Conflict in the network age: why is social media conflictive?

Two boats colliding
Conflict, courtesy by Raul Lieberwirth

There is a growing sensation in some circles that social media generates heated debates, that it fosters conflict. The usual answer to this is that we need more and better education. Education in tolerance, education in difference. This is correct, but it still is too generic. It would be interesting to question ourselves what is new in social media and why these new characteristics are more prone to lead to conflict. That is, what social foundations is social media transforming? Why social media seems to foster conflict and what kind of specific education can we bring to avoid it?


One of the most famous quotes by Andy Warhol is the one that states that in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes. It was about new media and the power of television. In the Internet age, social media has put in the hands of (almost) everyone the equivalent of a television channel, a radio station, a journal… or many of them… at the same time.

The possibility to easily and cheaply broadcast content has led to some to broadcast their own lives. Extimacy is just that: making public one’s intimacy. This is a game changer at many levels, to begin with at the individual or psychological level.

Indeed, the Internet has enabled the possibility to be part of several different communities, or to establish flexible, liquid networks made up of a constantly changing set of nodes and relationships between these nodes. This is necessarily challenging both the sense of belonging and the very same concept of identity, which is shaped by one’s socialization activities.

Thus, social networking sites are challenging how do we understand ourselves and, at the same time, offering new powerful tools to manage this understanding of one’s self and our own social liaisons. This is unprecedented and there is no way back.

The new public-private sphere

In this new scenario of constant evolution of both the self and the collective — which, by the way, we are just beginning to copse, not to speak about managing or even understanding — the new communication practices have a strong role. A new role which will enhance, boost, multiply what the outcomes of previous communication practices.

First of all, the blurring of the division between the public sphere and the private one is playing tricks on the actors taking part on communication actions. Although we are beginning to master the new tools — and thus there are some cynical practices emerging — most of the times outcomes are unexpected and, some times, out of the borders of the charted territories of society (or Law).

On of these changes is the reach of some actions. Where before one would reach but a bunch of people, now the target is literally thousands, when not the whole (connected) humankind.

Another one is the impact, the depth, of some of these actions. The communicative intensity now enhanced by ICTs or social media cannot only affect more people, but more intensively.

Last, these actions can easily feedback and scale, thus multiplying their effects. This is, again, a game changer: as it happened with the Industrial Revolution, now ICTs multiply our actions in unprecedented ways. Mind the difference between adding and multipliying: the sign of the initial action (positive or negative) does matter.


Changes in identity and sense of belonging. Changes in the reach, impact and multiplication factor. This would only be serious if it were not for the fact that people now are on their own, which makes things very serious.

Yes, it is true that people have always been able to act on their own, or be on their own. But the question is that now most of this very powerful acts can be done without any kind of intermediary. That is, besides or despite institutions. Or, in other words, without the contribution of the most important socio-politic actors, including family, associations, political institutions of all kinds, traditional media, etc.

There are at least three aspects where institutions contributed to healthy behaviours — including communications, interactions, debates.

Firstly, they contributed to “filter“, in the sense of getting the best information at hand, from the most legitimate actors, and in the most convenient tempos (there are failures in doing this, of course, but this is another matter).

Secondly, they contributed to establish neat codes and channels. That is, they reduced noise and enhanced signal, including diplomacy, manners, an agreed language and tone.

Thirdly, and probably most important, they added context as they benefited from a advantageous situation which provided a panoramic vision of things, of people, of relationships, of interactions.

New literacies for new conflicts

Summing up: we are learning or new self, our new sense of belonging; whatever we do potentially has more impact both in reach and depth, and it will potentially replicate; and we are getting rid of the institutions that helped us to have an acceptable social behaviour, to make the best of the tools we had at hand.

So, when we say that education is the best tool to prevent conflict, we are not only talking about education as usual, but about brand new skills to master and control the new powerful tools that ICTs and social media put in our hands. And it is not only digital literacy in the sense of knowing how to use a computer, or an Internet browser. Not even digital literacy in the sense of knowing where to get good information and how to manage it. It is about new strategic literacies to live in a brand new world that is just disclosing itself.

This post was based on the notes that I prepared for the round table Conflict resolution at sports, part of the 1st Conference on Sport, conflict management and mediation, organized by the Bar Association of Barcelona and taking place in Barcelona in September 29th, 2016.