Roles of media in peacebuilding & conflict generation

Was invited by Associate Professor SungYong Lee at NCPACS to deliver a guest lecture to his 2021 MA class on media’s role in peacebuilding violent conflict generation.

Speaking first around the nature of my doctoral research over three years at the Centre, I covered the specific geographic, socio-political focus of my research and at a very high level, how I captured what I went on to study at macro and more granular detail. Speaking to the simultaneous potential and pathways of social media to create and stymie violent conflict, I noted how what was very evident in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and other markets for years prior to the 6th of January this year went unheeded by leading social media companies, including Facebook.

Speaking to importance of contextually grounding big-data through ethnographic and netnographic perspectives, I flagged six key features of social media instrumentalisation – drawing an analogy to sea, surf and sand as a lens to understand how social media influenced offline developments. Moving on to the potential democratic or demagogic pathways of these six levers, I flagged the degree to which autocratic innovation had better captured the potential of social media than more democratic actors, including activists and human rights defenders.

Focussing on 2019’s Christchurch massacre, I went on to describe swarm dynamics central to better understanding the degree to which social media helps spread or stymie violent extremism. As a counter-point, I flagged the #NZHellHole trend in New Zealand, noting the prosocial potential of social media (in countering hateful perspectives).

I highlighted the importance of studying social media in the context of usage, noting that the ability of online content to attract, retain the interest of and possibly lose engagement with key users could only be understood in relation to where, how, when and by whom the platforms (or apps) were used.

Using Otago’s and more broadly, South Island’s abundant natural beauty, I spoke to how New Zealand’s natural ecologies spoke to ways that social media needed to be studied – not as an independent construct, but as media and content inextricably entwined into the consumption, engagement and sharing behaviours of citizens, alongside print, electronic and terrestrial media.

I then spoke to how artificial intelligence will shape peace and violent conflict, noting in particular Karen Hao’s article on Facebook’s AI and the travails of Timnit Gebru at Google, signalling the company’s ethical failures. I also flagged The Social Dilemma on Netflix, despite my reservations on the depiction of those featured in the documentary.

Ended lecture by noting the importance of ‘social cohesion’, flagged by the Royal Commission of Inquiry on Christchurch, and, more broadly, the importance of locating human rights norms in the core operations of leading social media companies. I also flagged what PM Jacinda Ardern was interested in, around algorithmic harms and transparency, noted in her video submission to the conference last month on social media and democracy.

Download PDF of the presentation I made at the guest lecture below.