Social media could increase demand for peace

Published 10:01 am Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Kathleen Parker, A Little Sanity

As Israeli and Palestinian leaders reopen peace negotiations, a phrase that computers worldwide autocomplete from habit of repetition, Planet Earth rolls her eyes.

Been there, done that, gave away the T-shirt decades ago.

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Can anyone really hope that this time — This Time! — things will be different?

Kathleen Parker

But. There may be hope yet, if not this moment, then in the near future, thanks to other factors possibly not considered. For purposes of illustration, two scenarios:

At the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sits between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. There is much gray hair among them.

Not far away at a sidewalk cafe near George Washington University, four college students converse amicably. One is Israeli, one Palestinian, another Syrian, the fourth African-American. (One of my young tablemates knows and identifies them.) Their iPhones join flatware among platters of couscous and falafel. They are speaking English, laughing, trading news and barbs.

The scene just described is not rare in the nation’s capital or in many other cities where colleges and universities attract diverse populations. I’ve personally witnessed variations of the same vignette dozens of times. Different faces, ethnicities and nationalities, but the same dynamic and, for members of an older generation, the same revelation.

The ancient rivalries and the heavy burden of history are being lifted among a rising generation of world citizens even as the taupe generation rehashes the same — may I just say — absurd arguments over who gets to claim which square inch of the sandbox.

That is so last millennium.

Enter the Facebook generation, for whom el mundo es un panuelo, as perhaps 500 million people might put it. Translation: It’s a small world. When one can communicate with another with a keystroke or a click, the world is a computer bit.

As I watched these four interact, it occurred to me that in Facebook world, where friends connect, and friends of friends “friend” each other, and networks of associations expand like a circulatory system to all reaches permitted by technology (and governments), it is increasingly unlikely that the warring factions can sustain themselves for much longer.

Friends don’t kill friends — most of the time.

We seem to understand the opportunities social networking provides for commercial and political purposes. Barack Obama is president in no small part because of the grass-roots facility of social media. That same power can be harnessed for peace. In fact, it is happening under our noses.

But why not be strategic about something so easily channeled for good?

Bibi, Abbas and Obama may be rich in vowels, but the words are all the same. In a virtual universe, where Google can translate almost any language instantaneously, younger people of all nationalities are creating and communicating through a common idiom.

Not to be a Pollyanna, but it is striking to realize that peace becomes plausible when barriers to communication are eliminated. More than 500 million people use Facebook alone. Of those, 70 percent are outside the United States. MySpace has 122 million monthly active users, and Twitter reports 145 million registered users.

Obviously, some countries don’t like these media for the very reasons we do. People talk. Facebook is blocked in Syria and China, and until recently was also blocked in Iran, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Where freedom flourishes, so do open channels of communication.

And vice versa.

We also know that where freedom and communication flourish, wars are less likely. This isn’t computer science but human nature. Hence, we gather around heavy tables to talk things out.

Meanwhile, evidence mounts that sentiments are shifting among younger people, whose worldviews are broader than previous generations’. Recent polling by Frank Luntz found that American Jewish college students are more willing than their elders to question the Israeli position. They resist groupthink and desperately want peace.

Might Palestinian youth feel similarly? Alas, no similar polls exist that I could find.

If I were dictator for a day, I would arrange for every young person to “friend” another in the enemy camp of their choice, creating virtual student-exchange programs in every neighborhood on the map. While the old folks bicker over their sandboxes, the children could begin building fortresses of friendship.

The hope for freedom and peace that resides in most human hearts may not be realized soon. But for the first time in history, it seems inevitable. Social media may not create peace, but surely it will increase demand for it.

The talking cure is at our fingertips.

Kathleen Parker writes for the Washington Post. Her e-mail address is