Digital war: The fight for the children of the Arab Spring

by rebecca-fordham | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 8 September 2011 23:01 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The impacts of social media on children in war

Social media platforms can be a positive driver for activism, while also pushing children into taking sides.  In Libya, where I was UNICEF’s Acting Chief of Communication this summer, I witnessed young children being caught up in a propaganda war. Children of all ages will need help to understand and interpret the sound-bites and violent imagery that has surrounded them for over six months. Integrating this response will be vital for Libyans as they rebuild their communities. 

The online messaging environment that overall sought a decisive and quick solution to issues not only clashed with the reality of the drawn-out battle -- more than six months of fighting – but also with the largely state directed media and educational curriculum that operated before fighting broke out in February.

Information disseminated by both sides during a conflict is often targeted, brutal and over-simplistic, with little room for dissent as parties strive to control and manipulate information.

Libya and North Africa more broadly have seen an explosion of individually produced content across many platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, online radio and blogs. These developments should, and sometimes do, allow young people a voice in the debate especially as the content is picked up directly from the frontline by the broadcasters and woven into their mainstream news coverage.  As a result the system has become extremely localized and the content narrowed as the message is simplified to a ‘winner takes all’ objective. 

Further removed from its original sources, content is disseminated by young adults keen to be a part of the historic developments. The direct and immediate nature of social media can also lack context.  Other young adults have produced more nuanced and creative content but in time of war there is often no space for dissenting voices.

Gaddafi’s violent declaration to “fight to the last man and woman standing’, and his exploitative use of children in press conferences contrasts sharply with the opposition’s graphic use of images. There is graffiti of him being run through a meat grinder and videos of children calling for Gaddafi to go are common on social platforms.

Prior to the fighting, television was the most popular medium amongst Libyan students for news consumption, with international satellite channels preferred over state-controlled TV. The internet and radio were almost tied for second place, according to a 2010 study by Mokhtar Elareshi and Barrie Gunter. The majority of children I spoke with up to the age of 15 said they spent much of the day watching television – as many do in the United States and Europe -- but the difference was that in Libya they watched news, not cartoons.

In Benghazi, for instance, there are over 150 new media outlets and many have an online platform such as Facebook and Twitter, which was incredibly exciting to see.  But most of the content aggregates to focus on the body count and the battle rather than exploring more complicated issues of life beyond war.  Twitter provides a running commentary of casualties and conflicting information about territorial gains and actions of either side. Every time you "like," or "tweet," or re-send any content you are part of its creation. Your endorsement (especially if you are an "influencer") is crucial to other people absorbing it.

In terms of the immediate impact on young children, the picture could hardly be clearer. Young minds absorb and mimic what they witness. At a community centre a 5-year-old-girl repeated the words of a popular song to an encouraging audience of parents and adolescents, ‘Gaddafi, Gaddafi, you must go Gaddafi.’ At the end she pretended to slash her throat with her hand.  

At such a young age, children cannot be expected to interpret the meaning of what surrounds them but blind repetition of hate messages could put their young lives in danger. It will also prevent them from developing critical thinking tools, which will be vital if younger children are to uphold the movement for democratic change and tolerance and to build friendships with others whose siblings and parents may have been involved with the ‘enemy’.

Some older children I spoke to tried to document their experiences accurately, but many did so in a way that worryingly mirrored their older peers increasingly narrow focus on the termination of the regime. I saw a short movie produced by a 21-year-old woman at a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Children as young as four stared into the camera, holding up slogans which they repeated, “Freedom”, “Better Life”, “Safe from Danger”.

The clash was summed up to me by Sidique, a 17-year-old boy who volunteered at a local university for their new media team: ‘They didn’t want our own ideas or thoughts. I was asked to translate English language news stories into Arabic. I wanted to talk about how to improve our education and compare it with other cultures, I don’t want to talk about the conflict, it surrounds us.’

Formal education has been on hold across Eastern Libya since the start of the fighting in February. Schools are slated to reopen in mid-September. It will be essential for educators to recognise the changed media landscape but also to incorporate tolerance and creativity into the curriculum so that children are able to safely explore what they have seen. 

Education is integral to a child’s development. It’s an opportunity for children to develop tools for critical thinking and analysis. In times of conflict education is as equally important for children to allow for a space to play and express their emotions and fears. Most Libyan schools shut down at the start of fighting in February. Much of the revolutionary messaging broadcast in the East is in direct contrast to what children previously absorbed at school where they were taught the Green Book, setting out the political philosophy of the Libyan leader.

Recreational centres were set up by the community whilst schools were closed to provide space for children to express themselves. They were mostly run by community leaders themselves navigating their way through the drastic shift in public opinion and expression. I visited many of these centres and it is always incredibly moving to see children drawing their experiences. The walls were lined with illustrations of tanks, fighting, bullets and then increasingly replaced by pictures more usually associated with the children, flowers, people holding hands, dogs and trees. The development is part of a psychosocial response for children.

Many of the centres had become small factories for revolutionary propaganda.  Children as young as four were instructed to paint the red, black and green flag of the kingdom deposed by Gaddafi. Months into the fighting they still did not know what the flag represented. In part the children’s creativity reflected images on TV and online and also their daily exposure to the flag being used across eastern Libya. The online conversation, which lacks context, will need to be broadened out so these children can begin to understand the momentous changes without putting themselves in danger.

Citizen journalism is one opportunity to engage children about their rights and encourage older journalists to cover their stories and interests. But it must be creative in its content as well as its technological capacity because younger children tend to copy the older people developing platforms.

Community centres could create a forum – a newspaper -- for children where they can learn about their rights and responsibilities, as well as share their concerns. In addition, training for youth from a variety of media outlets would be a welcome contribution to disseminate guidelines on the ethics of reporting on children and promote positive, conflict-prevention journalism.

There is reason for optimism. Most civil society groups I encountered were remarkable for their mobilisation and activism. At an NGO fair organised by the NTC media committee, a 17-year-old girl displayed an intricate mosaic she made depicting Facebook, the former Libyan flag, a satellite and the dove of peace. Elis, had joined a group called ‘Free Libya’. She told me her intention was: “to write plays, discuss the past mistakes and build a creative future for Libya. But instead my friends and just want to produce the old flag and talk about Gaddafi”.