGezi Parkriots in Istanbul 2014 the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has banned the social networkTwitter. The protestators have usedTwitterto plan their protests. Erdogan’s message was clear: “We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic” (Dockterman, 2014). And in Bahrain, Egypt and Syria German surveillance technology has been used to gain information about phone and email conversations andSkypecalls of opponents of the regime (Mennig, 2013). As fast as protestators learn about the new methods of new media, the governments and defence companies do as well. The Rapid Information Overlay Technology (Riot) developed by the defence company Raytheon uses the embedded latitude and longitude data in photographs on social networks to track people (Gallagher, 2013). This approach shows the starting of what experts define asSocial MediaMining.The company SentiMetrix has chosen a approach similar to Riot. The company uses the “big data” provided on social networks to track the intensity of different emotions (e.g. anger, sadness or happiness) or to predict the country stability in near real-time (SentiMetrix Inc, 2014). Scientists have shown that “mining and analysing data from social networks such as Twitter can reveal new insights into the causes of civil disturbances, including trigger events and the role of political entrepreneurs and organisations in galvanising public opinion.” (Hua et al., 2013). AFacebookexperiment with 689,003 participants has shown, “that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness.” (Kramer, Guillory, & Hancock, 2013). Could this latest research development be understand as governments trying to predict the society’s emotional state, which would then flow in the analysis of the country’s stability and depending on the outcome could affect what people see in theirFacebooknewsfeed with the result to calm them down to detain a riot? If so, this would perfectly display what Michele Foucault callsPanopticism (Foucault, 1977). The aim is to make power more effective and economic. The state controls the coercion in the society and can take measures. By doing so the state guarantees a high standard of living, economic growth, education and morality. The society itself is not in the focus of being saved.
Beneath citizens, governments and protest movements as a new media user group, there is also another group which uses technology for their benefit. According to Robert Hannigan, director of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) a British intelligence and security organisation, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become "the command and control networks of choice” for terrorists (Swinford, 2014). The terror organisation Islamic State uses social media to recruit jihadists all over the world, they also use social media to make their actions public to the whole world. Beheadings of humans have been uploaded to social media and have led to serious reaction from statesman. The French president Hollande condemns the "cowardly assassination” of a French hostage (Almasy & Meilhan, 2014) and president Barack Obama calls the murder of a humanitarian aid worker “pure evil” (Castillo & Brumfield, 2014). The phenomenon is not new, Al-Qaeda has used the new media to send audio or video messages to the world since the 2000s and even the Taliban(@alemarahweb)and the Al-Shabab(@HSMPress)terror cell have own Twitter channels (Burke, 2011).