When 2013 began, there was still smoldering controversy over the Innocence of Muslims movie "trailer" that had gone viral, sparking riots across the Middle East that left 50 dead and reportedly fueling the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. A year prior, an attack on a United Nations compound in Afghanistan that left at least 12 dead was spurred by the pastor of a tiny church in Gainesville, Fla., who publicized his planned Quran burning online.
The Internet, it appeared, was proving its power to amplify a few lone, offending voices from one corner of the world enough to spark violence thousands of miles away. Then, halfway through 2013, after the Boston Marathon bombing, we witnessed another brand of online hysteria, as users flocked to Reddit and Twitter to try to identify the bombers, prompting an apology from Reddit for what it called "online witch hunts and dangerous speculation."
In its 2013 Global Risks report, the World Economic Forum described these sorts of threats as "digital wildfires." "The Internet remains an uncharted, fast-evolving territory," with the power to "enable the rapid viral spread of information that is either intentionally or unintentionally misleading or provocative, with serious consequences. The chances of this happening are exponentially greater today," it said.
But as much as such incidents have evinced the violent power of the viral, last year also saw the emergence of a potential antidote: the exponential growth of "virtual exchanges" -- sustained, people-to-people educational programs that are carefully facilitated by trained staff and enabled by the explosion of connectivity. A concept invented 30 years ago, virtual exchanges offer the promise of a scalable, cost-effective way of allowing people to connect with each other across geographic and cultural boundaries. They've only just begun to take off in a real way -- but new research out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has shown that their impact could be massive.
As the reality of international conflict demands that we think anew about whose hearts and minds we need to reach most -- and how we can do it -- virtual exchanges have shown the promise of succeeding where conventional programs can't reach. Traditional exchanges like study abroad offer sparse access to countries struggling with violent extremism, where bulging youth populations are especially vulnerable. The most popular destination for U.S. students studying abroad is Europe -- about 53 percent right now, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). Except for Israel, not one nation in the Middle East or North Africa -- where the need for deeper understanding is great -- makes the Top 25 list of host countries. In fact, the number of students heading for the Middle East or North Africa actually dropped 3.6 percent between the 2010/2011 and 2011/2012 school years, according to IIE.
Volatility is surely a disincentive for some prospective students, but the other great barrier is cost: Study abroad has become incredibly expensive. The most modestly priced program costs about $4,000, and many run 10 times that amount, especially when the costs of travel and room and board are taken into account. No wonder, then, that only 1.4 percent of American college and university students will travel overseas on an exchange program.
Meanwhile, Internet access has grown by orders of magnitude across the Middle East and Africa. From 2000 to 2012, Internet penetration grew 3,600 percent in the Middle East and more than 2,400 percent in Africa. In Pakistan -- currently one of the most important counties to U.S. foreign policy -- Internet access doubled between 2009 and 2012, reaching 30 million people in a country of 180 million.
In short, we have significant new and less costly opportunities than study abroad to reach across cultural and religious divides -- opportunities that are evolving rapidly with the growth in new media technologies and platforms.
Smart young leaders in the virtual-exchange movement from organizations like Global Nomads Group (GNG), Soliya, and IEarn.org have formed a partnership called the Exchange 2.0 Coalition, which is trying to give more and more young people the opportunity to have a meaningful cross-cultural experience. The organizations in the coalition have different formats and different target audiences. Some, like Soliya, bring university students from the United States and Muslim countries into small, seminar-like discussions; others, like IEarn and GNG, are more classroom-to-classroom. But nearly all of them emphasize careful facilitation and sustained contact between participants over time. They also rely on live interactive videoconferencing using low-cost, readily available technology, supplemented by some customization for their particular organization's needs. And often, they will also use social networking, gaming, and new media tools like sharing personal videos to create additional opportunities for communication and collaboration.
What the Exchange 2.0 Coalition also represents is a strong emphasis on solid research that includes a way to test whether programs like this might help mitigate conflict. The coalition has partnered with MIT's Saxe Lab for Social Cognitive Neuroscience to develop tools to assess the impact of virtual exchange programs, recognizing that there are many skeptics asking how a long distance computer-based interaction can truly affect attitudes.
That partnership is bearing fruit. Early in 2014, a first-of-its kind study will be released that looks at the reaction of university students to the Boston Marathon bombing. As noted earlier, one of the lessons that resounded after the attack was that Americans could be just as prone to an Internet-inspired lynch mob mentality as anyone else. But what the MIT study shows is that those American undergraduates who participated in a Soliya-run virtual exchange program with students from universities in Muslim countries reacted in profoundly encouraging ways compared with others who were not in the program. A preliminary statement describing the findings claimed:
"Results were very promising showing that participation in virtual exchange programs, such as the (Soliya) Connect Program, enabled American students not to generalize the negative actions of two Muslim individuals (the Tsarnaev brothers) on Muslims as a whole. They showed either similar attitudes towards this group as before participation (in the Connect program), or improved perceptions after their participation, compared to the control group students whose attitudes towards Muslims overall deteriorated, and the results were statistically significant."
Does this mean online dialogues alone can prevent future tragedies like the Boston bombing and the digital mob that arose in its wake, or the violent reaction to the Innocence of Muslims? Of course not. But these are unprecedented times of technological innovation and skyrocketing media consumption, where young people between 8 and 18 years old in America spend almost eight hours a day with electronic media (and by multi-tasking, manage to consume almost 11 hours of content in that time); international youth are not far behind. These virtual exchanges may represent an effective and even measurable strategy for cultivating a culture of mutual understanding and non-violent conflict resolution among these future generations.
The really big news is that governments are recognizing this enormous potential and beginning to step up their commitments to virtual exchanges. In May, at the Foreign Service Institute, Secretary of State John Kerry unveiled the Obama administration's plan to develop -- in close cooperation with the family of deceased U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens -- a major new public-private virtual exchange initiative. "We believe," Kerry announced, "this can lead to the largest-ever increase in people-to-people exchanges between the United States and the Middle East and North Africa. We believe it will dramatically increase the number and diversity of young people who have a meaningful cross-cultural experience -- the same experiences Chris knew were so important."
The surging growth of the online world has shown that it can quickly transmit volatility and disruption, sparking offline violence. What the success of these virtual exchanges proves is that there is a reciprocal potential for peacebuilding that might be just as powerful.