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Maria Gurova

Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations, RIAC Expert

The role of social media in shaping the political and social dialog in a country is not a new topic for research. 2016 and the first weeks of 2017 showed, however, that politicians had never before used social media (as well as classical media) as a political tool to such an extent, in order to shape and blur public opinion. The pre-election political campaigns in the USA, cyber combat between Moscow and Washington D.C., «alternative facts» — these and other notable events of 2016 demonstrated that information reliability and social media are not necessarily connected phenomena. Sometimes it goes vice versa. We live in the age of «post truth».

The role of social media in shaping the political and social dialog in a country is not a new topic for research. 2016 and the first weeks of 2017 showed, however, that politicians had never before used social media (as well as classical media) as a political tool to such an extent, in order to shape and blur public opinion. The pre-election political campaigns in the USA, cyber combat between Moscow and Washington D.C., «alternative facts» — these and other notable events of 2016 demonstrated that information reliability and social media are not necessarily connected phenomena. Sometimes it goes vice versa. We live in the age of «post truth».

Society lives in the age of «post truth», where the reader/listener cannot totally trust even the most credible sources of information, including the largest and most respectable media.

Why are we discussing this here and now?

The majority of heads of state and top officials have accounts on social media. Some of them even write posts by themselves without the help of assistants. Checking information reliability and quality is becoming a time-consuming and difficult task [1]. Society lives in the age of «post truth», where the reader/listener cannot totally trust even the most credible sources of information, including the largest and most respectable media. The absence of factual foundation, the desire to play society’s “emotion card” at the cost of objective and cool-headed analysis are the key indicators of this «post truth» society. And social media, whose existence is based on the number of likes and views (and as it is known, not every article can be considered an accurate piece of information, even if it has got a lot of likes and feedback from the readers), generates a multiplication effect in such situations. Consider the report written by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the USA, revealing Russia as being part of the hacker attacks in order to influence the presidential elections in the USA, are an example. And even if the Kremlin had approved such an operation to be conducted, the public at large hasn’t seen any evidence of this kind in the report. What has further happened in the investigation is not clear, but there are some speculations. Though even now one can hear the echo of the media’s hype.

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Julien Nocetti:
The Web Data War Is On
The age of social media has given the opportunity for even the most underrepresented and populist voices to acquire listeners without the need to organize large-scale campaigns and call meetings.

The age of social media has given the opportunity for even the most underrepresented and populist voices to acquire listeners without the need to organize large-scale campaigns and call meetings. In the gigantic pool of social media, different users with a variety of political and social views can find numerous followers and supporters, which often not only encourages them to change their views and position, but also induces greater activity and an amplification of their ideas on the Web. Freedom of expression has never been so boundless. And so dangerous.

Technological progress to terminate the social contract?

When the Internet and its social services began to penetrate into the political and social mechanisms, many researchers and scientists were talking about the beginning of a new page in the expansion of democratic regimes in the world. With the development of computer technologies and the spread of the broadband and mobile Internet, this trend is now measured in a different way, not by the way someone is using social media, but by the way someone is managing data obtained via these platforms in the service of their aims. Around 40% of the world’s population has internet connection today, and by 2020 this number might grow to include half the population of the planet, and while today roughly 2 billion of them are social network users, by 2020 this audience can grow to 3 billion. The majority of Internet and social media users are from the Western hemisphere of the planet [2]. More and more governments are adopting guidelines and national plans on Internet infrastructure development, which will inevitably lead to an increase in the number of social media users. The scope and the depth of penetration of online platforms in communication and information exchange is fantastic. The underside of this process is that more governments are taking measures to temporarily shut down the domestic Internet or limit access in order to achieve various political aims (also trying to control the use of social networks by the population). Recent research has shown that these measures lead to economic losses within the national economic framework.

AP Photo/Wong Maye-E
Maria Gurova:
Cradle of Surveillance
Not by the way someone is using social media, but by the way someone is managing data obtained via these platforms in the service of their aims.

It should be mentioned that social media could have overtaken the traditional media, even over the ones with good online exposure. Some experts concur that the Rubicon was crossed during the presidential race in the USA in 2016. One might absolutely argue — but it was the most widely covered campaign online in modern history. Though one shouldn't forget about the Arab spring events, when Twitter and Facebook turned out to be the tools for freedom and democratic rights. And though using the platform data hasn't directly led to democracy, within the Western meaning, the global community was impressed at how massively and effectively the social networks had been used. Another targeted and frightening example of social network deployment was the huge campaign for the recruitment of young specialists and soldiers organized by the Islamic State. The successful actions of the coalition fighting against extremists in Syria and other countries in the Middle East brought down the recruiters’ peg to a certain extent, but a PC is not a gun, one doesn’t need a license or connections with smugglers to purchase it.

Politicians and strategists understood what kind of tool they have in their hands a long time ago. Social networks help generate gigantic piles of data, that can be deciphered and analyzed for a targeted evaluation of common people’s preferences, even of those who don’t know what they want. The amount of information in social networks that is directly or indirectly connected to the political processes is far too great. A social survey was made during the course of the presidential elections in 2016, and it showed that social media account users reported being «worn out» from seeing lots of political content, which puts a necessity for the administrators of the social networks and services to be more involved in shaping and moderating the user’s newsfeed.

The issue of access to the big data is the one to define the future of democracies and the social contract between the state and society. Today huge (American) corporations, that run the world’s most popular social networks, often possess piles of data. And many governments want to get access to them, as well as the American government — as soon as possible. That is why 2016 resulted in such an amount of bills being initiated (which in many cases turned into legislative acts), enabling law enforcement agencies to have access to personal data upon request, and sometimes without it. Many countries are eager to cut themselves off from the American data storage monopoly, thus Balkanizing the Internet.

And though using the platform data hasn't directly led to democracy, within the Western meaning, the global community was impressed at how massively and effectively the social networks had been used.

The argument between Silicon Valley and Washington D.C. has lasted for several years now in a tug-of-war manner. The US example is quite indicative in many aspects: it is one of the most innovative countries taking the lead in the development of online technologies and start-up launches, and also has the best practices in establishing interaction between private and state sectors. US-inspired processes will line up Internet regulatory activities in other countries. Therefore, the access to the big data and the opportunity to manipulate personal newsfeeds in social networks will become one of the key determinants of political success, if the investigation performed by the Swiss magazine Das Magazine at the end of 2016 is anything to go by.

***

Social media and big data change the existing model of relations between citizens and the state, in different ways throughout the world. In the years to come the key issuev for the political establishment in Western countries — and in developing countries in the longer term — will be not the way politicians use social media, but the ability to acquire and manage the big data that will determine the success of their campaign. In order to create revolutionary potential, social networks are unlikely to become an easily-accessible weapon like they were in the Arab East in 2011–2013, as the authorities of these countries learned this lesson fast and started tracking Internet resources. Development of digital technologies, artificial intelligence, and the creation of «smart» cities — all of these factors will turn the tide of society’s moral foundation, increasing the involvement of citizens into the political processes of their countries at all levels of management.

From a political perspective, the American elections campaign demonstrated that social media have materially altered the information environment — the majority of the US electorate under the age of 35 was receiving information about the elections via the social media. This is a serious trend that will be gaining momentum in the following couple of years, especially in the countries hosting election processes.

1. This doesn’t mean that countries with authoritarian regimes have no access to social networks, though being able to use them often requires special permission or it leads to major social changes like the Arab spring

2. In 2016 the number of social media users reached 2.34 billion. The North America region is number one in social media level of penetration among the population - 59% of the population have social network accounts, followed by South America (50%) and Western Europe (48%).

 

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