A series of blogs written by 2016 Emerge Communication Champions.

Social media is widely used nowadays, and public opinion is divided among sceptics and supporters. On one side social media can empower citizens to have a say in their country, help connect people and share resources, provide information to reduce tensions, contribute to a better understanding of facts and provide informed decision making, build bridges across boundaries, and demolishing prejudices. However, on the other side, social media can also be used to polarise society, convey inaccurate information, manipulate opinions, stagnate people’s beliefs, contribute to division, isolate, and hinder or even stop dialogue, especially with people who may have opposing opinions.


Jem Thomas. Photo by www.fisherstudios.co.uk

Jem Thomas – Director Training and Innovation at Albany Associate – ex-military and expert in strategic communications, crisis management and conflict resolution – spoke at Emerge 2016. During his Masterclass session on Using Social Impact Media to Alleviate Conflict, Jem explained how social media can help alleviate conflicts and focussed on these key areas:

Conflict mapping – In order to address conflicts, it’s important to understand the current situation and what contributes to build the bigger picture. We need to map the issues, sources of conflicts, linkages, networks, and dependencies. The ultimate question to answer is “Where is the common ground?”

Reliable information – Information doesn’t necessarily give us knowledge. We need to choose reliable sources of information that people can trust. An interesting website providing facts-checking is StopFake.

Data Visualisation – We need to move from text based communications to more effective visual and interactive communications, using video and infographics. Information needs to be attractive for people to stimulate interest and engagement. A fascinating example of visual communication can be found at OurWordInData by Max Roser, economist at University of Oxford who also spoke at Emerge 2016. He provides a living publication of social, economic, and environmental history of our world. Another great resource is Ushahidi which provides a map of physical conflicts.

Communications – Social media offers an online platform to share information and resources. By sharing resources we actually connect with people from different backgrounds, values, and opinions, all of which we may realise are closer than we think! To share some useful resource: PeaceTube has a new Facebook app to foster digital dialogue. Yerdle and Canzaa are good online platforms to swap resources. Frontlinesms is a messaging platform for positive change.

Participation – Social media can also empower people by providing us with an opportunity to have a say in the future of the country (or locally) by signing a petition. Avaaz and Change.org are some of the most popular petition website.

However there are some key challenges that we need to be aware of such as the so called “filter bubble” effect and confirmation bias for which we look for and retweet information we’d like to see reflecting our beliefs, opinion and knowledge, thus reinforcing our own thinking. As a result there is a risk that we become separated from information or people that disagree with our own beliefs, making it more difficult to find the “common ground”.

So what is the solution? Jem Thomas thinks education is the answer. It’s important to balance truth and facts in order to judge soundly. To enable an informed decision-making process, we need to be aware of the “filter bubble” influence, develop a critical thinking approach and champion trusted sources of information, such as the work of a freelancer. Perhaps we need to go back to basics, take time to gather information and think, invest in talking to people to better understand the real roots of the issues.

My personal conclusion is to focus more on building trust between people to break down walls and prejudices. To do so, there are two main elements: physical and digital space. I believe that physical interaction still remains at the foundation of the trust building process, following the “old school” of meetings, coffee, and exchange programmes like volunteering. However I think social media can support digital dialogue on a wider scale. It can be a very powerful source to promote good information, share resources and empower citizen participation.

Thank you Jem for the inspiring and energetic Masterclass at Emerge 2016.

Author Bio
Sara Cocomazzi

Sara has a broad business background having worked in the public and private sector across Europe and in the UK. Sara currently works for the NHS NEL CSU (North East London Commissioning Support Unit) as Business Development Lead. She joined the wider organisation as Consultant in the NEL Healthcare Team in September 2014, initially as part of an On Purpose programme, and then joined on a more substantive role. Sara worked across a number of projects in Primary Care, ICT, mental health, community services, and providers’ performance with multiple stakeholders providing Project and Programme Management, Stakeholder engagement, Presentation skills & infographics design and Data analysis. Sara is currently leading the PMO support to the South London ICT transition to transfer IT services for seven commissioning CCGs. Prior to joining the NHS Sara was the communications and marketing manager for a company in the private sector. Based in Italy and Germany Sara worked with a wide range of internal and external stakeholders to create a new brand identity.


Sara Cocomazzi