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The Many Faces of Social Media: Challenging the Social Media Democracy Nexus

By Ignas Kalpokas

The conventional narrative about social media and political change tends to be a rather simplistic one: a relatively strong causal relationship between the use of modern communication technologies and democratic change is presumed. Although on some occasions this causation (or, at least, correlation) might hold, there is a different side to social media as well: one of facilitator to non-democratic regimes or instigator of violence. In fact, social media do not have intrinsic qualities of their own but are, instead, dependent on offline conditions. Having established that, the post then moves to the application of social media for influence operations as part of hybrid warfare.

To begin with, social media are usually said to have added a new tool to the social movement repertoire. The new media allow them to access and share information that is not available on mainstream media either because of economic or political pressure or because it simply relates to an issue that is not (yet) high enough on the agenda. Moreover, social media enable instant sharing of new and grievances and, coupled with smartphones, tablets, and other devices capable of capturing and instantly uploading images, allow the development of a new type of activist – an engaged ‘citizen journalist’ who is usually more effective in timing, access, and the immediacy of the cause than any representative of conventional media can be. These developments by themselves help democratise the public sphere and change the way in which citizens relate to it: instead of being passive users, they now become crucial influencers. Social media also have the potential of shifting the balance of power: instead of vertical public communication dominated by heavyweight political and media actors (which, not uncommonly, are one and the same), they can create multidirectional flows of communication.

Moreover, social media can have important organisational use. They help individuals connect with one another (often bringing together people that would have never met in the offline environment) and form new movements or pressure groups; they also facilitate coordination of both online and offline action intended to bring about real-world political results. Furthermore, one must add the role of social media in raising national or global awareness of an issue or a cause and forming support networks that can subsequently be mobilised in order to step up political pressure. It might also be that social media usage by itself corresponds to an increase in individuals’ political activity thus expanding the target audience of social movements – although a convincing causal relationship has not yet been established.

However, there is a darker side to social media as well. The same mobilising function can be employed for causes other than democratic change. One of such uses is instigation of ethnic or inter-group violence, especially when online networks are formed along segregated lines. Indeed, while traditional media tend to be relatively centralised, hence projecting one message at a time, social media have a tendency towards ghettoisation and fragmentation of the information sphere. Such fragmented publics tend to be more prone to rumours and scaremongering that lead first to distrust and then to clashes. Evidence of this effect comes from places as different as India, Ukraine, and several African states. The basic scheme of terrorist (e.g. jihadist) recruitment also operates under similar premises.

Paradoxically, online participation can also be seen as exhausting the activist potential. Sometimes dubbed ‘slacktivism’, this phenomenon refers to a situation when, having committed themselves to online action, individuals feel disinclined to take matters any further, considering themselves to have done their bit. Moreover, relations ‘on the ground’ are of paramount importance. Although initially the Arab Spring seemed to be the poster case for social media’s role in political change, subsequent developments have shown that the balance of power in the offline environment is the true key to change or lack thereof. Finally, non-democratic regimes have learnt to co-opt social media for purposes such as spreading propaganda and discrediting opposition, mobilising their own support base, tracking activists, or gathering information about potential grievances and/or disturbances. If those efforts are successful, social media may prove to be hampering rather than facilitating democratic change.

Yet another aspect of social media use, directly building upon their ambiguous and contingent nature, is influence operations. The aim of an influence operation is to manipulate the minds and behaviour of target populations through information and altered perceptions. Such operations are, essentially, struggles over a narrative about a country and its government, its relations with neighbours and inter-group relations within the society concerned. Crucially, such operation, once started, can largely continue on its own following a three-stage scheme: 1) a hostile actor starts spreading a counter-narrative; 2) part of the target group is affected by it; 3) the affected individuals begin generating and disseminating the counter-narrative themselves, thus unwittingly becoming the hostile actor’s agents. The aforementioned linking potential then helps the counter-narrative to spread virally, fuelling networks of unwitting supporters. Two further elements have to be kept in mind. Firstly, with the increase in speed, scope, and intensity of communication, public opinion, both local and global, has become a strategic military asset. As a result, for non-state actors or actors involved in hybrid warfare, political-cognitive victory is, perhaps, even more important than a military one. To that extent, information and the social media through which it is shared can truly be weaponised. Secondly, it would be erroneous to assume that influence operations only take place in times of direct military conflict. In fact, they also predate it, preparing fertile ground for kinetic operations, and follow it, seeking to consolidate any gains on the political-cognitive level.

In short, social media are characterised by versatility, ambivalence, and contingency. Despite the conventional emphasis on the democratising potential of these platforms, other uses are by no means unfathomable. On the contrary, the malevolent side of social media has to be taken into account when calculating any possible impact these platforms may have – and that even involves a national security perspective.

Ignas Kalpokas is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham with a background in Continental political theory and international political theory.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons


Published inInternational PoliticsInternational RelationsPolitics

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