Using Media to Promote Social Change In Conflict-Affected Countries: An Interview with Rezarta Bilali

Rezarta Bilali, assistant professor of psychology and social intervention, studies the social psychological underpinnings of intergroup conflict and violence in international settings.  Her research has been supported by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, the American Psychological Foundation, the International Peace Research Association, Psychology Beyond Borders, and the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. She is the recipient of 2014 Michele Alexander Early Career Award, APA Division 9, Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, as well as the 2016 Roberta Sigel Early Career Scholar Paper Award by the International Society for Political Psychology.  We spoke with her about how media can influence social change.

You were awarded Steinhardt’s Goddard Research Award for a paper titled, “Modeling collective action through media to promote social change and positive intergroup relations in violent conflicts.” Can you talk about the premise of your work which aims to impact peacebuilding in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the most violent regions in the world?

Rezarta Bilali (third from left) works with writers in Rwanda to design a soap opera story line.

I am interested in the impact, processes, and influence of media. In collaboration with Johanna Vollhardt of Clark University, I conducted several field studies to assess the impact of soap opera interventions on targeted populations in Rwanda, Burundi, and the Eastern DRC. In our most recent study in the Eastern DRC, we sought to assess whether modeling collective action to achieve positive social change in a fictional story (such as a soap opera) would influence a listeners’ propensity to engage in collection action in their own community. While the research literature suggests that modeling behaviors in media can influence the behaviors of the audience members, we actually know little about whether modeling of collective action would be effective in a challenging conflict setting, such as in the DRC where there are a variety of barriers to engaging in such actions.

As a researcher, do you feel hopeful about the work you have undertaken?  How will you build on your findings?

In a radio station in Bukavu (Eastern DRC), a soap opera is in production.

My research in this area has revealed that soap operas have a positive impact of reconciliation and violence prevention  in some contexts, such as in Rwanda and Burundi. However, we have observed a lesser impact and some mixed findings in the context of Eastern DRC. So, I am cautiously hopeful. I do feel hopeful that we are accruing evidence about the power of educational media to influence populations in positive ways, including around very difficult and sensitive topics such as mass violence and reconciliation.

However, we are also learning that the impact of these interventions — as is the case with most interventions — varies depending on the features of the context and the ways listeners engage with the programs.

In Rwanda, a community comes together to listen to the radio show.

Our challenge is to gain a nuanced understanding when addressing violence and reconciliation so that we can help practitioners maximize the potential for influencing positive social change, and minimize unintended consequences.

Inside a booth, a radio drama is being enacted.

Do you see a relationship between what you have learned in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and the United States at this time?  Are we all a bit vulnerable to the power of the media?

Yes, of course we are all vulnerable to the power of media, no matter where we live. There are many similarities of media effects across contexts. For instance, in most contexts of conflict, media is actually known to exacerbate conflict. However, I am interested in how we can use media as a tool of empowerment rather than to disempower people and communities. That is, how can we use media to raise awareness and equip audiences with the tools to resist manipulation and engage in actions that benefit their communities.

Rezarta Bilali

Indeed, media has a great capacity to influence social change in more positive ways. For instance, in 1989, people across Eastern Europe watched East Germans bring down the Berlin Wall on TV. Very quickly mass action spread across Eastern Europe, resulting in the fall of the region’s communist regimes. In 2010, protests in Tunisia that were globally disseminated through social media sparked demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa, commencing the so-called Arab Spring. In both cases, watching others in similar circumstances engage in collective action seems to have encouraged people to organize and use similar actions and tactics in their own communities. My work in the DRC was inspired by these, and many other examples in regions of the world.

I have aimed to understand whether modeling of collective action for positive social change would be effective in contexts where there are many psychological and practical obstacles to such actions.  In this way, my work draws from and has implications beyond the specific contexts in which I have conducted my studies.