Civil society and the public: from social cohesion to hate

Ordinary people use social media for a range of personal goals. Social media platforms enable people to connect with family and friends, and they encourage the formation of groups that share an identity. Earlier in this chapter, we reviewed the way social media has enabled cyberdemocracy, which plays a role in social cohesion.

Civil society groups, like universities and NGOs, can use social media to support dialogue and networking between groups that support building relationships across the lines of division. It can also be used to improve participation and representation in political discussions, to support dialogue between groups of people to help build empathy and understanding and to organise and coordinate with others to achieve shared goals. Civil society has also developed “civictech”; an umbrella term that describes the use of technology for various social goods, and “peacetech” which refers to technology that supports peace. Civictech and peacetech “hackathons” aim to develop new technologies to solve social problems and improve economic, social and political wellbeing. While digital peacebuilding efforts are beginning to explore how to use social media to build social cohesion, these programs tend to be relatively small scale and experimental, as detailed in a recent report, “25 Spheres of Digital Peacebuilding and Peacetech” (Schirch 2020).

The India-Pakistan chapter highlights the potential for digital peacebuilding. A variety of the case studies in this book conclude by calling for civil society to engage in more robust forms of digital peacebuilding and digital media literacy. While there are plenty of positive examples of social media roles in social cohesion, the evidence of social media amplifying polarisation and division between groups seems to be more widespread.

The public also uses social media for cyberbullying, harassment, discrimination and hate speech, and for dangerous speech. Researchers have found a link between anti-immigrant social media content and hate crimes against immigrants by comparing municipalities with a similar demography, except for social media usage (Muller and Schwarz 2020). Female journalists and bloggers face an alarming amount of online abuse on all social media platforms, including threats of murder, rape and violent attacks via email and comment sections (Mijatovic 2016). Amnesty International found that one in five women has experienced online abuse and threats and that many report stress, anxiety, or panic attacks as a result of harmful online experiences. In 2017, the hashtag #WomenBoycott- Twitter aimed to expose how Twitter failed to apply its community standards and remove content including threats of rape and death to women using Twitter (Amnesty International 2017).

The Sri Lankan Center for Policy Alternatives found in their research that Face- book pages include a culture of misogyny and impunity enjoyed by the often- anonymous perpetrators of online violence. This included frequent incidents of sexual harassment, non-consensual dissemination of intimate images, and other forms of technology-related violence against women and girls that even when reported to Facebook, are not removed (Center for Policy Alternatives 2018). The public also falls prey to violent extremist content on social media.

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