Esalen’s Center for Theory & Research and TRACK TWO: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy have been collaborating for the past six years on the Abrahamic Family Reunion Project, now called the International Abrahamic Network (IAN). In March 2011, during the Arab Spring, we held a conference titled, “The International Abrahamic Network: An Exploration of Social Media.” We gathered filmmakers, Middle East scholars, diplomats, social activists, religious leaders, and educators, as well as early developers of the Internet, television producers, journalists, and international lawyers steeped in the issues of the Middle East.
The conference was a success and led to a second IAN Social Media Conference in March 2012 that was held in conjunction with the annual Abrahamic Family Reunion Conference (AFR). As a way of framing the work of the IAN social media group, Joe Montville, director of Toward the Abrahamic Family Reunion, offered two themes for the AFR discussions: 1) What are the means by which social media—in the broadest sense—can help heal historical wounds? 2) How can citizen diplomats use social media to teach, organize, and prevent problems before they occur? In 2013 TRACK TWO and Esalen organized a third such conference.
We have organized these meetings because social media are newly powerful tools with increasing influence worldwide that frequently bring diverse peoples into contact for the first time, in unexpected ways. We discovered the power of media for transcending political barriers in the early 1980s with satellite television Spacebridges that we helped organize between American and Soviet citizens. But there was no Internet then, no email, no cell phones, no Facebook, no Twitter—all of which are accessible now around the world. Participants in our three conferences have worked in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Iran, and other countries where social media have quickened communication between friendly and warring peoples, between different nationalities, between different tribes.
These new instruments of communication are bringing differing perspectives on various issues more quickly to view. They are speeding the formation of new political movements. They are forcing the recognition of historic wounds and resentments. They are feeding new conspiracies, for both war and peace. And they are showing us new ways to promote contact, understanding, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Social media, in short, are quickening the fundamental processes involved in citizen diplomacy. To understand how they work is crucial to our efforts going forward, in our efforts to facilitate healing and peace among peoples of the Middle East and among Muslims, Christians, and Jews around the world.
Back in the 1980s, when the Soviet and American superpowers were in a standoff and we all feared the consequences of nuclear war, a series of two-way satellite links between California and Moscow brought citizens of the two countries “face to face” to talk about their concerns and find common ground. These Spacebridges were indeed precursors to glasnost (openness). Starting out with citizens talking about their common interest in rock music, the programs evolved into dialogues among scientists, journalists, artists, astronauts, and cosmonauts that took on serious issues like nuclear winter and the Chernobyl disaster. By the end of the 1980s, elected policymakers were able to meet virtually in the “Capital to Capital” series that connected the U.S. Congress and U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet – seven programs shown live on ABC News and across the entire U.S.S.R. (Many of the U.S.-Soviet spacebridges can be watched online at http://www.youtube.com/user/Spacebridges.)
Very important was the role of the facilitator, the host of the programs. Many of the early Spacebridges were hosted by Vladimir Pozner, a radio journalist who had grown up in the U.S. and had a sense of how to relate to Americans. Pozner was teamed with Phil Donahue for a series of Citizen Summits that popularized the Spacebridge format. Pozner and Donahue went on to create a television series on U.S. Cable, and their friendship continues today.
Today a two-way dialogue can be created simply with a webcam using Skype, GoogleChat, or via FaceTime on an Apple computer, iPhone, or iPad. While Spacebridges used to be limited to participation by the very few, now nearly every place on the planet can be connected. In Africa, people in villages without running water and electricity have mobile devices to communicate. Farmers use their cell phones to check the prices of crops at the market. More people transfer money by phone than use banks.
While there are millions of virtual conversations going on each day, the impact on policy is limited by our attention spans and the online clutter. With hundreds of TV channels and millions of YouTube videos uploaded each week, there are just too many programs for any one show to have an impact on the public debate and lead to changes in policy. But media-savvy organizations are learning how to spread the word. YaLa Young Leaders, for example, is a network co-directed by Israelis and Palestinians that connects more than 500,000 young people in the Middle East and North Africa on FaceBook to vigorously promote the two state solution. They are aiming for one million participants in 2014. YaLa is partnering with Joe Montville on a project called Toward the Peace of Jerusalem.
Despite the rise of social media, traditional media still has a role to play. While the Arab Spring was triggered by the self-immolation of a food vendor in Tunisia, images on the Internet were spread by a pre-existing network of activists in North Africa using FaceBook. Their actions were then amplified by widespread coverage on Al Jazeera’s Arabic TV news channel, which was subsequently picked up by other channels around the world, and soon led to dramatic changes in Egypt, Libya, and Syria that are still in flux.