Duality of Social Media

Joseph Goebbels said propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated are confident, they are acting on their own free will.  The advent of social media has given life to a new information eco system. It has given a voice to the voiceless. Social media allows for everyone to share their opinion and news with everyone else all across the globe. Statista reported that as of January 2021, number of people using the internet has surpassed 4.6 billion.

Classically, this global interconnectedness via the cyber space was perceived as a blessing. In fact, new concepts like “Cyber Utopianism” came in to the forth which stated that give a man or woman access to internet and it will set them free. Cyberspace, and social media in particular, is a broader platform. However, adversaries use these platforms to influence and manipulate each other extensively. There has been a lot of disinformation and misinformation being spread by different actors through the social media lately. Therefore users of social media are getting wary of its potential as a weapon of propaganda. If states disregard the Weaponization in social media, it will have terrible consequences for their security.

The advancement in technologies has changed the nature of warfare. Breakthroughs in the cyber space has introduced a new social media battlefield. Sun Tzu states that the supreme art of war is in subduing the enemy without fighting. Similarly, Clausewitz explains the aim of war is to find and neutralize the adversary’s center of gravity. These two concepts streamline in the form of information warfare. In social media, not force but, narratives, ideas and dialogues play a greater role and center of gravity is hearts and minds of the people.

Full potential of cyber space has yet been untapped. Social media in cyberspace can be used for varying objectives depending upon interest of user. Although it is used for varying objectives but state and non-state actors also use it to influence their own people and the people of foreign states. One can count on examples like the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), conspiracies surrounding the outbreak of covid-19 pandemic and the vaccination drive that followed in which social media played a colossal role for the users. ISIS revitalized the approach towards social media for military purposes in Syria and Iraq. Instead of keeping their plans secret, they declared their plans to invade Mosul on twitter, creating hashtags like #AllEyesOnISIS. They successfully used different social media platforms to create fear in the hearts and minds of the enemy. They posted videos of brutality and violence, in which at times executing 120 captured soldiers of Bashar al Assad’s government. This complemented ISIS to capture the city of Mosul with just 12,000 fighters and mediocre weapons, without actually fighting extensively mediocre weapons. ISIS also successfully recruited 30,000 fighters from the western countries through social media.

The COVID-19 pandemic was accompanied by another pandemic; the disinformation pandemic. Disinformation and conspiracy theories spread at a pace unseen before. There were campaigns by the people against lockdown, masks and vaccines. These people were being influenced from social media. Misinformation had been spreading at such an alarming pace that the World Health Organization termed it as an infodemic. Some of these people even claimed that the covid virus was developed by billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates to insert chips. Others claimed that it was created in China. One research revealed that covid 19 deaths relating to misinformation and conspiracy theories reached around 800.

Despite all the misinformation and disinformation being spread through the social media, it is absolutely wrong to deny the positive role social media play in connecting people. The utility and accessibility social media provides and the opportunities resulting through it cannot be ignored. It connects people across the globe, provides an alternative medium for sharing news and is a source of entertainment. Social media played a very positive role as well during the covid pandemic. It made the ordinary people part of every discussion and debate over policies in question.

Social media also provided a much needed source of entertainment to the people during severe lockdowns. Social media has enabled individuals to show their side of the story to the global audience with ease. Thereby, it has stirred the monopoly of major news broadcast networks on the spread of information.

Therefore keeping in mind the duality of information spreading through the social media, policymakers need to deal with it accordingly. Sometimes security is used as the premise to curb freedom of expression by the states. While at other times, security has to suffer due to the over emphasis on freedom of expression. Policymakers need to stay away from both these extremes. They should formulate a comprehensive social media policy that takes into account all the variables and keeps a balanced approach.

Published in Global Affairs December 2021 Edition

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Subhan Nadeem

Written by Subhan Nadeem

S. M. Subhan Nadeem is currently pursuing his Bachelors in Strategic Studies from NDU. His interests include Geopolitics, History and Economics.

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