Civil society has proven to be an effective tool in conflict prevention and resolution. From Northern Ireland to Israel, from Bosnia/Herzegovina to South Africa – local grassroots organizations and NGOs dedicated to track II diplomacy have the ability to make conflict stakeholders go beyond sound bytes and stereotypes. The most important role these groups play is that they make the individual see their so-called enemy as a human being. They force individuals to meet strangers from the other side, and have a dialogue with them in a safe space. However, there are many problems that civil societies face. Many factors contribute towards discouraging the individual from talking to the other side. Communities can ostracize the individual, and in addition, the individual may not have the courage to physically meet with the other side. Recently, a new phenomenon has occurred which has the potential to change that problem: Social Media.
Facebook with over a billion users worldwide allows individuals to connect with anyone, anywhere, at anytime. The power of social media cannot be ignored. Many attribute the utilization of social media to the success of President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. In 2011, the effect was seen again in social activism. The Arab Uprisings began when a 26 year-old Tunisian street vendor lit himself on fire, but social media added fuel to that fire. Even when repressive governments had shut down the Internet, sites such as Google and Twitter allowed users to relay their messages abroad through enabling dial phone services. Since social media has affected the face of politics and activism, it can also be a powerful tool in conflict resolution.
Ronny Edry, the creator of the social media campaign “Israel Loves Iran” is a testament to that. Mr. Edry created this online peace campaign when tensions first arose between Israel and Iran over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. He explained that one of the first things he realized during this campaign was that Iranians were just as ordinary as his Israeli neighbors. When he would friend an Iranian on Facebook, he did not see pictures of anti-Israel propaganda, but rather, pictures of a nice breakfast. Mr. Edry went on to elaborate that the problems between the two governments are being fueled by misunderstanding and fear from both sides, and that we would not fall victim to that ongoing cycle. Since his creation of this project, there have been expansions of this idea throughout Facebook such as “Iran Loves Israel”, “Israel Loves Palestine”, “Palestine Loves Israel”, and much more. Most important about this online campaign is that he has inspired other individuals to create their own peace campaign. Ronny is also meeting with Palestinians and Iranians he had met on Facebook, and hosting them his home – something that may have never happened if it were not for the access to communication that that Facebook provides.
Other positive effects have been seen between reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Nagorno Karabakh issue is still an extremely sensitive topic for both parties, and there is little to no dialogue between the two, nationally and individually. Yet recent research by various Armenian and Azeri outlets have shown that many individuals who wish to start a peaceful dialogue are doing so through Facebook. They are aware of the issues that they will face if their peers find out about this as well. For example, Azerbaijan’s strict censorship laws has the potential to affect Azeri citizens who are speaking with Armenians – being connected with an individual from an enemy state may put them at a spotlight with their government. Furthermore, both sides risk cyber bullying from ultra nationalists who wish to keep the status quo between the two parties.
In conflict resolution, communication is key. The invention of the telephone, radio, and television has revolutionized the way we communicate with one another; and the Internet with social media is continuing that trend. Civil societies who have embraced dialogue have been met with many obstacles, and there is still work to be done. But the problems that civil societies face may soon come to an end if an individual who may not be able to come to terms with speaking to their enemy face to face are seeing that their enemy is “liking” the same kinds of things they enjoy on Facebook, or eating the same meals they eat. I am not suggesting that we should never leave our homes and focus on dialogue from a desktop. What I am suggesting is that the dialogue can begin without ever having to meet your enemy face to face, so that when you do go out to finally meet them, you are already their friend.
This article originally appeared in Get On Up blog.
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