The question may seem a bit counter-intuitive at first. The common, if not yet quite conventional, wisdom is that, the more social media buzz there is around an issue, the more people get engaged in it, and the more popular pressure can be brought to bear on decision makers to take action.
Indeed, that probably works with many topics, including national and international crises. If there’s been a flood or an earthquake, for example, social media can help get the word out, transmitting messages in all formats -- text, audio, stills, video -- through those networks of personal trust that make tools like Facebook and Twitter so effective.
If an aid organisation plays it right, it can no doubt link up with the inevitable outpouring of international sympathy via social media and bring in new individual donations to apply to its work helping the victims. Perhaps it can even corral public pressure and direct it toward governments to get them to announce fresh aid packages in response. That seems reasonably straightforward.
In a conflict, however, things are very different.
Activists and partisans on the ground in war zones produce countless media products showing the world the horrors of the situation in Ruritania, and the logic is that such efforts, with their reach amplified by social media, ought to generate global sympathy for the victims and anger at the aggressors. That, the theory goes, should lead to a greater desire to help, including getting my government to do something about that terrible situation over there.
But if you look around over the last couple years, it hasn’t seemed to work. We haven’t seen much public demand being generated for military action overseas anywhere, despite the latest horrors reported and re-reported via social media. Of course, there’s intervention fatigue in the countries traditionally prone to acting forcefully outside their borders, but perhaps there’s more going on as well.
Start with the typical activist’s conceit of, “if only people knew, the world would put an end to this”. The belief that widespread knowledge alone will inevitably lead to the cessation of civilian suffering in conflict is hardly a new idea, and you only need recall the Darfur disconnect to understand that translating awareness into action was hardly automatic even in the olden days -- way back seven years ago -- before social media took off.
Now multiply the number of voices and facilitate their accessibility, as you do since the advent of social media, and what do we see?
With more media comes more argument (as Clay Shirky recently pointed out in an interesting TED talk), and with more argument comes more doubt. Maybe the naysayers have a point: maybe the rebel group is just as abusive as the government forces, maybe throwing more guns at the situation would only expand the war, maybe a “limited operation” would be an unworkable slippery slope to greater engagement, maybe intervention would actually disrupt the delivery of humanitarian aid to refugees and the internally displaced, maybe outside intervention would only accelerate the conflict and turn it into a regional war... and on and on the doubts mount.
An old maxim about communications then comes into play. To dissuade people from taking an action, you don’t have to convince them that it’s better to do nothing or defend an indefensible status quo. You only have to sow enough doubt about taking action so that the proposal seems risky, in dispute, or even just uncertain in its outcome. Thus, in a conflict situation, more information and more voices don’t naturally transform into consensus for bold action. Quite the opposite: particularly when the stakes are so high, more information leads to paralysis. And the status quo prevails.
After a flood or an earthquake, of course, this isn’t an issue. There won’t be many people rejecting the idea of delivering humanitarian aid. Hardly anyone would even dream of publically arguing against it.
In a violent conflict, however, there are always, by definition, a number of sides arguing actively and vociferously, and points are made questioning every piece of information as it emerges, and pushing for and against every possible course of action. And when anyone jumps into that heated noise with a proposal for some particularly decisive step, like a large-scale military intervention, social media instantly spread doubt, raise uncomfortable questions in real-time, and show in minute and constantly updated detail the lack of unity behind any single idea or course of action.
Proponents are unable to mobilise popular consensus for any major move not despite this powerful new tool in the hands of everyone called social media, but because of it. They are undermined by the very nature of the medium.
So however good social media may be for gathering and focusing public support on some issues, maybe the common wisdom breaks down when it comes to violent conflict. Maybe a world where social media are pervasive makes international intervention less likely.
I’ll end with the obvious caveat: this is just an idea. I don’t have any data to back it up, and I’m not even sure how I’d go about collecting any. I can make the argument, and I see the possibility there might be something to it. Still, I’ll keep it as a question for now and see what people think: do social media help make international intervention less likely?