Connectors and Dividers in Online Spaces

Zarrín Caldwell wrote her Rotary Peace Fellowship paper on the themes of this blog and was also the ghost writer for a U.S. Institute of Peace Study Guide on New Media and Peacebuilding. She has worked for several international non-profit organizations, including, most recently, the Institute of International Education. The views expressed here are her own.

Like an increasing number of peacebuilders, I have spent some time contemplating how media tools can be used to bridge divides. Further to this thought, what conflict resolution strategies can best be adapted for online applications? How can society’s connectors be better supported? And, alternatively, how can peacebuilders collaborate to ensure that online spaces are not dominated by voices of hatred and division? At a time when deep societal divides threaten to disrupt social, economic, and governance systems globally, addressing these questions seems particularly urgent.

I’ve long been intrigued by research on “social capital” and its implications for peacebuilding. Dr. Robert Putnam of Harvard University popularized this term over a decade ago with his studies on the unraveling of associational connections in U.S. society. However, he (and other academics since) made a key distinction between “bonding social capital,” which amplifies shared identities, histories and viewpoints and “bridging social capital,” which spans different ones. The latter are maintained by cooperative connections with diverse others (for more on these distinctions, see The Concord Handbook). So, what does this have to do with online technologies?

Connectors and Dividers in Online Spaces

(Photo Credit: “One Laptop per Child“by Aaron D. Snipe) Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY 2.0). Accessed 01/25/2015.

In today’s online spaces, many like-minded groups bond with each other and people are brought together to build alliances across a range of issues. This is an example of “bonding social capital.” However, as information is increasingly customized and polarized, some move toward more extreme points of view and close themselves off to hearing different perspectives (see more on bridging social capital). As people flock to affinity groups online, they can end up in self-selected silos that leave little room for dialogue, or, in the worst case, communities that foster hate speech and/or acts of violence.

The statistics on the staggering rise of the latter type of forums on the Internet should give us pause. The Digital Terrorism and Hate Project run by the Simon Wiesenthal Center noted an excess of 30,000 websites, chat forums, and social network postings that promoted hate and terrorism at 2014, a 500%+ increase in just 10 years.

In light of these trends, what can the peacebuilding community do to shift the balance away from the negative and to ensure that online spaces are serving more bridging functions? To fulfill this aim, I think it’s particularly important to focus on society’s connectors vs. its dividers. Dr. Peter Coleman at Columbia University is one—among a seeming few—who advocates for supporting what works, i.e., individuals or groups who are using their social capital to stay connected to the “other side.”

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(Photo Credit: “Ushahidi en Kenya“by Olga Berrios) Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY 2.0). Accessed 01/25/2015.

Mobile and online tools are increasingly being used (by services like Ushahidi) to map conflict zones, to quell election violence, and to respond to disasters, but I often wonder what more could be done to find/map the trust-builders in communities who have the capacity to build social cohesion?

Valuable research work is being done now on initiatives that are bringing people together who have opposing views or identities, but who are, nonetheless, working on common goals. CDA in Cambridge is one such resource as is The Concord Project at UCLA. The Shared Societies Project (under the Club of Madrid) is also doing valuable work in this domain. Similarly, the World Bank now has a Social Cohesion and Violence Prevention unit. The Bank claims that its programs to strengthen the resilience of societies to violence have had a positive impact, but “do not benefit sufficiently from each other’s insights.” Through my own limited efforts on my “Models of Unity™” website, I tried to find some common denominators of what it takes to foster collaboration across divides. All of these initiatives reflect key efforts to promote successful bridging models, but they are also academic in certain respects.

Ultimately, what creates behavioral change? And, can such bridging work truly be achieved online? Many would argue, rightly, that the transformative process that needs to happen to bridge deep divides is a face-to-face and long-term process. Regardless, it seems critical to continue to look for creative ways to use virtual spaces to empower society’s connectors, to build cross-community ties, and, at a minimum, to counter over-simplified stereotypes. Some of the most innovative work in this space is happening in the education field through forums like iEARN, the Global Nomads Group, and Soliya, and as educator’s worldwide use tools like Skype to help students learn about “the other.” So, perhaps our best hope is with the next generation. In the meanwhile, I think our challenge is to make sure that all of these efforts become more than a “drop in the bucket” in a sea of negativity and violence.

(Feature Photo Credit: ” ‘The Big Jump’ in the Jordan River” by Eddie Gerald Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY 2.0). Accessed 01/27/2015. Good Water Neighbors)

3 Comments
  1. Helena says:

    Enjoyed reading this piece, and agree on the need to focus on how we can leverage tech to support connectors. One emerging area of work on connectors (to add to your examples from peace-education) is videogames: see for example the work of Games for Peace (http://gamesforpeace.org/).

  2. Zarrin Caldwell says:

    Hi Helena,

    Thanks for your comments. Yes, I had forgotten about Games for Peace. I heard a talk (by Uri Mishol I think) and was really impressed with the work he was doing on this front. The Build Peace effort/conference (that you seem to be involved with) was also unknown to me until recently, but I’m glad to see a building “critical mass” for this work.

  3. Sergio Costa says:

    I enjoyed reading this piece, Zarrin. Another important initiative to look at (although not formed at the time of writing for this post) is the Christopher Stevens Initiative sponsored by the Aspen Institute. They are interested in “virtual exchanges” – using technology to bridge people, in this case students of comparable age and level to create lasting relationships.

    You point to opposings groups that work on shared goals. The literature in political science is another rich resource. The Advocacy Coalition framework specifically has this element covered.

    You raise very important questions that often preoccupy my own mind. So thanks for putting these together, nicely articulated, in this post.

    Be well
    Sergio

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