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Caucasus: Blogs and Bullets

This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices.

Last week, on 8 July, a half-day conference, Blogs and Bullets: Evaluating the Impact of New Media on Conflict was held at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington D.C. Co-sponsored by George Washington University's Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication, the first and last of three panels included Alec Ross, Senior Advisor for Innovation to the U.S. Secretary of State, Ethan Zuckerman, Global Voices co-founder and Senior Researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Marc Lynch, Director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at George Washington University, Colin Rule, Director of Online Dispute Resolution at eBay, and Adam Conner from Facebook.

Also present on the second panel were bloggers and journalists such as Global Voices’ Mialy Andriamananjar and Hamid Tehrani, Global Voices Caucasus Region Editor Onnik Krikorian, Raed Jarrar, Nasseem Tarawnah, and Golnaz Esfandiari. The panels were followed up by a private experts working group also involving Berkman and Global Voices’ Jillian York and representatives from the World Bank and the U.S. Department of State among others.

In a USIP report (draft) released at the conference, a team of scholars from GWU, in cooperation with scholars from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and from Morningside Analytics, take a fresh theoretical, and empirical approach to answering this question.The report critically assesses both the “cyberutopian” and “cyberskeptic” perspectives, and proposes a new framework for assessing the role of new media in contentious politics.

Although largely centering on the use of new and social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter in countries such as Iran, the conference also examined their use in other areas in Madagascar and also in the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Indeed, as noted by Andriamananjar's Windows on the new World of SipaKV, the three examples also had much in common as well as some differences.

Onnik Krikorian […] reminded me that international community intervention do not always result in positive outcomes and two videobloggers are still in jail in Azerbaijan, despite efforts by Hillary Clinton, Amnesty International, etc.. to free them.

[…]

Many similarities may be drawn between the Iranian Revolution and the Malagasy use of twitter and facebook during “our” crisis, few twitterers finally (a couple hundred Iranian twitterers only!?), many retweets, many twitterers based abroad, many spreading false rumors, difficulty in self correcting the rapidfire rumors in realtime, difficulty in asserting who holds the majority of opinion based on online content especially in countries with exceedingly low internet penetration rate: whose opinion are you really reading? The majority is probably silent and has no access to internet.

[…]

As discussed during the event, social media are but tools and its landscape reflects the society at large. Occurrences of false identities, personal attacks etc… merely reflect the bigger malaise of our Malagasy society.

As it related to the Caucasus, however, Star-Tides noted the possibility for the positive use of new and social media tools such as Facebook.

[…] An interesting insight that was shared by all was the need for trust to be established between users before interacting on a public space like Facebook. Golnaz Esfandiari, of Iran, talked of the danger that Iranians returning from abroad can be detained at Iranian airports, asked for their Facebook passwords, and interrogated about the friends they have made. Onnik Krikorian, of Armenia, noted that although security issues can be a problem, platforms like Facebook can also open up channels for interaction that don’t exist elsewhere. He enthusiastically related how Facebook had changed his life in the past eighteen months, enabling him to befriend and interact with Azeri’s, something almost impossible through human, political, or media channels.

The same theme was also picked up by Global Chaos who commented on Facebook's offering in the area of conflict resolution and transformation, http://peace.facebook.com.

Facebook has come up with a “Peace” initiative, tracking the number of “friend” connections between people from different conflicting sides: geographic, religious, and political. For example, they currently indicate the “geographic” connections between Israel and Palestine, Albania and Serbia, India and Pakistan, Greece and Turkey. A great idea! I cannot but support Krikorian's suggestion: would be lovely to see the connections between Armenia and Azerbaijan there, too!

Nevertheless, despite the possible advantages of social networking sites in crossing divides, virtually all panelists and attendees noted the importance of actual physical contact as well. Indeed, present at the event was The Young Georgians, which devoted a post to human communication between the three countries in the region after Global Voices’ Caucasus Editor invited him to meet an ethnic Azeri refugee from Armenia who recently made a guest post on his personal blog.

It was another hot Friday evening in Washington DC, full of people walking around the Dupont Circle who were going to bars, clubs and other places. There was a little meeting around a very little aluminum table in front of the circle. They were three, representing: Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. They did not eat but drink. One was a refugee from Armenia, another one was IDP from Abkhazia and third one just moved from London to Yerevan long time ago. They spoke about Caucasus. A lot. […] They spoke about its past, present and the future. Discussion and entire evening went smoothly and harmonically, they listened to each other expressed their opinion and gave suggestions. This does not happen that often, especially with representatives of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Even though these countries are tiny and they are next to each other there is less interaction than it should be. […]

[…]

There are moments in life when you prefer to keep silent, to listen and realize how awesome that moments are, there are moments when you hear “enemies” speak, when you realize that it’s so easy to destroy all the stereotypes and speak with your foe, with a person you thought only bad things about. There are moments when after realizing all these you would love to speak to your “enemy” and hear what he/she says. There are moments when you dream of the moment when you have an opportunity to meet your “enemy” and shake his hand and listen to him/her, but you know that it has been almost 20 years since you last had such a moment.

Around the table were Zamira Abbasova, Onnik Krikorian and Me – Mirian Jugheli.

Interestingly, Abassova first made contact with Global Voices via email over eight months ago, remaining in contact via Facebook until finally meeting after the U.S. Institute of Peace event. Other meetings were also held between Global Voices and senior figures at the Eurasia Foundation, Internews and the World Bank, all of which are involved in cross-border or conflict-related new media projects. The latter, for example, has its own special coverage site on conflict, something which Global Voices’ Caucasus section will contribute to in the coming weeks and months.

Of course, such voices are arguably a minority in both societies and especially in terms of online activity, but new tools do at least offer them the possibility to make their views be known. Considering the current level of discussion and debate on the conflict, or even lack of it, such a development is therefore unprecedented. However, as Developing Lebanon summarized, there are also certain problems associated with the use of such tools unless strategies are formulated and impact is monitored and assessed as the situation both online and off naturally changes over time.

[…] Analysis of social media often provides a skewed opinion and set of information when one is limited only to like-minded bloggers who speak English. Additionally, problems arise when one considers pro-regime blogging, monopolization of positions, and dissolution of the border between cyber war and real war. […] Panelist Onnik Krikorian of Armenia warned that “ … people get too excited about tools, they add everyone [to facebook], which is dangerous. Krikorian highlighted cyber “flame wars” between internet users of Armenia and Azerbaijan, in response to an audience contribution regarding similar internet hostility in the South Caucasus, between Georgia and Abkhazia.

[…]

Overall, the benefits of social media were not forgotten or discredited. The panelists warned, however, against disproportionately looking to Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere as the be-all, end-all path to freedom, and allowing internet communication replacing direct community involvement.

Ultimately, most concluded, all of these new online tools are simply that — tools to be used when appropriate, as D.C. Foreign Policy Beat summarized.

Yes, hate groups can use it to spread hate. Bickering rivalries can use it to yell at each other as they would in person. Governments can use it to hunt down revolutionaries. NGOs and rights groups can use it to spread positive messages and connect people. And…must we forget…friends can use it to stay in touch across borders.

“We built a tool to make the world more open. By improving the tool as a whole, all of these groups will benefit,” said Adam Conner, a representative from Facebook.

This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices.

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