Amanda Tapp, Master’s student studying Terrorism, Security and Society
In the society we are in now , in which key social structures and activities are organised around electronically processed information networks, social media becomes, as journalist Walter Lippmann said, a “pseudo-environment” critical in shaping public opinion. The entire world is able to see the asymmetrical relationship predominant in modern conflicts throughout society- notably during key events such as the crisis in Myanmar, the beating of Catalonia voters by Spanish police and police brutalisation towards African Americans in America. The infamous photograph from 1972 of the “Napalm girl”, Phan Thị Kim Phúc OOnt, caused a massive outcry and led to protests globally against U.S. involvement in the Vietnamese War, and led to huge pressure on the American government to withdraw their troops. Similarly, the photo of a drowned Syrian child, Alan Kurdi, laying in the sea, caused widespread sympathy for refugees as well as a decrease in anti-refugee rhetoric in many Western countries. This shows a close relationship between the role of media in worldly affairs. As warfare continues to evolve, the camera has become an essential weapon to be examined- particularly in how it is used in conflicts and pressure for change, both by state and non-state actors.
The Weaponisation of Social Media
By the masses
The role social media plays in today’s conflicts changed the way war is enacted and enabled by influencing how citizens and individuals mobilise against the status quo.
The camera has become an important tool for non-state actors. On December 17th, 2010, a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in Tunisia in protest against dire economic and political conditions, ultimately leading to revolutions occurring across Tunisia, spreading to Egypt, then in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, as many declared a “day of rage”. Indeed, the Arab Spring is a uniquely modern conflict in its characteristic of the people’s use of social media to mobilise and gather the resources to occur, as the revolts blossomed across the Arab world. Tunisian President Ben Ali fleeing to Saudi Arabia, Egyptian President Mubarak stepping down following the massive protests in Tahrir Square, and Yemen’s President Saleh fleeing to Saudi Arabia, now a haven for escaping dictators, took the world by surprise.
The mobilisation arguably showcased the rise of a digital democracy throughout the world through the use of photo and video uploads on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The waves of protests against human rights violations, police brutality, state corruption, dictatorships, authoritarian regimes and concentration of wealth in the minority elite, were counteracted by violent responses from the state. Facebook was used to organise and expand such protests. For instance, the Facebook page “Kolena Khaled Said” (translated to “we are all Khaled Said”) is an example of the exponential replication of videos and photos igniting and propelling individuals to mobilise and join the protests on the streets. Khaled Said was a young man who faced a brutal beating to death by Egyptian police officers, and the photos of his deformed face circulated online. Solidarity through civil resistance spreading like wildfire across the Arab world is a clear instance in history of pan-Arabism, perpetuated and manifested through the act of collective activism, as well as of asymmetrical warfare, benefiting largely from the use of the camera as a weapon.
By the State
While social media is used to mobilise and collectivise individuals to fight against authoritarian regimes, it is also used to maintain and protect the interests of states, in an act of “othering”, or treating other person(s) as inherently different from oneself. The media’s impact on public opinion and public policy has drastically diverged from the ways in which change was implemented before the rise of the internet. One example of this is Russia’s attempt to polarize conservatives and democrats in the U.S. 2016 presidential election by fabricating Facebook and Twitter accounts posting anti-Clinton messages, including automated Twitter accounts, called bots, mass hashtags, and their ilk, lending to a space and means to engage in the act of “othering” and therefore creating an environment filled with a strong sense of an “us” versus “them” dichotomy.
The state-building old wars were characterised by armies, peace regulations, a distinct declaration of war, codified laws of war, some sort of weaponry on both sides and fought between rulers. Today, asymmetrical relations in conflicts is glaringly obvious, not only in protests like the Arab Spring. Another example is the Palestinian intifadas, where the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) comprises of one opposition, armed and trained, and on the other, unarmed Palestinian children and women who occasionally resort to rock-throwing. Using German political scientist Herfried Münkler’s phrase, the “new wars” typically are not inter-state wars and no longer occur, as 18th century war theorist and military strategist Carl von Clausewitz said, in the “real centre of gravity”, a distinct area designated for battle. The randomized areas susceptible to attacks today are most prominent in attacks of the Islamic State, who do not clearly define between combatants and noncombatants as selected targets, and who encompass no spatial limits in their attacks.
In the current information era, the progression of technology, particularly social media, is both alienating and distancing culture and people, but also acting as a force by bringing together and mobilizing individuals to fight for change. Social media, an egalitarian platform and a metaphysical entity accessible to all, due to the social and diverse nature of mankind becomes inevitably politicised- paradoxically used both to fight against and to enable inequality. This Orwellian atmosphere is a complex phenomenon that simultaneously causes a rising sense of solidarity, blurring boundaries of nationalities globally while also creating an environment of “othering”. Politics may be the communication of ideas, but the advent of social media is revolutionising the way in which ideas are being communicated.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions and views expressed in this opinion piece belong to the author and are independent of the Department of Political Economy and KCL Politics Society.
Clausewitz, Carl V. On War. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Dabashi, Hamid. The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism. New York: Zed Books Ltd, 2012.
Münkler, Herfried. The New Wars. Cambridge: Polity Press. 2002.
Shane, Scot. “The Fake Americans Russia Created to Influence the Election.” The New York Times, Politics: accessed 22 October, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/07/us/politics/russia-facebook-twitter-election.html
“We are all Khaled Said.” Facebook.com. Last modified: 1 May, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/elshaheeed.co.uk/