Staying ahead of the game: three concepts that can help peacebuilders work strategically with digital media

In the information age, successful peacebuilding efforts depend as much on the outcomes of boardroom mediation dialogues and signing of ceasefire and peace agreements as they do on how the achievement, purpose and conduct of peace is viewed by public opinion in the conflict context. Therefore, peacebuilders and those advocating for violence are constantly engaging in a struggle to win perceptions, and with the advent of the internet, this struggle is unfolding on digital media.

In 2005, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri pointed out that

“More than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. We are in a media battle, a race for the hearts and minds of our Ummah”.

To Al Qaeda, battles are not only the physical struggle in the frontline but also the dissemination of their messages online. This practice of exerting influence on target groups using communication during conflicts or peacebuilding is not new. In the past it existed on radio, television and print, but was limited to one-way engagement, dissemination channels were few, and it was difficult to fully understand audience perceptions. Today, globalized media through the internet has greatly increased the importance of this ideological struggle for peacebuilders and malicious actors. It is in this context that the concept of strategic communication becomes relevant.

Strategic communication refers to the way in which policies and actions are communicated to the public (local and international), in order to build up an alliance of people willing to support desired outcomes.

Editors, journalists and media professionals are often targeted, harassed and some are even assassinated. Some media outlets are owned or aligned to political or violent groups, like the radio station that was launched by the jihadist militant organization based in northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram. These may serve as platforms to spread propaganda and incite extreme ideologies and even violence as witnessed in contexts as different as Kenya in the 2007 general elections or the USA in the 2020 presidential election.

To work strategically on digital media, it is important that peacebuilders and their efforts are flexible and responsive to the communities they work in.To achieve this, peacebuilders need to build their communications strategies around three key concepts:

  • Positioning & Communication Style
  • Value and Co-Creation
  • Reach and Engagement

Positioning & Communication Style

Positioning is basically how the audience views a peacebuilder or peacebuilding organization. By understanding the position their audience has placed them in, in their environment, peacebuilders will learn if their perceived position aligns with the views they have for themselves or their organizations. The perceptions that the audience have about peacebuilders will influence how they engage with their information.

For instance, if polarized audiences position a peacebuilding actor on the side of their opponent in an ongoing conflict, they will avoid communicating with this actor and label them as an enemy. The ideal is to strive for a multi-partial position — one that listens to all sides — when engaging in strategic communications efforts in these contexts so that trust is built on all sides of the conflict.

Communication style: How peacebuilders communicate also affects how their audience will engage with their information. Sharing a 50-page report document on a website versus sharing 2–3 infographics on WhatsApp with the summary of the report will have completely different forms of engagement. As an example, this graphic shows the level of engagement PDFs receive.

The format style chosen, whether audio, video, or text will filter out or include a segment of the audience. The content style also matters, when sharing information with an audience in a conflict context. Peacebuilders should be conscious of their use of jargon and terms that only their organization understands internally. They should also check if the audience completely understands the message, this can be through feedback mechanisms e.g. surveys, dialogues etc.

One way for peacebuilders to find out if their communication style aligns with the style their audience uses is to compare how communities communicate among themselves during conflict. This enables a peacebuilder to see areas of similarity between the community and themselves and where they can adjust their style. Note that communities in an ongoing conflict can be very clear and direct about their intolerance to other groups by using hate speech. Therefore, peace actors should also be clear in their communication style when passing their content.

Polarized groups might want to see if a peacebuilding actor is taking sides by how they communicate before trusting them. Are they using only one platform or language that is mainly used by one side of the divide? It is important that the communication style chosen is inclusive. For instance, mixing text and audio if part of the audience is illiterate.

Once peacebuilders understand where they are positioned in a conflict environment and have an idea of how their communication style works and how it can be adjusted, they can apply the two towards reaching, engaging and creating value for their audience. This is the hallmark of strategic communications.

Value & Co-Creation

Strategic communication happens when the value creation is mutually beneficial between the people communicating and ideally creates a little something extra. By knowing the audience’s perception of their organization, peacebuilders can begin to lay out what value they can create for the audience. For instance, in a polarized community it is important that the divided groups see that there is value in having civil conversations for the community to be depolarized. To achieve this, peacebuilders should be aware of existing assets and how to link these to the audience.

Assets are things that make a peace actor stand out and unique in the conflict environment they share with the audience. These are things that an International organization or a youth group, community-based organization, civil society group etc offers. They can be products, services, experiences, platforms, skills that they share with their audience. In a conflict context, an organization might be the one that holds the most effective peace dialogues between groups, or might be the most trusted by both sides of a conflict to organize a mediation meeting.

To effectively communicate and achieve their desired objectives, peacebuilders need to understand their audiences. While it might be tempting to label audiences e.g. as women, youth and persons with disability, homogenous view of the various groups leaves out the granular and nuanced understanding of these groups. Sub-categorising these groups further by age, gender, location, socio-economic status, political affiliation, religion, tribe etc where possible is ideal to be able to capture key influencers, leaders, enablers and spoilers. In addition to this, it is important for peacebuilders to find out the audience’s resources (money, time, ideas, energy) and when or if they are willing to share these with.

After assets and audiences are understood peacebuilders can now bring these two together. This is co-creation. Take for instance a peacebuilding organization that has an (asset) of putting together effective peace dialogues between conflicting groups. The organisation can hold a local peace dialogue and then provide a question-and-answer platform e.g. on social media where people can ask questions about the dialogue or peace process. The (audience) on social media would then allocate their time and data bundles (resources) to ask questions that the organization can respond to, creating a repository of information of the peace process for others who come to the platform.

Reach and Engagement

While the information developed in the previous example is good, it is a result of merely reaching the audience. The ideal is for peacebuilders to get to a point of active co-creation through their strategic communication where they are building an alliance with an audience that is willing to support peace interventions towards a desired goal. This can be done in four phases:

  1. Reach
  2. Interest
  3. Involve
  4. Activate

Reach: Strategic communications places importance in identifying which channels the audiences in conflict environments are using. This can be done through participatory assessments and information needs assessments. If more than one channel is identified, peacebuilders should think of ways to integrate the channels to work together to disseminate the same message for a greater reach. E.g., For example, if Facebook and Radio are identified as the channels of choice, peacebuilders can think of how having a small advert on radio asking listeners to check out their Facebook page for some exciting information will help them reach their audience.

Interest: Once the audience is reached, peacebuilders have to think of how to keep them interested and attentive. For instance, in a context where disinformation is rife, peacebuilders can share an example of a widespread piece of false information that they have debunked, if this gets the audience interested, the peacebuilders could ask the audience to get in touch to learn how to debunk such information if they are interested. Getting an audience interested is not an exact science and peacebuilders can try out different content to see which one sticks.

Involve: Sharing information with an audience without involving them in any way makes them very passive and they might not be engaged for long with the shared content. Peacebuilders want to create a form of value exchange between the audience and themselves. Social media platforms know this very well because they have functionalities such as, like buttons, share, comment, retweet etc that involve the audience by giving them a chance to provide input. Staying on the example of disinformation, peacebuilders could ask audiences if they have seen the cases of disinformation that they have flagged in their platform within their networks, whether they believed or shared the information? This is considered low level engagement.

Activate: Activation taps on the willingness of the audience to support desired outcomes. Now that the audience is lightly engaging with the content, if the desired outcome is for the community to resist disinformation that leads to conflict, peacebuilders can train them, capacitate them with skills needed to debunk information or respond to hate speech etc. The idea is for the audience to act and address the problem that a peacebuilder has been bringing their attention to. In strategic communication this type of training can be in the form of peacebuilders sharing materials online and asking audiences to flag information that is false and/or report it to the relevant actors. The activated audience can then share with peacebuilders any false content that they flag. In turn, peacebuilders can upload this content on social media and other public digital spaces for the public to see the false information that has been flagged and debunked by the activated community.

This creates a loop, where the (activated) audience now can flag and debunk content that they then share with peacebuilders who can upload it on their platforms. The audience gets to see (interest) how the public reacts to this information (involve) e.g., by sharing it so that it (reaches) more people.

Conclusion

Communicators in conflict environments should be aware that they are in essence competing with conflicting information sources spreading disinformation and hate speech that spread faster than the truth.

Additionally, they are in volatile digital media environments that change with the conflict making strategic communication a complex and multifaceted process that is effective when credibility is maintained, trust is built, consistency is maintained, flexibility to changes is swift and audiences are engaged and feel that they are contributing. When peacebuilders follow these concepts, they stand the best chance to communicate ideas effectively and to build up an alliance of people willing to support positive peace.

Build Up transforms conflict in the digital age. Our approach combines peacebuilding, participation and technology.