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Weaponizing Media and the Dangers of Subjective Truth: Reflections on the “Arab Media Between Conflict and Peace” panel

In contemporary conflicts, knowing the enemy—the first lesson in any war—has become elusive. With fewer boots on the ground, less interstate conflict, and more fractured and violent terrorist factions, knowing exactly who one is fighting has become increasingly difficult. Accordingly, information warfare, the control of the narrative, has arguably become the most pressing and challenging issue of our times. It has become imperative for anyone involved in a given conflict to take control of the narrative and communicate their story, ensuring they have the court of public opinion on their side. In other words, in conflict: “The one with the better army may win the battle, but the one with the better story wins the war” (Ebner 2017, 107). Today, history is being written online, narratives and information are communicated through the media, social media platforms, and through all modes of communication on cyberspace, setting the stage for conflict or peace. With the advent of the internet, information has transcended borders and states, and has by and large become controlled by capitalism’s leaders, each with their own agenda. In a recent panel organized by Arab Media & Society Journal on “Arab Media Between Conflict and Peace” the panelists discussed whether the media promotes or hinders peace and conflict in the region. This article goes over the different ways in which the media has been used to promote conflict, as explored during the panel.

In the words of Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, head of the Israel Defense Force’s (IDF) Foreign and Social Media office, as quoted by Professor Emeritus of Journalism and Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California, Philip Seib, in his book Information at War:

If you are absent on the social media space, you cede that space to the enemy. You have to be there to lead the conversation, especially in war time. If you’re silent on social media, you’re not putting anything in your enemy’s way to prevent their message from gaining steam; if you’re silent on social media, you’re not getting your own message across; and if you’re silent on social media, you’re not giving your supporters ammunition to use. (Seib 2021, Chap. 4) 

Information is ammunition and public opinion is, as Seib expressed during the panel, “easily influenced […] with great volatility and susceptibility for manipulation.” A great example of this is the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria’s (Daesh) communication strategy. Daesh has established its strength largely by building a media empire that attempts to unite people across the world behind a clear cause and ideology. It also controls its own narrative and story by having its own media outlets and by infiltrating almost all social media platforms, thereby not only communicating its own agenda to the world, but also keeping its followers connected through sensationalism and a sense of community.

The real strength of this network was made evident in 2014, when Daesh took over the city of Mosul in Iraq with minimal resistance. As the world watched the events unfold in Iraq, everyone realized that Mosul was overtaken not with arms, but with tweets. A few months before the invasion, Daesh used “an Arabic-language Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, or just Dawn” to purportedly spread its message to its followers (Berger 2014). However, by signing up for the app, users actually gave Daesh access to their twitter accounts. By the time the Daesh army was moving towards Mosul, it had access to hundreds of twitter accounts. It then launched a massive two-fold social media campaign that relied on thousands of tweets and a Hollywood-style movie about the End Times prophecy to spread a message of fear and terror throughout Iraq and the world. According to Julia Ebner, “the sheer number of retweets conveyed the impression of a gigantic, invincible army marching towards Mosul, creating shockwaves across the ranks of the Iraqi army” (Ebner 2017, 105). A pivotal moment, it was then that the magnitude of the strength and impact of hashtags and tweets was made exceptionally evident. Despite outnumbering the Daesh army by over 15 to 1, the Iraqi army was intimidated enough by the impact of Daesh’s social media campaign to flee, “leaving a vacuum for ISIS and other armed forces to fill” (Ebner 2017, 105; Giglio 2014).

The speed, quality, and magnitude of the campaign were strong enough to manipulate not just regular people at home, but a national army and nation states around the world. Public opinion was sufficiently swayed to engrave terror in people’s hearts. Daesh’s ability to use sensationalism in communicating both terror and a sense of purpose, the former to its enemies, the later to its followers, is indeed unique. However, it has not been the only political faction that has used digital media and the world’s inability to keep up with the speed of the internet in order to build its cause, most do so but in their own way. Seib used the case of the wars between Hamas and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) during the panel to illustrate how digital media can be used to sway public opinion to either extend or end a war. Citing the Gaza Wars of 2008-9 and 2014, Seib explains how the evolution of Hamas’ presence online has affected its fight on the ground. In 2008-9, the disproportionality between the military might of the Israeli army and Hamas was, as is still the case, quite problematic. In order to control the narrative, the Israeli government launched an information campaign that blocked foreign journalists from the combat zone, disseminated its own content on social media on a large scale, and omitted any content that showed any civilian casualties on the Palestinian side. Hamas, on the other hand, only relied on websites and blogs to spread its message (Seib 2021, Chap. 4). By 2014, Hamas had learned the power of tweets and hashtags, and managed to spread its own message using #gazaunderattack in the days leading up to the conflict (Seib 2021, Chap. 4). Hamas’ ability to actively spread its own narrative in 2014 managed to fill the information gap between it and the IDF, which had a significant effect on public opinion around the world. By successfully disseminating their own narrative, they managed to tilt the asymmetry of power a little bit and gain their own edge. According to Seib, Hamas’ capacity to meet the IDF on the information battleground shifted public support towards it and managed, to a certain extent, reduce the intensity of the conflict. 

That said, the aforementioned shift was not powerful enough to have a major outcome and Israel remains, by all accounts, the more superior force, both on the ground and online. In fact, Israel continuously invests in building its image online and controlling the narrative. In 2014, civilians were also “put to work in assisting [the] war effort” in Israel (Seib 2021, Chap. 4). Launched by over 400 students at an Israeli university, a pro-Israel campaign was put in motion online in over 30-languages. Its goal was to promote the country’s image around the world by spreading a positive narrative and reporting anything against the state of Israel on online platforms. This effort was meant to win the hearts and minds of observers around the world, as David Patrikarakos said “The IDF [had] to meet Hamas not just on the battlefield but in cyberspace. War [has] to be fought at the narrative as well as the physical level” (Seib 2021, Chap. 4). What makes modern warfare unique is that it is no longer strictly fought by soldiers, generals, heads of state, and firearms, it is now also, and one can argue predominantly, fought online through public opinion, citizen journalism, and citizen campaigns. Today, anyone can spread their message and influence political events. While this does not dismiss the importance of military might, it does change the nature of conflict as a whole.

The accessibility of the internet, the idea that anyone can post their opinion, share their reality, or contribute to political discourse has had several effects. It has been an impetus for change in various contexts, whether for small causes, or larger revolutions; and it has also created a climate of distrust, aggression, and radicalization. During the panel Nour Halabi, Lecturer of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds, discussed the effect citizen journalism has had in conveying a different perspective on the war in Syria. She spoke of the humanizing influence citizen journalism has had on the general perception of the conflict around the world, describing it as “a form of resistance” against “the securitized view” projected by mainstream media that is “focused on the different fighting factions and their media arms, [and] often focused on looking at, very much in al Qaeda tradition, new declarations being made by some leader or another” instead of the citizens actually living through the conflict. The internet thus gave filmmakers, citizen journalists, and ordinary Syrians a voice to project their own perspective despite the ongoing conflict, the varying media agendas, and government restrictions. Nonetheless, online activism is far from easy and comes with great risk.

According to Professor Sahar Khamis, Associate Professor of Communication, University of Maryland, College Park, cyber-activism carries considerable risk in autocracies and conservative societies, particular for women and feminist activists. The reality of the security risks that individuals who participate in cyber-feminism and online activism is often bleak and dangerous. So, while it can affect change and spread much needed awareness on many important topics, it also comes with its own set of dangers such as tracking, hacking, doxxing (an intimidation tactic where “a person’s personal information—usually address and phone number—[are published] against his or her will”), and harassment (Ebner 2020, 102). These can all be done by regular individuals, organized factions or groups, as well as governments, which further exemplifies the dangers behind the anonymity that the internet offers people, as well as the sheer lack of clear rules or ethics in cyberspace at large. Securitizing information online is its own rabbit hole, as there is no clear way to determine right from wrong, and even fewer ways to  control information without infringing on even the most minimal standards of human rights. The fact that the internet is a global tool makes it quasi-impossible to have common standards in order to establish any overarching internet regulations. 

As is commonly said, “one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.” Most people believe what they are doing is correct, they believe that they are standing on the right side of history, and therefore their cause or ideology is the more legitimate one. The lack of consensus leaves it up to individual observers to use their own critical thinking in order to determine which narrative is true. Still, corroborating or proving a specific narrative, and thereby building an opinion on any issue has become increasingly difficult in the world of algorithms and echo chambers. ‘Information bubbles’ are common everywhere, particularly on YouTube where the “algorithm fuels radicalisation by prioritising extreme content,” therefore “if you start with a video about jogging, for instance, you can be almost sure to end up seeing extreme Parkour or ultra-marathon videos. And when you watch a vegetarian cooking lessons, you might get suggestions for militant veganism at the end of the day” (Ebner 2020, 114).

These echo chambers further extend to battle grounds where propaganda is rampant. Panelist Jalel Harchaoui, researcher and analyst of North African affairs, spoke of the complexity of the situation in Libya where disinformation and propaganda are particularly rampant “In Libya it’s particularly spectacular,” expressed Harchaoui.  Describing the extremely polarized conflict in Libya, Harchaoui explained that there has been extensive deterioration in the quality of journalism in the country since the start of the conflict, where trolls have taken over and professionals have been left behind. What makes this situation unique is not the mere existence of a divide, but rather the complexity and extensiveness of its reach as well as the number of foreign actors and third party channels that both fund and support this divide. The sophistication of the methods used to hoax citizens and troll them are extremely high in quality, and as Harchaoui states, can trick even the most seasoned experts. Another facet of this information war is that citizens’ loyalties extend from the battleground to the news sources that they choose to follow or even unfollow. Despite knowing that these sources are likely to be lying, loyalties to specific factions confine them to their channels, making them privy to very limited and extremely subjective news sources. The information circulated on these channels only serve to aggravate the conflict by fostering hate and fear amongst the communities, thereby extending and deepening the civil war. This toxic news environment has exacerbated the situation in Libya to unimaginable levels, furthering the divide and, often, serving agendas of factions and states outside of the country rather than Libyans themselves.

In her work The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far Right Extremism, Julia Ebner (2018) argues that:

All that we are fighting for and against are abstract ideas and products of our imagination [...] More than anything else it is a fight for the hearts and minds of the young generations. This fight is in many ways shaped by those who set the agenda for the stories that reach the masses: journalists.

This fight is exponentially harder to win when it is quasi-impossible to find definitive truths in any information we get. The lack of clarity has created an increasingly divisive environment that relies on fearmongering and conspiracy theories. While the media has been a major resource that has made us the most connected era, it has also been thoroughly misused and abused. It has become a double-edged sword that both gives people a sense of purpose and belonging through online communities, and at the same time, an information vacuum that relies on echo-chambers which have become hubs for extremism and radicalism. Our inability to find truth, the increasing divide among societies, the deep-seated need for a cause to believe in, and a ‘right side’ to be on has made us deeply confused and distrustful on one hand, and prone to extremes on the other. Our decreasing attention span, lack of clarity, and the constant bombardment of information have truly made us a ‘lost generation’. So many of us in the Arab world have grown up displaced, as refugees, or at the very least, have witnessed conflict and unrest in our countries. We know firsthand the strength of the media and its ability to unite us, and just as equally if not more, its power to divide us. Therefore, it is up to us now, as educators and the generation that is increasingly in power to promote critical thinking and media literacy. As Professor Seib said during the panel “our rising generations in particular need to be prepared for a civic environment in which information is evermore insignificant.”

Works Cited:

Berger, J. M. ‘How ISIS Games Twitter’, The Atlantic (16 June 2014). Available at http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/06/isis-iraq-twitter-social-media-strategy/372856/.

Giglio, Mike. ‘Fear Of ISIS Drives Iraqi Soldiers Into Desertion And Hiding’, (23 June 2014). Available at 

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/mikegiglio/fear-of-isis-drives-iraqi-soldiers-into-desertion-and-hiding#.teOo4Prby8

Ebner, Julia. 2020. Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

———. 2018. The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far Right Extremism. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd. 

Seib, Philip. 2021. Information at War. Cambridge: Polity Press. 

 

About Farah Rasmi

Farah Rasmi

Editor at Arab Media & Society at the American University in Cairo. She graduated with a Master of Arts in European and Russian Affairs from the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Rasmi has extensive research experience and previously interned at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in West Africa, worked as a Research Assistant at the University of Toronto, and at the Political Capital Institute in Hungary. Her research focuses on European affairs as well as the impact of political violence on civilian populations, namely the study of extremism and radicalism.

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