Jim Della-Giacoma is the South East Asia Project Director of International Crisis Group.
From London to Jakarta, there have been accounts of how social media have been used to help encourage violence. In some ways, this is to be expected: people often fear new technologies, so stories of this sort play to receptive audiences. But now a conflict on the margins of the international datelines has shown how helpful these new communications tools can be in waging peace in fractious communities.
Last month in the Indonesian city of Ambon, the suspicious death of a Muslim motorcycle taxi driver led to clashes between Muslims and Christians in this provincial capital and raised fears of a return to the communal fighting that wracked the region from 1999 to 2002. At one point, rumours swirled by SMS and word of mouth that a Christian child had been killed (she had not). Muslim houses were set on fire, and retaliation against Christians soon followed.
By the time it stopped, the two days of violence had left seven dead and dozens wounded. Over 150 homes, roughly split between the two communities, were burned to the ground.
What is most remarkable is not that violence re-occurred (something sadly all too common in post-conflict societies), but how it was stopped, in part, through some far-sighted networking and deft thumb work by a group calling themselves 'peace provocateurs' who worked across communities and together with local officials to calm down a volatile situation.
It was an extraordinary effort by a group of about ten people, Christian and Muslim, who decided, at enormous risk to themselves, to go into the areas where violence had erupted to seek truth and then text, upload, and share it.
Every time they heard a rumour, for example, that a church was burned down or that a mosque had been damaged, they went and took photographs of the actual site. With even provincial capitals well serviced by mobile telephone and data services, it was then not hard for them to circulate this proof on Twitter and Facebook using their mobile phones. Given that Indonesians are some of the world's most avid users of these social media, it was an inspired strategy. They sought to calm the level of violence, and it worked.
One of their leaders was Jacky Manuputty, a Protestant priest; another was Abidin Wakano, a lecturer at the State Islamic Institute. They partnered with a group of young people called 'Ambon Bergerak' and some members of the Moluccan Interfaith Institute (Lembaga Antar Iman Maluku, LAIM). The members of this core group each had some ten or fifteen contacts of their own around the city's major flashpoints. They were on the phone with each other constantly, checking out stories and sending information.
Together they identified influential 'strategic partners' in border neighbourhoods and put them in touch with one another to help coordinate the dissemination of information. They were very conscious of the impact national media could have on the way the unrest was being portrayed outside Ambon and designated one person to monitor the reporting and send clarifications as necessary to the relevant journalists. Their activities focused on collecting and verifying reports of attacks, threats, street blockades, injuries or crowds massing, and then trying to defuse the threats.
Had it not been for their messages, tweets, and posts, the violence would have been infinitely harder to bring under control.
Photo by Flickr user Erik_Shlange.