29 October 2014

Social media: empowering the masses or government propaganda?

By Harry Becker-Hicks, Account Executive at Farrer Kane

Twitter, and social media more generally, has long been thought the great leveller between the large and the small; between governments and individuals; between multi-national corporations and local start-ups. One need only look at the Arab Spring of 2011 to appreciate its power; people throughout the Middle East and North Africa rose up and overthrew autocratic regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen.

Such radical change would not have been possible without the likes of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Social media empowered protestors to take action.

And yet Twitter is not just a tool for social good. Yes, we should celebrate the diffusion of the sources of information but with that comes risk. Social media has increasingly become a tool for governments and violent groups to spread propaganda and miss-information, exacerbating existing tension and escalating conflict. The question is, does this appropriation of social media by these groups devalue it as a form of grass roots protest?

The recent conflict in the Ukraine is a case in point. Both sides have learned to manipulate social media secretively. They create fake accounts, post comments on Twitter and Facebook and engage in discussion in online forums; all to give the appearance of grass root support.

Miss-information spread via social media has stoked up further tensions between communities. Half-truths, or just out and out lies, are spread globally. When violent clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Kiev groups in Odessa broke out on 2 May, for example, the internet was quickly rife with conflicting reports about what had happened.

A story appeared on Facebook about a well-intentioned young doctor who had tried to help the injured pro-Russians. He claimed he was turned away by "pro-Ukrainian Nazi radicals" and threatened for being Jewish. This story was shared 5,000 times in one day, instantly reaching a global audience.

It then came to light that the Facebook account was fake. The account had been created the day before the post, and the profile picture matched that of a dentist who lived in the North Caucuses - hundreds of miles away. Shortly after this had been revealed, the account was deleted. Although the truth eventually came out, the damage had already been done.

It is perhaps of no surprise then, that journalists at The Guardian have reported that their online comments section have been attacked by what they believe to be an orchestrated campaign of pro-Russian 'trolling' in order to create the allusion of pro-Russian support.

The purpose of this propaganda? Almost certainly to stir up supporters. However, one eye also rests on the West. These social media campaigns are designed to garner support globally, not just locally; at a Western audience who can influence policy makers.

Propaganda is not a new phenomenon and it is generally accepted to have emerged at some point during the 19th Century. What is new is the speed that information travels, the sheer amount of people it now reaches and the ease at which fake stories about well-meaning doctors can spread. Perhaps it was naïve to assume that social media would remain a tool of 'the people'. It was only a matter of time before it also became a tool of governments. Probably the most sinister aspect is that we, all of us, are now active participants. We are no longer passive subjects of state propaganda. We read and watch, then like, retweet, share and spread that information to all those around us.

Social media undoubtedly has its place in our society. We are probably more aware of the lives of our fellow human beings than at any other time in history, we are able to contribute to public discourse and share knowledge with a hashtag, and its importance to genuine grass-roots campaigns should not be underestimated.

However, we should be wary of social media too. We need to develop an understanding that sometimes people lie on the internet. And, as the above example shows, people are able to see through the spin being sold to them. And that's important, we have a responsibility to be authentic in our communications. We have to respect our audiences. We will be held to account if we do not.