Diverging Trajectories: Social Media and #InternationalLaw

This week, Opinio Juris has organized a symposium on social media and international law in the wake of KONY2012. There are already a number of thought-provoking posts up, including this prescient piece by Charli Carpenter (see here too). The following is my contribution to the discussion. Enjoy!

(Cartoon: Firas Al-Atraqchi)

It is widely accepted wisdom that social media is radically transforming how we understand the world and share information. In this context, the emergence of Twitter, Facebook, blogging, etc. challenge the very practice and scholarship of International Law (IL) and International Relations (IR). Yet, IL and IR appear to be moving on a fundamentally divergent trajectory from social media. By bridging these diverging trajectories, however, IR and IL can retain salience in an increasingly interconnected world.

Reducing complexity is central to social media. The viral campaign by Invisible Children, KONY2012, serves as an obvious example. The campaign efficiently, if brutally, simplified the situation in northern Uganda and areas of Central and Eastern Africa afflicted by Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. While widely discredited after a spectacular series of blunders, Invisible Children’s message is simple, fitting within the 140 character limit of a Twitter post. Its Twitter ‘hashtags’ were short and effective, especially “#stopKony”. There wasn’t much more to the campaign – and surely that’s the way Invisible Children wanted it to be.

On the other hand, IL and IR scholarship and practice seek out complexity. More and more academic journals proliferate with increasingly specific subject-areas. The result is the creation of ‘knowledge ghettos’ where complexity is deified and often conflated with accuracy. Consider the recent verdict in the case of former Democratic Republic of Congo rebel, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, the first-ever verdict by the International Criminal Court. Controversially, Lubanga was charged and convicted to what amounts to a single charge: the use of child soldiers in an armed conflict. Yet, the Lubanga judgement is 624 pages long! Of course, legal judgements have always tended to be lengthy, the ICC judges were tasked with adjudicating on a number of critical and difficult issues, and the verdict may signify more of an exception rather than a trend. But still, 624 pages? As Dov Jacobs pointedly wrote, “international judges have to stop acting as if they are giving a lecture.”

facebook Arab Spring

Social media played a key role in the 'Arab Spring'. The word on the left panel is "al Jazeera" (Photo: Andrew Couts)

Yet the primary effect of social media in the fields of IL and IR is not merely the simplification of complex legal and political issues. Social media is, at its core, about shifts in language, demanding that complexity be communicated in increasingly coherent and concise language while eschewing rigid jargon. Simplification is thus a by-product of social media rather than its purpose.

By challenging the complexity of language, rhetoric and jargon, social media has created new pressures on IR and IL scholarship to find ways to communicate issues in increasingly tight packages. The bad news is that academia has been rather conservative and recalcitrant when it comes to engaging in social media. One of the untold lessons of the KONY2012 campaign was that, while there were dozens of scholarly accounts, the situation in northern Uganda and LRA-affected areas has been poorly communicated to broad audiences by those researchers in the best position to do so. This allowed Invisible Children’s starkly over-simplified story to capture the imagination of millions without any obvious forum for people to turn for a more informed analysis.

The good news is that it has been shown that IL and IR academics can have an immense influence on contemporary debates when they engage in social media. Opinio Juris is a leader when it comes to engagement with issues pertaining to international law. This site’s roundtable on the Lubanga verdict provided an invaluable middle-ground between he Court’s treatment of the case as a long and arduous tome and Twitter’s treatment as “Lubanga found guilty! #DRC”. Others, like Anne Marie Slaughter and Roland Paris on twitter, and William Schabas and the scholars at The Duck of Minerva on their respective blogs, have had a tremendous impact on some of the most pressing recent debates in IR and IL. And they participate, not from any secular pulpit, but by engaging with others who challenge them and their views in free forums and real time.

Twitter Revolution

(Cartoon: Mike Luckovich)

Others have put social media central to their research outputs. Forward-thinking academic projects now often have a web-presence and blog, explaining their research to a broader audience. Data sets which inform cutting-edge academic work are increasingly published and shared online, as Louise Mallinder’s indispensable ‘Amnesty Law Database‘ demonstrates.

In reaction to increased specialization within the fields of IR and IL it has become popular to talk about inter-, multi- or cross-disciplinary engagement. Creating and expanding communication lines between IR and IL is undoubtedly a critical task. But, while necessary, it isn’t sufficient. Social media has created a world where students can and want to learn just as much, if not more, about IR and IL from blogs and other social media platforms.

Of course, peer-reviewed academic papers and books will, and should, remain the lifeblood of IR and IL scholarship. However, those academics who have the broadest appeal, it seems, are those who engage in ‘multi-media scholarship’, sharing their academic papers through various social media, writing overviews of their work on blogs and creating free and accessible intellectual spaces by engaging in various social media forums.

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About Mark Kersten

Mark is a PhD student in International Relations at the London School of Economics. His work focuses on the nexus of international criminal justice and conflict resolution. Specifically, he is examining the effects of the ICC on peace processes and negotiations in northern Uganda and Libya.
This entry was posted in Activism, Advocacy, International Law, Social Media and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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