Organized disinformation campaigns and malign actors use social media to increase polarization and incite violence around the world.
Harmful online content- including hate speech, false news, cyberbullying, and inflammatory rumors- can spread quickly and reach millions. While research on how malign actors use social media is growing, it is still rare for researchers and policy makers to directly engage with end users in conflict settings. That is largely due to methodological challenges related to access, language barriers, political constraints, mobility limitations, and most importantly establishing trust among potential study participants. As a result, much less is known about how individuals and groups living in conflict settings respond to harmful content online.
Search for Common Ground (Search) aimed to address this knowledge gap by exploring the online experiences of social media users from three groups:
- Direct participants in violence, including youth gang members, particularly from indigenous backgrounds in Guatemala and Honduras, former fighters from the al-Shabaab insurgency group in Kenya and Tanzania, and recent armed groups recruits of the Arakan Army in Myanmar.
- Those who socialize with direct participants of violence, including friends and family members, religious leaders, such as imams and Buddhist monks, as well as social workers and community organizers who have worked with vulnerable youth groups.
- Active resistors of violence, including local youth and young professionals, civil society organizers and leaders, journalists, and NGO workers who have worked in interfaith dialogue and social media literacy initiatives.
Search aimed to address the central research question: how do users in violent conflict settings experience and handle harmful content online?
Search spoke to 68 individuals from these groups across four geographic regions: the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras), East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania), Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan), and Southeast Asia (Myanmar). With rising internet penetration rates in these conflict-affected contexts, online violence is increasingly mirroring and complementing offline violence. It is important to understand the individual and group-level resiliencies towards these newer manifestations of violence in ongoing conflict settings.