Online Propaganda and Social Media
By Yushau A. Shuaib
The battle ground has shifted. In an advanced society conflict is no longer resolved through the use of bows and arrows. This crude method of conflict resolution can only be found in archaic societies, for instance the Jos crisis in Northern Nigeria where victims were cut to death with machetes. Wars have also gone beyond the deployment of guns, missiles and the Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) - a claim for the justification of George Bush and Tony Blair's arbitrary invasion of Iraq.
The new war is fought without shedding human blood. The social media is the battle ground for the interested parties where online propaganda plays prominent roles. Social media is used for advocacy and mobilisation for noble causes and on the other hand to blackmail and destroy individual and institutional reputations. One can read, listen and video live happening across the globe provided, not only by the media but the ordinary persons on the street and shared on the internet.
The emergence of the internet has brought about a range of auxiliaries to enhance communication amongst individuals and groups from the development of website, email and instant messaging. The great innovation of the decade is the social media network which has elevated human communication and activities to an exciting and scary level. The major applications and tools for social media include online forums, blogs, microblogs, social networks, bookmarking sites, online videos, podcasting and Instant Messages. The popular brands of those tools include Facebook, Myspace, Youtube, Twitter, Delicious, Digg, stumbleupon and various others.
The technology has revolutionized the way we communicate, interact and play - without the need for third parties except the gadgets. One does not need to expend too much resources to read newspapers, watch TV, listen to radio, play games and with spontaneous platforms for online reactions. Business transactions, like online shopping and banking are conducted round the clock without stepping out our homes. Most of the developers of these technologies actually transform their ideas to reality from the comfort of their homes.
The success of Obama's election was largely associated with effective use of social media technology, likewise the massive global supports received by victims of Haitian earthquake. Access to computers and mobile devices has indeed made the world a global village.
As exciting as these new media applications are, their impact on our lives as users, the economic improvements in the lives of the technology developers and technicians, it still calls for great concerns to humanity. The rate of divorce is increasing due to cheating on social media as unfaithful partners are easily tracked, just as professional hackers are having field day discrediting security systems of established institutions, while fraudsters milk their victims dry through tempting baits on the internet. Frustrated souls too, especially amongst youngsters now find the convenience of committing suicide through advisory from some social websites.
While social media encourages human laziness and physical social interactions, a new finding in Britain reports that the negative effect of video game and social networking websites which is blamed for the shocking rise in rickets amongst children. A freely distributed Metro newspaper, reports that spending hours in front of a computer means youngsters do not stay outdoors enough, hence, they suffer lack of vitamin D which can lead to rickets that was once associated with poverty. Kids now stay indoors more these days and play their computers instead of enjoying the natural fresh air.
As the traditional providers of those services are already in real economic recession, a massive job cut has become the order of the day as the computer provides all manner of service that were once provided by man.
The real bad news is that the next World War will not be fought with conventional armaments, but through the social media. The social media has uplifted propaganda, another tool of public relations to another level. Even in Nigeria, a country notorious for sectional infighting, parties in conflicts are using online platform to promote themselves and destroyed their opponents with malicious and some libellous campaigns, yet backed with evidences. A video of arbitrary execution of innocent citizens where uploaded on the website, with each sectional claiming to be the victims of the assault.
The Chinese government recently through its authoritative and Independent newspaper, People's Daily raises a concern about the manipulation of social media for propaganda by other countries that pretend to promote freedom of information. The Editorial of the paper accused America for using "cyber army" to engage in online warfare, by fomenting civil unrest in the Islamic Republic of Iran after the June 12 election in that country last year. The paper said: " America was exploiting social media such as Twitter and YouTube to generate protests against the Iranian regime.
It went further to say that "Behind what America calls free speech is naked political scheming. How did the unrest after the Iranian elections come about? It was because of online warfare launched by America, via YouTube video and Twitter, microblogging, spread rumours, created splits, stirred up, and sowed discord between the followers of conservative reformist factions."
The Asian publication also raised the fear being expressed by other countries on what constitute freedom of information and democratisation by stating that: "We're afraid that in the eyes of American politicians, only information controlled by America is free information, only news acknowledged by America is free news, only speech approved by America is free speech, and only information flow that suits American interests is free information flow."
In the fear that the social media seems to be going out of control, some actions are being taken in some societies to deny access to selected websites. Some countries like China have blocked access to some websites; these include the popular YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to control so-called cultural imperialism.
At individual level, a company in United States has developed software that can permanently kill access to the social websites at the click of the button. The company sees its innovation as a relief and rehabilitation for addicts who want to detach the excessive addiction to the technology. The killer software called Web 2.0 Suicide Machine is an ingenious package that sluices online presence permanently from social networks. The service has received massive subscription to the disadvantage of favourite social websites.
The question is why should internet users and the general public becoming wary of social media? The technology is yet to have moral standard and code of ethic. It is not easily controlled or regulated as some anonymous users have notoriety of wrecking havoc before speedy actions and authentication are made.
While scholars in communication and Public Relations (PR) continue to extol the virtue of social media as an undoubted tool for effective communication and human development, it requires some levels of control against criminal tendencies, untoward behaviours and manipulation by some users towards a saner global community. For now we may welcome the online propaganda than physical combatants by parties in disputes.
Yushau A. Shuaib
University of Westminster
Harrow Campus, London