Up to 100,000 people are killed each year as a result of violent conflict. But this is only one part of the human cost. Impact on families and communities can be felt decades later. Millions of individual decisions underpin these tragic impacts: people decide either to stoke hatred or to confront it, to fight or to lay down weapons, and to forgive past conflicts or to repeat them.
Mass media and propaganda has often been used as a tool to generate hatred and perpetuate conflict. The purpose of this review was to understand whether it can also be a tool for maintaining and rebuilding peace. We reviewed the evidence of mass media’s impact on peacebuilding behaviours to identify if (and how) it works, and to suggest approaches for harnessing mass media in the future.
The three most important takeaways are:
- Mass media can drive sustained changes in behaviour. We found evidence of mass media affecting a wide range of conflict behaviours, from increased willingness to speak out against interpersonal violence, to encouraging militants to put down weapons, or increasing engagement in peaceful democratic processes. Some effects persisted months later, even for videos just a few minutes long.
- Changing audiences’ perceptions of their social environment drives changes in behaviour.
Mass media can change behaviour without affecting underlying attitudes. Instead, it often changes audiences’ perceptions of how other people would behave. Sometimes it does this directly, by using storylines of people acting positively or supporting those who do. Sometimes the media provokes discussions with friends and family, and in doing so reveals how they feel about a behaviour.
- Media can backfire, and we need to improve our understanding of what works. Not all media interventions achieve their desired effect. Many have no effect at all, and some make things worse. In order to start using mass media effectively for peacebuilding, we need to learn what works through robust evaluations of new and existing programmes. We suggest three approaches for better evaluations, and some suggestions for measuring complex behaviours.