The Use of Social Media in Colombian Democratic Spaces: A Double-Edged Sword

The world is flooded with news of how social media is being used in conflict-affected areas, for better or worse. Colombia is not an exception. By January of 2019, Colombia had an Internet penetration of 68% out of its population of 48 million people, with an equal percentage of social media users who spent an average of three and a half hours per day in platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Twitter.  Information and misinformation spread through these channels have helped shape many views, emotions, narratives, and decisions about pivotal internal political processes, such as the armed conflict, peace negotiations with armed groups and elections.

In a recent brief commissioned by the Toda Peace Institute, I  analyse both crosscutting and distinct pearls and pitfalls of the use of social media in three specific democratic spaces in Colombia. The three cases are characteristic of mechanisms for, respectively, direct democracy, representative democracy and citizen and political participation in public matters. The first case is the 2016 plebiscite to endorse a peace agreement between the Colombian Government and the FARC-EP guerrilla. The second case examines the 2018 presidential elections in Colombia. The last case explores the threats and crimes against social leaders since the peace agreement was signed. Based on the cases examined, the brief draws recommendations for conflict transformation in future similar Colombian democratic scenarios that may face analogous situations or even hazards yet to come.

Although the three cases have distinct dynamics and characteristics, there are three cross-cutting elements found in all of them, that could contribute to the creation of patterns to devise future policies, strategies and recommendations to tackle the risks and capitalise on the beneficial effects. All three are interrelated. First, in all the cases social media helped to trigger and shape emotions of citizens with an influence on their decisions. Second, in the three cases, information and misinformation, spread through social media platforms, appeared to affect the political choices made by many citizens. Third, in the three events, online political polarisation was influenced by filter bubbles and echo chambers that fed polarisation. 

Vladdo’s cartoon proposal for a new plebiscite’s ballot. Revista Semana no 1799, 2016.

The beneficial and harmful effects portrayed in the brief spark several questions about the nature of democracy in the era of social media. The uses examined also show that, although emotions, viralisation of the content, polarisation and collaborative approaches converge in the different situations analysed, the employment of social media in democratic scenarios is dynamic. This means that the risks and safeguards continuously change and there are more yet to come, such as the spread of deepfake videos of political candidates or the creation of collaborative initiatives that mix AI systems with human moderation to tackle junk news more quickly and effectively. 

The findings are used to offer evidence-based and actionable policy recommendations to minimise the harms and maximise the goods of social media use in Colombian democratic spaces. To name one case, one of the main lessons in the different cases analysed, is that there is not a silver bullet initiative that a unique stakeholder can implement, once and for all, to unleash the power of social media to foster a more open and transparent democracy amid the Colombian conflict. In contrast, there is a need for a collaborative multi-stakeholder coordinated strategy that gathers different actors to implement a diverse set of projects with the same overarching objective. Their coordinated work could help devise more effective strategies to seek the common objective of creating a more inclusive and transparent democracy in the midst of the Colombian conflict.

The brief is part of the Toda Peace Institute’s work to increase public understanding of the role of social media in both promoting hate and division, and in fostering greater understanding and democracy around the globe. Recent similar briefs commissioned by the Toda Peace Institute include an analysis of the influence of social media use on democracy in other Latin American countries such as Brazil and Venezuela. These memos will be discussed during the Build Peace Conference on technology and peacebuilding, to be held in San Diego and Tijuana on November 14, 15 and 16 of 2019. Can’t travel there? Join the online discussion here

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