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No, Social Media Will Not Solve Syria's "Social Media Civil War"

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, January 22 2014

YouTube videos of the Syrian war

The Syrian peace talks got off to a rough start Wednesday in Montreux, Switzerland, with the New York Times reporting “sharp divisions” between the Syrian factions, as well as Russia and the United States, causing friction early on in the proceedings. So far, it does not appear as though social media will somehow interfere to save the day.

I say that, somewhat facetiously, only because last week diplomats, NGOs, academics and developers met in Sweden for the Stockholm Initiative for Digital Diplomacy (SIDD). At a TedX event staged in conjunction with SIDD, the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs—and digital diplomacy advocate—Carl Bildt spoke optimistically about the power of social media as an instrument of peace.

Bildt expounded on “How internet makes it easier to save the world”:

Diplomacy is essentially about communication -- human minds getting together to share information and change the way in which we think, act and do. Thus diplomacy is about changing behaviour, it's about informing and creating better opportunities that might not have been there before. Can we save the world? At least we can change things.

Diplomacy is about communication between nations and we live, thank god, in a much more open world where the voice of individual people means much more. Governments are becoming more open than used to be the case, thus public diplomacy and digital is becoming more important. It's about getting to the pulse of what's happening.

Sweden's English-language paper “The Local” reported that Bildt called the Syrian conflict “the world's first social media civil war.”

On Twitter, the reporter confirmed the comment.

That social media has played an unprecedented role in the conflict is without doubt. The White House used videos and social media reports to confirm that a chemical weapons attack near Damascus last August was perpetrated by the Bashar al-Assad regime. Mainstream media outlets have had to rely on social media accounts in their reporting on the conflict. Last week I wrote about a report titled “Syria's Socially Mediated Civil War,” which examined the use of social media in Syria, and how it is interpreted and used in the English-language world. Note the distinction between “Socially Mediated” and “Social Media Civil War.”

In an email, Deen Freelon, assistant professor at the School of Communication at the American University in Washington D.C., and one of the authors of “Syria's Socially Mediated Civil War,” wrote:

Personally I don't like the term "social media civil war" because it's too open to interpretation—people get the idea that social media "defines" the war or is somehow essential to its prosecution (which it may be, but for social scientists the term begs the question). "Socially mediated" conveys the notion that the war is being documented using social media, which is undeniable.

I would go even further, and say that Bildt's phrase makes it sound as though the use of social media in Syria somehow eclipses the rest of the conflict—a conflict that has resulted in a death toll of more than 100,000 very real people.

It is not that social media hasn't played a role. Moira Whelan, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Digital Strategy at the US Department of State explained, also at SIDD, how a Google+ Hangout came about in response to atrocities in Syria in August 2013:

We needed to bear witness and... very clearly saw the need for one thing -- a Google+ Hangout... Three people joined us and Secretary John Kerry--Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, executive editor of Syria Deeply, Lara Setrakian and Andrew Beiter, a teacher affiliated with the Holocaust Memorial Museum who specialises in how we talk about these topics with our children.

More than 15,000 people tuned in to watch the Hangout live, so this was clearly a savvy public relations move on the part of the State Department (and a boon for Google, which heavily advertised the session). But could social media really change the course of the conflict? Even Bildt sounds a little unsure:

"That's a good question to which I wish I had a good answer," he told The Local after his TedX speech. "I don't think it's necessarily resolved through social media. When it comes to resolution, then classical diplomacy has to come in. But classical diplomacy and conflict resolution can be facilitated by social media.”

He elaborated:

Civil war by its nature not only involves two army commanders, it involves groups and societies that are opposed to each other. Reconciliation is about reaching out to all of them. While I don't know the level of connectivity in Syria, I think [social media] can play a role there.

Clearly Bildt has yet to read “Syria's Socially Mediated Civil War,” or else he would know that the “connectivity” in Syria involves huge divides between English-language and Arabic-language Twitter communities, and between smaller, ideologically opposed groups within the Arabic-language community as well.

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