Originally written for and published on www.planetivy.com
A video of a blue-eyed woman asking westerners to petition their governments gained seven million views. But are these videos as innocent as they seem?
In a clip posted to YouTube last week, above, a pretty Ukrainian woman asked the world to react to the increasing violence in the Ukraine. Soon after the video went viral, amassing over seven million views at the time of writing. But all is not as it seems my friends, for while efforts on social media have sparked an international uproar, a counter video soon emerged, debunking the I Am a Ukrainian clip as a western-sponsored exercise in propaganda and linking the distributors of the video to the infamous Kony 2013 viral video.
So do these allegations hold any merit? While at first the term propaganda conjures up images of an inept North Korean government, western states also use propaganda to try and engineer public opinion, but in a much more subtle manner than Kim Jong-Un and his cronies. From the Egyptian Pharaohs to Nazi Germany, information has been used to great effect to the further the causes of the ruling classes. But what has changed is the means this propaganda is disseminated. While the internet is an unregulated platform for the sharing of information, it is precisely this difficultly in controlling what is said and shared that has involuntarily made us all propagandists.
The very strength of social media, to quickly spread information and organise vast swathes of people, is being used to proliferate staged videos, fake images and unsubstantiated rumours. Disinformation is an emerging problem on the web, thanks in part due to the sheer quantity of information being generated on social media sites. Reactions tend to be instantaneous and lacking in any deep analysis, or often even basic verification.
For example, the rising tensions in Venezuela were first predominantly reported through social media, due to a partial media blackout in the country. But what was shared was at times incredibly misleading. In the following picture, an injured government supporter from a year earlier is purported to be an anti-government protester from recent clashes.
This picture was shared nearly 240 times, without a single person realising that the post was a sham. In another tweet, a picture of a religious procession is re-captioned as a large group of anti-Muduro protesters, perpetuating the image of a nation in crisis to the outside world.
Every retweet has helped ingrain these misleading photos into the official narrative. We’re much more likely to believe something if it has been shared by people we know and trust, than if the video was endorsed and released by a politician or government as traditional propaganda was, which is what makes disinformation spread this way so insidious.
In one widely publicised instance in August last year, as part of a campaign to improve its image abroad, Israeli students were in effect paid to tweet pro-Israeli propaganda. The Netanyahu government offered to provide scholarships to hundreds of students in exchange for them making pro-Israel Facebook posts and tweets to foreign audiences. The students would not have to reveal they had been paid to do so.
According to historian and researcher Dr Peter Johnson, writing on propaganda in social media: “Such accounts operate very much in the black propaganda mould that was seen throughout the First and Second World Wars, deceptive propaganda that was issued under one guise but emanated from another source. This direct parallel demonstrates just how important social media is in the ongoing information war.”
While during the riots in Egypt last year, there were so many faked images circulating the internet that Facebook pages were set up with the goal of separating fact from fiction. In the video below, members of the Muslim Brotherhood are accused performing “street theatre”, faking death and injury during staged demonstrations while taking photos to be disseminated through the media.
Some governments have long realised the power of social media. China created its own Twitter-esque social media platform, Weibo, which is heavily censored and monitored for political dissidents. Meanwhile, the Snowden leaks have revealed that US has been developing sophisticated “sockpuppetting systems”, contracting a Californian company called Ntrepid to develop an “online persona management” system. On Monday, Glenn Greenwald published an entire GCHQ presentation detailing how the GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG), a “dirty tricks” group, are attempting to infiltrate online communities, spreading propaganda and influencing online discussions.
But it’s not just politically motivated hoaxes that are quickly spread through social media. One rumour that spread like wildfire back in 2012, debunked in this Guardian article, claimed that Samsung paid Apple a $1bn fine by sending over 30 trucks to Apple’s headquarters loaded with nickels. And viral marketers are seemingly infiltrating every corner of the web, with whole communities dedicated to weeding out posters, otherwise known as “paid shills”. Recently, a group of universities, led by the University of Sheffield, began developing a system that could automatically identify where a rumour originates and whether it is a reliable source that can be verified.
For a democracy to flourish we must have access to free and impartial information. Bandwagoning without all the facts can help spread dangerous lies which are then ultimately acted upon, often with disastrous consequences such as the Iraq War. It is imperative that we are cautious with what we choose to share online, keeping an air of scepticism regarding what we are told or hear on social media, until we can be certain where that information has come from. As Noam Chomsky wrote: “For those who stubbornly seek freedom around the world, there can be no more urgent task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination.”