How social media evolved from enabler to disruptor
Just a few years ago, social media was hailed as the enabler of the weak, capable of giving a voice to the voiceless, empowering the repressed, and helping spread democracy and freedom of expression. Today, there are efforts to put some controls and regulations on social media because it has been discovered that some agents use it to spread disinformation and fake news, causing much damage and even “threatening democracy.”
When the so-called Arab Spring erupted in 2011, social media was credited for mobilizing the masses, supposedly in a spontaneous way. Social media, and Facebook in particular, was a space where people were able to talk freely, vent their frustrations and coordinate their actions seemingly away from the prying eyes and ears of governments, even though they were being monitored but were not taken seriously.
Social media still plays that role today. It is still the place — especially for the youth — to express their views, disgruntlements, objections, criticisms, likes, favorites, and post plenty of selfies and their social activities. It has become almost an obsession for people to publicize every minute of their lives; some experts are even saying it has become an addiction. We now have social media celebrities, whose only claim to fame is detailing their personal life and views about everything on social media in a way that garners them many followers and fans — and they began making money out of that fame. More importantly, they became “influencers,” who can raise awareness, shape public opinion and be a source of information. Traditional sources of information like newspapers and TV quickly found themselves losing ground, and money.
Such open spaces for unlimited, unhindered and mostly unregulated interaction offer mouthwatering opportunities for malicious actors to manipulate minds and hearts. In the new age of information wars, technology has made the manipulation and fabrication of content simple, and some users of the social networks dramatically amplify falsehoods and spread them like wildfires, unchecked and unstoppable. It is not only terrorist groups that use social media to propagate their propaganda; faceless state-sponsored groups have entered the game at a more sophisticated level.
We began hearing about “fake news” during the US presidential election in 2016, but it was all in the context of undermining news sources and poking holes in their credibility. However, the UK House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee investigated the issue in 2017 and, in its interim report, warned that online disinformation was threatening “our democracy and our values.” Later, in its final report, the committee found that social networks were vulnerable to being weaponized to spread false, propagandist or partisan content to maximum effect through the psychological profiling of users and the surgical targeting of social media posts at people most liable to fall for them.
In the new age of information wars, technology has made the manipulation and fabrication of content simple, and some users of the social networks dramatically amplify falsehoods and spread them like wildfires, unchecked and unstoppable.
Then, the scandal involving Cambridge Analytica — a British political consulting firm —broke in March and the extent of the risks and threats was exposed. It was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had surreptitiously harvested the data of 87 million Facebook users to influence them on behalf of its clients, including the Donald Trump campaign. Evidence also emerged of work done for the official pro-Brexit campaign in the EU referendum, and today there are accusations of social media manipulation being behind the violence that has erupted in France and Belgium during the past few weeks. Russian fingerprints on social media and offline hint at Moscow’s involvement in influencing votes in the US election and Brexit referendum. Similar accusations of social media manipulation by Israel, Iran and Qatar aimed at influencing public opinion in the Middle East have also been reported.
Government inquiries into the Cambridge Analytica affair forced the social media giants, especially Facebook, to cooperate on adopting some protection measures. Three months ago, tech platforms and industry players, including advertising groups, agreed on a set of self-regulatory standards to fight disinformation worldwide, which they will abide by on a voluntary basis. The EU’s code of practice, to which the signatories agreed, aims at tackling disinformation through a wide range of actions — from transparency in political advertising to the closure of fake accounts and demonetization of purveyors of disinformation.
Earlier this month, the European Commission took another step and adopted a set of concrete measures outlined in an “Action Plan against Disinformation” to tackle the practice both within the EU and in its neighborhood, including the Middle East. In view of the 2019 European elections, as well as a number of national and local elections that will be held in member states by 2020, the EU was keen to come up with an action plan to step up efforts to counter disinformation in Europe and beyond.
The plan focuses on building capacities and strengthening cooperation between EU member states and institutions. It also aims to mobilize the private sector to make sure it delivers on its commitments in this field, and to improve the resilience of society to the challenges that disinformation creates. The action plan also provides for the creation of a rapid alert system and close monitoring of the implementation of the code of practice. With rising concern over external interference and influence, the EU action plan aims to protect Europe’s democratic systems and public debates.
All these codes and regulations raise questions about the possibility of controlling the flow of information in cyberspace, and whether that conflicts with freedom of expression and the right to access information. There are also questions about who will control the information, and who decides what information is “fake” and what is true.
Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer. She is based in Jeddah. Twitter: @MahaAkeel1
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