I spent a day last week at a conference sponsored by the US Institute of Peace called “Passing the Baton, ” for the DC foreign policy community on the occasion of the transition to a new administraion. Content from the event is here.

I presented on a panel called Bullets and Blogs, together with Linton Wells, Duncan MacInnes, and John Kelly. I was asked to address the question of how people use digital media in conflict zones. A report and videos of the panel and presentations is available here.

The discussion revolved around the role of digital media and its relationship to modern conflict, with the presumption that conflict plays out in the public sphere as well as on battlefields.

The presentation prompted me to pull together some observations on the changing relationship between media and conflict. In this post, I’ll address a number of paradigm shifts that change the way people are able to interact through digital media, and specifically do so in and around conflict. A second post will look at examples and provide recommendations. First, structural issues:

1) From media scarcity to media abundance.

The first answer to the question, “who are the citizens in citizen media,” is, in short, potentially everybody.

  • 1.5 billion Internet users
  • 3 billion cell phone users
  • Growth of upwards of 10% for Internet, 30-50% for cell phones  annually in developing world

This is true for countries and territories that suffer from endemic conflict and political unrest as well. A glance through 60+ fragile and weak states on indices such as the Foreign Policy Failed States Index and the Brookings Index of State Weakness in the Developing World shows that communications and ICT access is growing almost everywhere. For example, Somalia has five cell phone networks and Internet access but no government. Afghanistan currently has over 400,000 people with access to the Internet.

The lesson: future conflict will occur in the context of information and communications abundance.

2) Network effects in the networked public sphere.

Access to communications and media technology doesn’t guarantee information creation. There are many barriers to creating good information; at Global Voices we call it the participation gap. It’s defined by a lack of:

  • Literacy
  • Education
  • Connectivity and material resources
  • Community and culture for content creation

Regardless, it takes a surprisingly small amount of connectivity to have an effect on conflict. For example, access to Internet is rare in Burma, and cell phone access prohibitively expensive, but even a little bit of connectivity transformed people’s ability to document and transmit information about the monk’s protests in 2007. The networked public sphere facilitates information to move from local to global levels in only a few hops.

3) Convergence.

Citizen media and citizen insurgents are potentially the same people. Citizen media activities in and around conflict are used to both organize and inform, frequently with blurred lines. Use includes:

  • Information production and amplification – documentation of events
  • Support for political activism – nonviolent protest, democracy advocacy, social movements and other political and socially oriented movements
  • Organizational support for riots and other unplanned violence. Planned violence – also riots, protests, up to terror
  • Operational use in insurgencies, civil war, and intrastate conflict

There are typically disparities in use and access to information around conflicts, just as there are often disparities in force capacity.

  • States have more power and information than citizen movements as well as insurgencies
  • Non-extremists seeking non-violent solutions have a disadvantage over extremists willing to use violence

Conflict may even increase information flows. Anecdotally, we know that diaspora communities drive information networks; empirically, we see spikes in information and communication use around times of conflict.

4) Media as a ground – information environment is constitutive of the public sphere, not a function of it.

Information in conflict is both a tool and the field upon which conflict plays out. This is important because wars are almost never total – they require support – public opinion, other governments, citizen pressure all have effects because sovereignty is not simply determined by coercion, but also by persuasion.

Digital networked media increases awareness of rights and expectations that others have, and that we may expect from our governments. In Gaza, for instance, the conflict seems unjust to many simply because of the clear disparity between the respective rights and expectations of Palestinians and Israelis.

Fighting and conflict increasingly takes place amidst populations, by people who may not be full-time soldiers. Non-state actors. The gap between actor and observer has shrunk in a world in which soldiers may film and record every act, militaries monitor their own people to control and focus violence, and bystanders and incidentals are able to record what occurs in their midst.

In future conflict we should think of the recording and dissemination of events with digital media as a norm, and note the absence of it as a directed effort. We see this playing out in Gaza today, with Israel working hard to keep out journalists, closing media outlets, and restricting access to the conflict. Regardless, people living in Gaza are sharing images recorded on consumer-level cameras and cell phones via the Internet and cell phone networks, as exemplified on this Al Jazeera labs site, War on Gaza.