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Hearts and minds

Last autumn, tucked away in one of London’s foremost auction houses, I admired a beautifully written and imposing letter from Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV to King Louis XIV of France. The meter-long document carried with it all the prestige and authority of the office of the sultan, and harked back to a bygone age in political communication.

Sat at my desk in 2017 watching US President Donald Trump fire off tweets, 140 characters in length, several times a day, the difference between the two mediums is stark. In an age of ever-shortening attention spans, political communication has become rapid and off the cuff, with often unforgiving consequences.

Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels chillingly described the media “as a great keyboard upon which the government can play.” As an exponent of a tightly controlled state media apparatus, this held true, but with the advent of digital communication, the public are no longer consumers; they can create and aggregate news at will.

When former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak responded to mass protests by cutting telephone communication, he missed the fact that protesters were gaining ground via use of the Internet. In an analogue response to a digital problem, the episode highlighted a disconnect between old and new methods of political command and control.

Global Internet use has grown massively, from 738 million in 2000 to 3.2 billion in 2015. Within this context, the migration of newspapers online, the use of networking services such as Twitter, and the creation of entirely new online news platforms, have transformed political communication.

Whereas events of global importance were once reported every morning in iconic opinion-formers such as British newspaper The Times, today they are reported live, minute by minute, often leaving print editions dated within a few hours of publishing.

The dawn of rapidly shared news on online platforms has increasingly led to their misuse. The prevalence of “fake news” is both alarming and somewhat disappointing. In an age of bite-size news items, stories adopting the alarmist and crowd-friendly tone characteristic of modern mainstream news are often circulated to great damage.

The New York Times defined “fake news” on the Internet as “fictitious articles deliberately fabricated to deceive readers, generally with the goal of profiting through clickbait.” This became all the more prevalent as the bitterly fought 2016 US presidential election became a stage for menacing state-sponsored disinformation campaigns traced to the Kremlin.

Such instances have been replicated en masse worldwide, leading to an increased level of preparedness and public commitments by Google and Facebook to clamp down on sites with an agenda of disseminating untrue stories. This has seen an industry develop around fact-checking journalism and websites, allowing the modern reader to look into the provenance of stories.

During the failed coup attempt in Turkey last year, traditional media was very quick to claim a transition of power. But the president’s use of FaceTime and Twitter to continue communicating with supporters indicated an adept political use of online platforms in a very compromising situation.

Zaid M. Belbagi

In stamping his face on Roman coinage, Emperor Augustus Caesar sought to cultivate a public image and impose imperial authority on his diverse and spread peoples. The experimental scheme to integrate Roman citizens into the new imperial model stood the test of time, and the use of imagery in communication remains prevalent.

The exponential rise of video via smartphone applications has allowed political campaigns to reach more people, and miscarriages of justice to go viral, forcing decision-makers to respond to issues that previously could have been ignored. As 5 billion videos are watched each day on YouTube, the popularity of visual content is leading to a lack of care and attention for the written word.

In an environment where often the sheer scale of available material, and the timeframe within which to read, are ever-condensing, consumers have little interest to gauge the logic of stories or their source. In the golden age of print, editors would be lambasted via letters from readers demanding corrections and integrity from journalists. Any consumer of online news would be hard-pressed to find such effective channels for comments today.

The speed at which incorrect news can be shared often makes retractions negligible, and the short yet spectacular nature of modern political report-writing does not lend itself to intellectual or ethical oversight. In any case, the pool of such discerning consumers is ever-shrinking.

It is understood that the normal human attention spans lasts eight seconds, and periods of sustained focus average 20 minutes. This forces political communication to be incredibly focused and limited.

In the US, where the average reading age is 12, Trump’s talent for the brief and impulsive has allowed him to communicate directly with supporters. His dictated press briefings show how uncomfortable he is with the written word, yet the haste and passion of his tweets illustrate an affinity with new media.

During the failed coup attempt in Turkey last year, traditional media was very quick to claim a transition of power. But the president’s use of FaceTime and Twitter to continue communicating with supporters indicated an adept political use of online platforms in a very compromising situation.

Traditionally, being over 600 km from the seat of government under such circumstances would be perilous, yet new media bridged the gap, allowing for public mobilization despite the nature of the situation.

The one constant concerning the role of the media in political communication is that just as much as it can be used as a tool, its potential to be weaponized must not go unnoticed.

• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC.