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How Social Media is Changing Conflict

How Social Media is Changing Conflict

Photo credit: Sticker Mule

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Zeitzoff, T. (2017). How Social Media Is Changing Conflict. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 61(9), 1970–1991. 

Talking Points

  • In conflict, social media makes communication for individuals and groups easier.
  • In conflict, the speed and spread of information is increased by social media.
  • In conflict, it is important to examine the interaction and strategic dynamics between movements and elites via social media.
  • In conflict, social media generates new data and information about popularity, support and the conflict environment.


The rise of ISIS, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the election of Donald Trump are not only three very important geopolitical events, but they all are also directly connected to the varying impact of social media on conflict. Social media, according to the author, is “a form of electronic communication and networking sites that allows users to follow and share content (text, pictures, video, etc.) and ideas within an online community”. ISIS used/is using social media to target enemies and recruit followers. Russia uses cyberwarfare and misinformation. Trump used/uses Twitter as a campaign (and now governing) tool. It is no question that social media matters. The extent of the influence of social media on conflict and political struggle and the mechanisms at play still needs to be captured more systematically. In this article, the author presents a framework to understand how social media can influence political conflict on the level of the elites as well as mass-level collective action.

On the level of collective action, the author’s review of literature suggests there is strong evidence that social media can raise awareness and the importance of protest and facilitates groups getting “their story” out. Communication is assisted by social media through the exchange of information, the exposure of wrongdoing by elites, and mobilization and coordination of protest. Connections between activists are made easier, coordination and communication are less costly. Moreover, potential allies and activists can be targeted and recruited—a point primarily examined in the context of political violence and radicalization (e.g. ISIS), but also in the context of nonviolent social movements (e.g. the 2017 Women’s March). Less focus, according to the author, has been placed on how elites/leaders use social media. This is surprising, given that leaders and governments are heavily active on social media to campaign, to gather support for their issues at home and abroad, and to influence and/or bypass traditional media.

Such broad and disparate findings make it important to provide a conceptual framework on the impact of social media on conflict. The author proposes four points: (1) Social media makes communication for individuals and groups easier. They can challenge the state outside of mainstream media. Likewise, regimes can manipulate social media with fake users to give the appearance of broad support. (2) The speed and spread of information is increased by social media. “Viral” messages can spread across the globe and enter into the mainstream media narrative when picked up by news sources. The implications are mixed. For example, the pressure to first report news stories might lead to poorly vetted material and publication of false and misleading information. In turn, secretive actions or mass atrocities might quickly become visible. (3) It is important to examine the interaction and strategic dynamics between movements and elites. In this dynamic process, both sides constantly shift communication technology and tactics. (4) Social media generates new data and information about popularity, support and the conflict environment.

In conclusion of this research, the author offers four key future implications: (1) recognizing the increased use of social media as a campaigning tool; (2) increased usage of encrypted social media due to privacy concerns; (3) social media and cyberconflict will be tied together more generally; and (4) higher technological sophistication and artificial intelligence will have increased ability to manipulate conflict and social media.

Contemporary Relevance

The entire framing of this article is contemporary relevant by the omnipresent yet underexplored impact of social media on conflict. The Arab Spring, which started in 2010, was quickly labeled the “social media revolution” before any systematic inquiries were able to examine all conflict dynamics at play. At present, no social conflict can be viewed without examining the use of social media by conflict parties and the impact these communication platforms have on the conflict trajectory, the conflict parties and their constituencies, and the broader conflict context. With the advent of social media, any intervention into conflict or efforts to build peace must consider the role of social media. The frameworks for analysis and conflict prevention can benefit from understanding the four key roles outlined in this study.

Practical Implications

Practically, we must be careful not to exclusively consider social media as “liberation technology” for social movements, neither should we consider social media a tool for governments and autocrats to stifle dissent and spread misinformation. Social media can be both, therefore it becomes more important to understand the role of social media in conflict as discussed in this study. We should also use the understanding of social media technology to systematically think about conflict prevention. By using the author’s four factors—easier communication, speed of communication, strategic interaction, and new data on support/popularity—as a framework for strategic violence prevention, practitioners no longer need to work with the vague and simplistic notion that “social media matters”. A key factor in disrupting destructive conflict lies in understanding the strategic interaction of the conflicting parties at the different stages of conflict (latent conflict, manifest conflict, conflict escalation, conflict climax, conflict de-escalation, post-conflict). As Tadzie Madzima-Bosha writes, “social media can help spread peace, encouraging dialogue among people from different ethnic backgrounds and nationalities. It can affect perception on ethnicity, change attitudes, and promote tolerance and mutual understanding. Thus it can bridge the divide between ethnic groups that wouldn’t otherwise communicate with one another.[1]

Continued Reading

Social Media and Conflict Prevention By Sheldon Himelfarb, United States Institute of Peace. 2012.

How social media is changing the way we see conflict By Kym Beeston. 2014.’sharing’-witness-is-social-media-changing-way-we-see-conflict

A New Era of Global Protest Begins By Rajesh Makwana. Transcend Media Service. 2016.

Tweets of Contention: How Social Media is Changing Political Conflict By Thomas Zeitzoff. Political Violence @ a Glance. 2017.

Keywords: collective action, communication technology, conflict, elites, protest, social media, social movements


[1] Harnessing the power of social media for conflict prevention By Tadzie Madzima-Bosha. Peace Insight. 2013.

The above analysis is from Volume 2, Issue 6 of the Peace Science Digest.

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