Today, social cohesion is eroding in countries around the world in the face of pernicious challenges and threats through the dynamics of mis- and disinformation. The Shared Realities Project is an initiative of the Reos Institute designed to engage participants in exploring the harmful feedback loop between social cohesion and mis- and disinformation playing out in their contexts (both on-line and off).
In 2023, the first iteration of Shared Realities was carried out in Tunisia, Lebanon, and Jordan, through a Learning Project. We spoke to participants from each of these very different contexts to learn more about what this process was like for them, what insights emerged, and what they’d like to see happen next:
Hayfa is a young innovator, activist, and entrepreneur from Tunisia whose work had focused on meaningful youth engagement, digital literacy, social entrepreneurship, organizational and systemic change. Through previous work with UNDP and others, she’s had some experience with systems thinking, so the chance to apply this approach to social cohesion and misinformation as a topic she is already interested in, was particularly attractive to her. “It’s not a given to [be able] to see patterns, and to push yourself to do it. So this has just been an exceptional opportunity for me.”
For Hayfa, the chance to do this with people from different backgrounds and build a “collective intelligence” in a deeply polarized Tunisia was a rare and welcome experience. “It really hit me how diverse the group was, and for me, that made the conversation as rich as it was. We all came from these different paths of life, but this is a historical moment where we could all come together.” She explained that, “We Tunisians have a tendency to disagree a lot,” so it was very unexpected to see that although the people in her group were very different from each other, and had many different points of view, they shared similar insights about the dynamics they are experiencing in Tunisia. “For me, that signals a collective tipping point”, in the sense that, underneath the polarization, perhaps people are coming to a shared realization about the situation in Tunisia.
From Hayfa’s perspective, it is useful to “take a step back from this intense moment in Tunisia” where the situation “is moving very fast”, to consider possible futures for social cohesion, and think about potential leverage points. “In intense situations in crises, there is this need to pause, reflect, move and adjust directions. For me, at least, these conversations allowed me to see how I am operating within that system and how I can adjust direction if needed” to help bring a more positive future about.
One of the key insights to emerge from the process for Hayfa involved recognising the role of post-colonial dynamics in shaping current experiences including in relation to social cohesion. She’s particularly interested in how the iceberg model for systems mapping used in the process can help bring deep, sometimes hidden structures, mind sets, and historical trauma into view. “That’s where things really come out, and one thing that really hit me was how we landed on post-colonial dynamics there. To see it really at play on the most subconscious level to shape your future honestly is just terrifying. (...) But unless you take a step back and see how you're being externally and internally affected by dynamics that you didn't necessarily shape, then the same pattern can keep on repeating itself for you and generations to come.”
“In intense situations in crises, there is this need to pause, reflect, move and adjust directions. For me, at least, these conversations allowed me to see how I am operating within that system and how I can adjust direction if needed”
Hayfa points to the current “crazy intense reaction” in Tunisia to Sub-Saharan migration as an example. “For me, that’s postcolonial trauma at play. That’s, ‘Now there are new people coming to get my land, again, and I’m not going to let that happen’.” These fears (about threats to Tunisian identity and resources) combine, she says, with racist power dynamics inherited from France, and play a key role in animating the loop. “ A lot of Tunisians who are adverse [to Sub-Saharan migration] are scared to death because they believe there is a criminal conspiracy among Sub-Saharans to steal and ‘africanize’ our land because we are not African enough. This is the average narrative. This is what you hear from the taxi driver, from the banker. This is what you hear on Facebook, and on TikTok. This misinformation found its way all the way to the presidency a few months ago,” and has translated into a surge of violence against Sub-Saharans in Tunisia from security forces as well as citizens. “It's always easier to create an enemy, it's always easier to have a villain and call that the problem.”
Though the initial phase of the Shared Realities process helped bring this loop and leverage points into view for Hayfa and her co-participants, she’s clear about the need to take action more broadly. “My big question now is how far are we going to go [with what we have learned]? How can we make this information more accessible? What actions could emerge from the insights we came up with? Because the ‘make or break’ of all this is whether we can translate these insights and leverage points so that the taxi driver, and banker, and people in the street understand how they are part of this system.”
Habib is a young journalist and digital media and communications professional working to promote media literacy and information accountability and development in Lebanon. In both his academic and professional work, he has focused on how mis- and disinformation flows across the media landscape in Lebanon.
Habib says he joined the Shared Realities Learning Project because he found the topic itself, “specifically this amazing combination of social cohesion and mis- and disinformation” intriguing from both a professional and personal perspective. “Here in Lebanon, social cohesion and misinformation, and disinformation create a kind of ‘loop crisis’ - it’s just expanding every single day. So I was interested in taking part in this program to have a look at the crisis that we're currently experiencing from a different perspective. From maybe a more systematic perspective, and also maybe from a practical one. For journalists, it's always important to expand our knowledge when it comes specifically to misinformation. And the idea of having the opportunity to talk about social cohesion from a media perspective was very interesting and beneficial at the same time,” as was “this idea of [exploring] what we can do to create positive change” when it comes to social cohesion.
For Habib, one of the key benefits of participating in Shared Realities was the chance to work with such a diversity of participants, both within Lebanon, and with participants from Tunisia and Jordan. “Having multiple participants [in Lebanon] talking from their own expertise was very interesting because every single organization’s focus feeds into social cohesion from a different angle. And it's important to understand that social cohesion is something that's linked and connected - it's not a factor that you can work on from only one point.” Similarly, the chance to connect with participants in other countries and compare experiences was “valuable since some examples from other countries might help in our country, and vice versa.”
A key insight that emerged for Habib through the interactions with other participants was the value of looking at mis- and disinformation and other social dynamics in Lebanon through the lens of social cohesion.
“For me at least, [this was] one of the most important insights that I took, and that I heard from other participants as well.” He says that in trying to affect change, it’s important to understand “how social cohesion has an effect on multiple levels. It's the same when we talk about climate change in Lebanon. No one is talking about climate change here, but it has an impact on everyone's lives. Social cohesion is the same. We might talk about social crisis, but we never dig deeper into the social cohesion in relation to diversity in sectarianism, gender and political ideology in Lebanon.”
More specifically, for Habib the relationship between social cohesion and mis- and disinformation itself was a key insight from the process. “In the projects or work or reports that we do as journalists, at least here in Lebanon, social cohesion doesn't come as a priority to discuss. It's as if it's left behind,” especially with regards to “the combination of misinformation and social cohesion. Before the program, as a journalist I didn’t have a profound idea about the reciprocal relationship that those two concepts have with each other.” But, he says, looking at this “helps us think critically about the virality of misinformation, disinformation that's circulating within the public, that's circulating within a political discourse, and how that impacts our social structure.”
This relates to another, “a very interesting insight that should be taken from all the discussions was that every country somehow framed social cohesion based on the communities and actual context of their country.” In other words, the issues of concern for social cohesion, and the mis and disinformation at play, are rooted in local contexts. For example, “Lebanon’s political ,sectarian and ideological spectrum intertwines with the structure and status of social cohesion. Right now, social cohesion is a fragile pillar in Lebanon. In such a context, mis and disinformation have a particularly harmful effect on the information ecosystems and discourses, as it creates a tension between our concepts of freedom of expression, and the threats posed by mis and disinformation.”
Habib also notes the utility of the system mapping conducted as part of the process. Specifically, in his role as a journalist and a researcher, he finds applying the iceberg system mapping approach to the feedback loop “helps to more systematically put some ground to the discourses or events that are happening and to be able to analyze them.”
Habib points out that addressing social cohesion is not something that can be accomplished in a matter of months. Events happen, conditions change, and learning evolves, and this might change our understanding of the loop in different contexts, both in terms of its drivers, and leverage points. He hopes to see new initiatives emerge to enable knowledge sharing across participants to help inform their work and support them in helping to improve social cohesion, and he leaves the process with new questions about and ideas for how journalists might play a positive role in this effort.
Saddam Sayyaleh is a professional with twelve years of experience in impact and Local Community Development. Driven by a passion for Social innovation, access to education and upskilling of the most vulnerable.
He says that when he first heard about the Shared Realities Learning Program, he did not want to join. “I'm involved in many fellowships and programs and, and I get a lot of requests to join workshops. Initially, I actually made the decision not to participate because recently I find that many initiatives serve organization-level agendas, but they don't really do things on a public level that would address why we need such a workshop in the first place. And, often it's the same people, having the same conversation, with no impact and no results. So I'm quite selective with my time. I really consider how, who, and where I get engaged and whether the potential for impact is there or not.”
Despite his initial hesitation, Saddam was intrigued by Shared Realities’ approach of envisioning possible futures for social cohesion. “ I really like the idea of, how do you envision the path versus the future?” He feels that “we're becoming very mechanical, very results oriented” in how we approach work in the area of development “without thinking of the human element” of “aspiration”. He sees this as a missed opportunity. “How do we serve the aspirations of the people who are trying to make a difference? I feel we need more projects that listen to the human element and represent it in a better way, than looking at the mechanics” by asking questions like “How do we solve future issues, for example? Because without human resilience, without human voices, without hope, courage, the activists, the reformers, how do we reach a better future? So that's what I liked about this project. It's really looking at that element.”
Saddam says that Shared Realities’ approach of exploring the possibility of what Jordan could look like in the future is especially interesting. "It's like an experimental case study on how we see Jordan in 20 years, for example.” In particular, he found the discussions exploring both positive and negative possible futures “really meaningful.” For him, this was because “as humans, we tend to be very good at looking at the negative side of things, which we can really dig deep into, versus looking at how we can address that negativity, how we can solve that challenge. So being put in a place where you need to look positively at things was quite challenging. It's like a simulation in your mind of the frightening future, and then the brighter future, and this juxtaposition is amazing. It really makes you think about how we as individuals contribute to either futures, right? And, and, and for me, that's the human element I was mentioning earlier. We need that. There is no utopia in the world, but, but this helps you think about who is doing what to what end, you know?”
Sadam says that understanding the relationship between social cohesion and mis and disinformation in Jordan is complex, and something he is still grappling with, especially in terms of the role of social media. But when it comes to getting a deeper view of this, and the different possible futures his group developed, two insights stand out for him. First is the importance of “going beyond the usual suspects,” to ensure that a variety of voices and perspectives are heard, but ensuring that those voices, even in their disagreement, all have the greater good in view for Jordan.
A second insight Saddam highlights when thinking about the loop is the importance of paying attention not only to what unites countries in the region, but also what makes them different. “The layer that unites us is the Arab nationalism, but if you dig deeper as cultural, political, economic systems, we're very different. And that is an important thing to take into consideration” when thinking about how the feedback loop plays out, and can be addressed, in these very different contexts. “It’s crucial to understand that the MENA region is not one piece (...) What works in Lebanon does not mean it works in Jordan.”
Saddam says he would like to see Shared Realities taking place on the ground in Jordan, bringing a wider range of participants together, such as national experts, refugees, and every-day people, “because they have a say in this.” Such conversations, he says, are “the fight for the future”. He thinks about the importance of the “human element” in grappling with the feedback loop, envisioning “a human who is conscious, who is aware, who has critical thinking skills to help differentiate between disinformation and real information and, and who is equipped with tools that can lead to a better future”, better than the restriction of information can.
Help Shift the Loop
Social cohesion is fundamental to the functioning of healthy societies. It refers to the relationships of trust and connectedness that enable a sense of common good across different communities. It underpins the social contract between citizens and government, and helps societies to deal with difference, conflict, and a range of threats in non-violent and non-coercive ways.
The Shared Realities Project engages participants in developing new awareness and enhanced understanding of the harmful feedback loop between social cohesion and mis- and disinformation playing out in their contexts (both on-line and off). Through a process of collaborative systems analysis, it aims to both bring this complex challenge more fully into view, and to catalyze tangible action that can help shift from harmful to healthier dynamics.
During this process, participants explore how global drivers may be playing out in local contexts, identify fresh opportunities and influential entry points for shifting the harmful feedback loops between social cohesion and mis- and disinformation in these different contexts, and share learning across contexts in a global collaboration to help shift the loop.
If you are interested in learning how you can be a part, get in touch!