#PROPAGANDA TODAY – How social media is used as a means of organised propaganda
A tour of the recent history of propaganda exhibition, Power and Persuasion, at the British Library is an eye-opening and somewhat puzzling experience. Especially provoking is the final section about how propaganda manifests itself today – Twitter.
With the volume of user generated content flooding social channels it is easy to assume that state-generated propaganda has less of an impact, diluted, in the democratised digital age. Now government officials and policy makers are held accountable in response to the real-time soap-box that the internet offers ‘the people’, Wikileaks and PRISM scandals being extreme examples. In fact, however, social media is the medium where propaganda works best as this is where we are least aware that we are being influenced by the state.
Government institutions have been fast to recognise the power of social media to enable communication with the public at a parallel platform. Yet, while official channels of government communications are maintained on Facebook and the like, seedier initiatives are afoot.
The days of blatantly loaded government posters and direct-TV spots are long gone in the west. Such communication has often back-fired and generated annoyance and resentment, rather than loyalty and obedience. In the interest of avoiding such reactions much more subtle strategies are now implemented, with channels like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat being utilised.
For example, the US Department of Defence has launched Social Media in Strategic Communications – an official sub department which is dedicated to forming, developing and spreading the department’s ideas and concepts via social media. A young man or woman wouldn’t be impressed by the Uncle Sam army recruitment poster anymore, but ostensibly authentic positive opinions in social media from their ‘peers’ would have impact. Would this young man realise he is being influenced? After all, it could well be that the opinions are real and that army is the right place to be. Or it is it an orchestrated campaign by a media company, using trend setters?
This is only a drop in the ocean compared to the efforts of the opposing forces in the Israeli vs Palestinian war for hearts and minds. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and Hamas take to the social media to rally international support for their causes whilst demonising and terrorising their respective enemies. The Israeli forces have been eagerly tweeting that their sole purpose is “to protect Israeli civilians and to cripple the terrorist infrastructure in the #Gaza Strip” from their official account @IDFSpokesperson. Following an attack on their forces a Twitter account representing Al Qassam announced the death of their leader Ahmed Al-Jabari and warned that Islamic forces that “Our belled hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell[‘s] Gates on Yourselves)”.
Whilst the war on Twitter unfolded, both sides also took to other social channels to promote their cause. Al Qassam forces tweeted a link to a video of a brutal IDF assassination of a Hamas military leader. The visual horrors escalated with images of murdered infants forming the pinnacle of digitally aired atrocities. However, experts were quick to realise that many of these harrowing visuals did not originate from the conflict. One of the more horrendous images posted was swiftly recognised by tweeters as belonging to the upheaval in Syria from months past. Whilst unquestionably horrific, the public must be reminded that not everything they see is as objective as it purports.
Government initiated social media propaganda takes a somewhat bizarre twist in the form of North Korea’s initiatives. The official North Korean YouTube channel is flowing with reels of footage depicting impressive military marches, documentaries centred on devout citizens and even a particularly peculiar music video dedicated to the appreciation of the potato. In spite of all this Government spiel what’s really interesting is that North Korea’s YouTube channel is operated by the Korean Friendship Association (KFA), an organisation comprised of non-Korean nationals. The KFA’s President and founder is Spanish citizen Alejandro Cao de Benos and the International Communication Secretary is Chicago local Tommy Seilheimer. The international organisation’s aims are simple: to showcase the ‘reality’ of the North Korean government, to defend its socialist core of and work for the unification of North and South Korea. These goals are realised in the spreading of biased and corrupted imagery and messaging via the official North Korean social feeds which serve as the nation’s gateway to the rest of the world.
It is undeniable that social media has provided millions of individual with the means to make their voices heard. The flip-side is that state and military institutions are aware of just how influential social media channels are proving and are wasting no time in capitalising on the opportunity. Propaganda is not dead, it’s very much alive and kicking, and is most likely to come with a hashtag.
Maria Kivimaa, social media curator, Inferno