Social Media as Political Warfare

The rise of social media has immeasurable power. Whereas in the past, people would get their recent news updates from television or the radio, now it is regular, lay people (often in 140 characters or less) spreading the news. While sharing opinion on social media outlets has the power to liberate and empower people, the messages spread can be harmful and downright abusive.
Social media has changed history. The creation of tactical narratives spread through social media channels is now at the core of modern strategic communication strategies in business, politics and even in warfare. Particularly in politics around the world, the ease of spreading messages from your finger trips has led to a phenomenon in political warfare that has shaped public’s opinions and influence election outcomes. Such digital manipulation has even gone so far as to make policy makers, military leaders and intelligence agencies struggle adapt to the changing climate.

One example of this is the election season of Iran. At the time, the majority of the posts were bashing the election and did not even come from the people of Iran themselves. In particular, it was the Western media outlets that were bursting with an outbreak in protesters using Twitter, blogs, and other social media outlets to spread propaganda, coordinate rallies, share information (that may or may not have been true), and locate supporters. Extensive media coverage highlighted the role of social networking, both in helping organize activities and in causing a rise in cyber activism surrounding the Iranian protests that resulted in an unpresented global debate. In just exploring the sheer volume of information published in real-time through social networks, one can see how this was just one of the most major world event that was broadcasted worldwide almost entirely via social media. While social media allowed an international community of protestors (and some supporters) an unprecedented peek into the turmoil afflicting Iran, politicians also were found to be using social media as a way to mobilize voters as the societal messages discussed on social media became campaign themes for presidential candidates. One of the largest issues, however, was the discussion of how politicians in Iran were using the social networks to advance their own political schemata, yet still opposed free access to the internet for all.

A secondary example of political warfare that steamed from social media is the over 8000 tweets on terrorist and racist comments that came within hours of Saudi Arabia’s announcement of a Saturday a new terrorist-monitoring center. The Ideological War Center, which launched operations in April of this year, stated that it would correct what it calls “misguidance” about Islam through its channels on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. Within hours of its announcement, the Ideological War Center attracted numerous people, including individuals who have been born, lived and grew up in non-Muslim countries. However, there was no time to distinguish false stories from real ones about what the Islamic faith really entails. Instead, each new post contributed to some element of racist thought, which seems counteractive to the Center’s aim of exposing mistakes, allegations, suspicions and deceptive techniques promoted by extremists and terrorists. As such an ideologist war of sorts has been created in which the aim of deterring terrorist and extremist organizations has been met with the continuous breeding of false, racist ideas that linger and thieve on social media platforms.

Lastly, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states that have severed ties with Qatar have declared severe penalties for those who support Qatar. The Attorney General has made it very clear that it is now punishable by law to show sympathy on social media or by any other means of communication for Qatar. The cybercrime law came into effect in December 2012 and covers a comprehensive scope of offences in categories including undermining state security, political stability, morality and proper conduct. The Federal Public Prosecution also announced that according to the Federal Penal Code and the Federal law decree on Combating Information Technology Crimes, anyone who threaten the interests, national unity and stability of the UAE will face a jail term from three to 15 years, and a fine not less than AED 500,000 ($136,000). “Strict and firm action will be taken against anyone who shows sympathy or any form of bias towards Qatar, or against anyone who objects to the position of the United Arab Emirates, whether it be through the means of social media, or any type of written, visual or verbal form,” United Arab Emirates Attorney General Hamad Saif al-Shamsi was quoted as saying in a statement.

From Facebook to Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, or Instagram social media users are besieged with political content, and participate in it readily, which has led to social media being seen as a type of political warfare. Unlike traditional media, social media has a heightened reach, frequency, permanence and immediacy. As such, social media has become a loud speaker of beliefs, a designer of meaning and a producer of conflicts.

There are three things that need to be done to help minimizing the negative effects of this for politicians, and for those concerned about upholding true information: the better filtering of chatbots that post negative, and disruptive; the better identification of fake news; and the better identification of mass manipulation. Current technological developments in artificial intelligence, such as Chatbots that serve as conversational entities relying on artificial intelligence to spread information or in most cases concerted and repeated skewed information, have become important factors in this war of words. Further, fake news is growing and causing a culture of digital anonymity that facilitates hate speech and misinformation to manipulate a mass amount of people. Fortunately, companies that use social media analytics tools, such as KI SOCIAL, are in a position whereby their teams have the technical and intellectual means to detect fake news and Chatbots and the knowledge to better identify mass manipulations (and how to respond).
The political landscape has changed quite a bit in the last couple of decades and social media, in part, is responsible for this change. While social media can be a source of good, it has also come at a price- as a commodity of political warfare.