O’Loughlin and Awan address the US Council of Foreign Relations.

This week saw the US Council of Foreign Relations host a prestigious dinner in Atlanta to discuss findings from the New Political Communication’s project on media, religion and conflict, funded by the British Council and partnered with Georgia State University and the Carter Center. The discussion led by Prof Ben O’Loughlin, Dr Akil Awan, Dr Abbas Barzegar, Dr Shawn Powers focused on the ongoing conflict in Syria.

The rise of ISIS this summer has made more tragic the failure to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict in the past three years. It has also sharpened attention on the role of media in conflict. ISIS, opposition groups and the Assad regime try to mobilize support through social media. Westerners see the conflict on TV or the internet and travel to Syria to fight. At the same time, divisions between Sunni, Shia and other ethno-religious groups, magnified by backers from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and other regional powers, point to the importance of religion in the conflict. More precisely, it points to the strategic uses and representations of religion to mobilize actors to perpetuate the violence. Participants in the debate wanted to know, could religion and its mediation be used in the services of peace instead?

The team were keen to unpack the role of religion and its presumed role and its role in conflict resolution. They argued that religious leaders must be religious to be peacebuilders but it is their civic and social capacities that guarantee their effectiveness in peacebuilding. Religiosity is a necessary condition; it provides credibility in societies where religion is the norm or individuals manage their lives through faith. A leader’s civic and social capacities are a sufficient condition. Without those, faith and moral guidance will have no effect on the political and social processes driving violence. These conclusions are only possible by understanding religion as practice, community and institutions as well as discourse or doctrine. The project team also argued that, since peacebuilding is a communicative phenomenon, attention to the role of media in these processes is essential. Policymakers often seek to insert a peacebuilding narrative into a social space from the outside, often with negative unintended consequences. The project -- and a consensus within communication studies -- indicates peacebuilding must work with the grain of existing, trusted media habits and rituals. In short, religious leadership can contribute to peacebuilding not by ‘communicating the right message’ to protagonists but by using positions of credibility to work with and on social and civic relations

However, the team also argued that media, particularly in the social media age, could be highly problematic too, acting as a hindrance to reconciliation and the mitigation of conflict. They employed the case of ISIS in Syria and Iraq today to illustrate the potential social media holds in amplifying or at least overstating the importance of conflict, pointing to a at least three examples of this phenomenon in action:

1) ISIS have proven themselves to be highly proficient in their social media strategies, employing large scale usage of Twitter and other social media platforms to amplify their threat and their potential. Resembling the beating of war drums of marching armies of the past, ISIS advances into Iraq have been presaged by volleys of tweets designed to overwhelm the unfortunate inhabitants caught up in their warpath. Indeed, in the day prior to the fall of Mosul, ISIS using sophisticated social media management tools, tweeted 40,000 times in a single day, as part of their concerted and incredibly media-savvy campaign. We might think of this campaign as part of a very shrewd psychological warfare strategy, not dissimilar to the Mongols who, when besieging cities, would often have their fighters build multiple campfires, so that when the besieged inhabitants looked out upon the plain of campfires, they would overestimate the numbers of warriors camped there.

2) Beheading videos: The recent beheadings of 4 Western journalists was clearly part of a very savvy media strategy; propaganda expertly choreographed to engender fear and outrage in a Western audience. However, perhaps even more shocking than the brutal savagery on display, was the symbiotic relationship with terrorist propaganda exhibited by virtually all media outlets, who in an astounding display of servile compliance, displayed these images prominently in newspaper headlines or breaking news segments. The message imparted to audiences was clear; there was nothing more newsworthy, more deserving of audiences’ attention and moral outrage, happening anywhere else in the world than these particular beheadings. The importance ascribed to these events distorts their actual importance in the overall scale of events in conflict zones, granting them a significance that belies their actual importance, relative to other events taking place.

3) Finally, thanks to social media and ready access to media platforms, the Syria conflict is the most documented conflict in history, with at least one minute of video footage recorded for every minute of the conflict; a staggering proposition by any measure. This glut of information means that every violent act, every grotesque violation of human rights, is now freely available in the public domain, accessible to anyone who wishes to search for it, and for anyone who wishes to use it as motivation for reciprocal retributive violence. This focus on the violence potentially also impinges on the potential for conflict resolution, and reconciliation between communities, once the conflict is eventually over. Whilst truth is a fundamental pre-requisite of post-conflict truth and reconciliation, in a strange way, too much ‘truth’ or at least an inordinate and inescapable focus on the clearly documented violence, thanks to social media, may make reconciliation between estranged communities that much more difficult.

However, in recognising the amplification effect of social media, they also argued that it is important not to throw the baby out with the bath water, and recognise the utility that analysis of social media and big data in particular may hold. The recent Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, for example, was identified by big data analysis tools that used algorithms to scour tens of thousands of social media sites and social networks, a full 9 days prior to the outbreak’s recognition by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Following a similar logic, it may be possible to predict where outbreaks of violence are likely to occur through the mapping of Pre-Conflict using big data analyses. It may be possible to offer early interventions at these critical violent flashpoints to resolve or mitigate conflict.

The project is ongoing and the team will be publishing a range of outputs over the next few months, including policy briefing papers in addition to academic articles.