But a stable and successful society must take a dimmer view of humankind, leaders especially, and build our systems for the worst of them.
It is easily observed, and regularly commented on in mainstream and social media, that some global conflicts attract more media coverage and public engagement than others, with then a range of speculations as to why this is so following on these public observations.
The question is not always as simple as it may seem at first glance. In assessing that one conflict is more visible, or has more global media coverage than another, what do we use as our criteria? People killed? The size and importance of the countries involved? How are those criteria, in turn, calculated, and by whom? Airtime on television? Other media? How do we, how does the media, decide on the correct or appropriate level of coverage of the conflicts in Sudan, Syria, the DRC, Gaza or Ukraine, to name but a small number of current armed global conflicts?
In this article we will assess a few of the reasons for such disparities, a phenomenon that I will, for convenience's sake simply refer to as the visibility of such conflicts. I am however more concerned about the effects these disparities in particular, and such conflict visibility in general, and the changes in strategy required that they bring about in the dynamics of such conflicts, and we will have a more comprehensive discussion about that aspect. Such a discussion will hopefully then be of greater practical value to us in our future understanding of such global conflicts and disparities than what, by now, has become a rather sterile and unhelpful discussion on a topic that should be of universal concern. We will then, at the conclusion of our discussion, have to ask whether the increased visibility of a conflict is always a positive conflict dynamic, such as it seems to, in the popular opinion, generally be accepted.
A few reasons for conflict visibility disparities
On the face of it, of course, there are a few simple reasons for these disparities, some of which are not always given due weight in these discussions. Media coverage largely determines the visibility of such conflicts, and such media coverage in turn is influenced by factors such as proximity, geographical accessibility, the national and international interests that are involved in such a conflict, historical reasons of enmity or friendship between involved nations, some of the public personalities involved, the possibility of sustained coverage, the presence or absence of other global conflicts and so on.
Beneath the surface of these easy, and quite reasonable, answers lie a few more complex responses. A few of these would include the fact that some of these global conflicts have become very complex conflict spirals, with the various proxy wars, non-state actors and various influencers contributing to conflict realities that are sometimes difficult to fully comprehend, and consequently to meaningfully report on at any professional level. Indirectly flowing from that, some of these conflicts are seen as hopeless cases, perpetual cycles of violence and insecurity that will seemingly always be with us, a perception which must affect the perceived newsworthiness of such event in the latest news cycle.
The choice of coverage, and a sustained ability to cover such a conflict, of course also has a commercial and operational component to it, and most media houses must be careful in the allocation of its resources. To cover all and every far-flung conflict is simply not a commercial reality. This aspect then, in its turn, hints at an even more uncomfortable truth, and that is that clicks play an important role in conflicts, and here we are now having to ask questions about what the public wants to see, which conflicts they want to be informed about.
At this level, from a conflict management perspective, we are dealing with a massively complex understanding of synergies and interplays of identity conflicts, manipulated interests and, in a very real sense, the nature of truth and freely expressed will itself. Even a glimpsed understanding of these dynamics will, in my view, negate the simplified answers, so popular in social media, of such visibility being guided mainly by factors such as racism or nefarious “mainstream media” plots. Very few of those criticisms hold up under any meaningful level of inquiry. There are also some encouraging developments in the new field of peace journalism, where journalists become more conversant with the intricacies of conflict, and how their responses create and influence these conflict dynamics.
For our purposes, and approaching these questions then from a global and localized conflict management perspective, we should also focus on the observable fact that the visibility of some of these conflicts are in fact manipulated to a large extent, by a variety of actors. Given the business “benefits” of global war, global and regional influence campaigns and what I believe to be the early stages of the Cold War 2.0, such manipulation is of course as obvious as it is inevitable. At this level local and regional wars become pieces on the international relations chessboard, to be given preference and visibility as larger geopolitical realities dictate at that time. This of course explains these decisions, it does not necessarily justify them.
With these initial observations done, we can then consider what dynamics such increased conflict visibility manipulation brings to a specific conflict, and whether such increased visibility is always to be seen as a positive factor in such increased visibility.
Manipulation of visibility
Media coverage translates into attention, focus, on a particular conflict. It is a tremendously powerful force that makes public, to the limited extent possible given the realities of war, the ongoing (if carefully curated, at times) events in that war. Where a distant observer of say the Second World War would have had to be content with occasional newsreels, grainy still photos and a column (often filed days after the events)by a war journalist, we have in recent years become used to real-time coverage, by professional and amateur reporters, of these conflicts. This increased coverage has certainly brought about an increased level of transparency and theoretical accountability, but it has also led to a previously unimagined level, and capability, of manipulation and even the manufacture of news and opinions (see for instance my chapters on deep fakes and the manipulation of these reports in Hamlet’s Mirror).
We need not, for our purposes here, deal with the manipulation of the truth in general, and war reportage specifically, save to accept the obvious and to deal with that modern reality in approaching these conflicts. What changes in the conflict dynamics of these conflicts do these increased levels of conflict visibility bring to such a conflict?
The influence of conflict visibility on subsequent conflict dynamics
The new interplay between these conflicts and their conflict visibility, whether intended or not, and whether manipulated or not, bring about enormously important new conflict realities and dynamics. In some instances, some of the existing conventional conflict strategies and wisdom have been obliterated, requiring brand new strategies, and brand new skill-sets. The impact of technology, intended or otherwise, and specifically the new conflict frontiers created by artificial intelligence, has required a literal rewriting of many an actual conflict map, and now more than ever the specifics of a given conflict will have to be properly assessed and engineered into conflict strategies on the ground. Comparing current complex conflict strategies at micro-level today often seem like completely different subject matter from those a decade or more ago. We can nevertheless notice a few important examples of such dynamics in modern conflicts.
The escalation and de-escalation of a conflict, from a conflict management perspective, and in the hands of an expert, is a crucial tool in guiding and influencing the conflict outcome. Here I include strategies involving sequencing and timing of conflict interventions and events. With increased conflict visibility comes increased public scrutiny, and demands and expectations of escalation and de-escalation from non-combatants can become a complicating factor, making an already complex conflict environment even more volatile. As we can see from global conflicts in the last year or two, the strategic escalation or de-escalation of a conflict is often made more complex, or even impossible, by conflict visibility.
Given increased publicity, confidential meetings, agreements and events may become harder to facilitate, complete or keep confidential. As we can see on social media, modern perceptions and misconceptions of democratic transparency and the “right to know” can add vast complexity to conflicts, especially at times when confidentiality, discretion and even secrecy is crucial. Even internal communication limited to one side of the conflict or selected individuals become more complex, with one injudicious tweet or item of gossip reaching a far wider audience than would have been the case if the conflict visibility was lower.
3. Bigger constituencies
Modern complex conflicts have changed in many respects, especially at the level of these global, high-visibility examples thereof. As several recent examples in Asia and Africa illustrate so clearly, these conflicts now involve several parties, proxy wars, indirect interests (political and commercial), non-state actors, criminal gangs and even large transnational or monolithic groups of tech giants, interest groups, lobbyists and combinations thereof. Increased conflict visibility inevitably highlights and heightens completely irreconcilable interests and differences between these entities, which then has tremendously deleterious consequences for the complexities and conflict outcomes on the table.
4. Face saving concerns
A much-undervalued conflict dynamic, especially in these global conflicts, is the question of face-saving, especially in so-called honour-based societies or groups. Cases studies, research and experience show that individuals or groups need to believe that the resolution of a conflict does not insult or humiliate them or their organizations, and that some basic level of procedural fairness was followed. This importantly is a factor to understand and manage in addition to the rational arguments for or against a resolution proposition. Any failure, in reality or perception, in these face-saving instances leads to scenarios where such parties would rather continue the conflict, or engage in further harmful conduct: anything other than the loss of face. With increased media attention, these factors of course bring additional complexities and nuances to the resolution puzzle. It is one thing to accept a bad outcome for you and your group in private, and a completely different proposition when this happens on international television. Does massive conflict visibility make it easier, or more difficult, for a leader like Putin or Netanyahu to accede to a conflict resolution proposal? Face saving then becomes a crucial modern conflict dynamic, whether that is with a view to a community’s acceptance of a leader’s decision or the influence that plays in a national election campaign. Simply put, conflict visibility can increase the emotional, reputational and community cost of a peaceful resolution, and must be managed with surgical precision and timing.
5. Cyclical conflicts, rigidity and distrust
Increased conflict visibility means that thousands or millions more people are at least emotionally engaged in that particular conflict, and in the process their opinions of the conflict, its causes, the conduct of participants and acceptable outcomes are all shaped on a daily basis. In turn, those opinions create or limit some of the conflict outcomes. Every time that a real or perceived atrocity plays out across a million screens, or where an attempt at resolution gets rejected or it fails, opinions are hardened, becoming entrenched views that become progressively more difficult to alter. Cycles of violence, retribution, blaming, dehumanization and vilification lead to increased distrust, an eventual rigidity towards accepting alternatives or resolution attempts, creating a near-perfect self-feeding loop of further conflict. In this often imperceptible way complex conflicts become intractable and complex beyond its initial parameters.
6. Increased polarization
All of this leads, rather naturally, to the harmful effects and results that we see when we study identity conflicts in depth. The in-group / out-group dynamic takes a hold of the conflict, creating secondary conflicts and obstacles to resolution. Rationality becomes an immediate casualty, and the rewards and penalties of in-group/out-group conflict dynamics become a force to be managed very skilfully, which as we can see from several global conflicts, is not often achieved. This powerful force also now makes the in-group so much easier to manipulate and steer into a perpetuation of the conflict, into further harmful decisions and conduct. By design or by the nature of the medium, increased conflict visibility polarizes individuals and groups, more often than not to the detriment of possible conflict outcomes.
Decades of peacekeeping efforts have shown how fragile a process post-conflict agreements and even ceasefires can be. That experience has shown how it is often best, and necessary, to ignore relatively small acts of incidental hostility or even purposeful attempts at spoiling such processes, in the interests of the larger goals of such attempts at establishing peace in a region. This is difficult enough when such breaches play out on a relatively small canvas, and it becomes a very difficult conflict component when it is published across millions of screens, with all the interlinked triggering then of perceptions, pressure on decision-makers, face saving and so on.
In our discussion then, we have noticed three points that should be emphasized:
1. The inconsistent levels of media coverage, and resultant levels of disparate conflict visibility, have a myriad of causes, many of them simple, natural consequences of operational or geographical considerations, questions of national policy and even market forces. At this level it is unfounded to blame the mainstream media for such disparities without a more complex and nuanced understanding of how, and why, such decisions are arrived at.
2. In isolated instances manipulation and opinion-forming of course occurs. Again, this is driven by existing political forces, interests and realties. Again, much of the criticism of mainstream media is unfounded, especially when we notice that it is often driven by what people react to. If consumers of such news were really interested, and reacted to, such a fair and equitable distribution of media attention, the media would have responded accordingly. It is also noticeable that even on social media platforms, arguably driven by public sentiments and concerns to a much larger degree than mainstream media, we still see the same patterns of conflict visibility disparities.
3. We have also considered a few examples of conflict dynamics that show that increased conflict visibility adds complex challenges to an existing conflict, While such conflict visibility may bring with it a better understanding of the plight of a nation or group, while it may engage and mobilize public opinion, and while it may bring in necessary funding and support, it also adds conflict dynamics that may outweigh such benefits in the long run.
If we are going to have these global conflicts then it is necessary that the public has access to a certain level of information about such conflicts, and that such information, again at least at some basic level, be trusted as inherently accurate. There is no way back to the earlier levels of information blackouts that characterized these conflicts, and this is generally to be welcomed. As we have seen, conflict visibility is a double-edged blade, and the manufacturing and manipulation of public interest and engagement around such conflicts often lose sight, and control, of these dynamics. Our screens show us daily how poorly trained and ill-prepared many of the participating leaders in these conflicts are to understand and manage these conflict dynamics. Those who are skilled in these modern conflict dynamics often abuse that knowledge in manipulating the forces at their disposal, creating cyclical wars, intractable and seemingly unresolvable conflicts that harms millions and destroy any realistic hopes of peace and prosperity.
Conflict visibility is therefor only an asset in the hands of an involved party if they have a modern, extensive knowledge of these conflict dynamics, and if they can apply such knowledge in the interest of their side, or as one would hope, the conflict in general. As observers, we should acknowledge the part we play, and can play, in such conflicts.
Summary of main sources, references and suggested reading
1. Intractable Conflicts, by Daniel Bar-Tal, Cambridge University Press (2013)
2. Dangerous Magic: essays on conflict resolution in South Africa, by Andre Vlok, Paradigm Media (2022)
3. Rethinking Peace Mediation, edited by Catherine Turner and Martin Wahlisch, Bristol University Press (2021)
4. International conflict and conflict management¸ edited by Andrew P. Owsiak, J. Michael Greig and Paul F. Diehl, Routledge (2023)
5. For ease of reference, the Wikipedia page of current global armed conflicts at List of ongoing armed conflicts - Wikipedia
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on email@example.com for any further information)
Andre Vlok (c)