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Dark side of Social Media: Is opinion formation on Facebook, Twitter governed by propaganda?

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By Ishan Kukreti

Social Media is a proven addiction. Of world’s 7.2 billion people, a staggering 2.78 billion have an active Social Media account. Internet has undoubtedly brought everyone just a click away, just a screen apart. However, it has made experience, vicarious and reality, virtual.

Given the fact that such a huge population is at one place, apart from facilitating communication and bringing the world a bit closer, it also creates a bracket that can easily be targeted for various reasons. Propaganda being one of them.

Online initiation by extremist groups like ISIS is just one know example. The subtle conditioning of individuals over telecom network, just like through TV, newspaper and radio is a reality one can’t close eyes to.

The big brother is watching you

Propaganda has been a major weapon in the arsenal of status quo to subtly maintain its authority. According to Marxist theory, the Hegemon uses its soft power, through various media channels, to create an artificial cultural construct that sustains and promotes its interest.

In the present world of Web 2.0, the methods of extending this soft power have become very easy. Each Smartphone user carries highly potent propaganda in his/her pocket. Uncle Sam which once stared at people from wall posters at the street’s corner, now smiles at them through their laptop/phone screens. In a way, the job of a propagandist has never been easier. In the digital world he doesn’t have to go to the masses, the masses come to him.Uncle_Sam_(pointing_finger) There is a reason why we see certain information on web and not the other. There is a reason why Charlie Hebdo was on everybody’s Facebook feed while the massacre of more than 2,000 Nigerians by Boko Haram passed without eliciting a peep from the world. There is a reason behind kitsch is always trending, while relevant information is buried in some obscure corner.

The reason is that the flow of information is not unfiltered. The information reaching a set of people at a given point of time passes through various algorithmic filters. While folks go crazy over the color of a dress, a new bastion of humanity falls somewhere in the world, a new breach is made on the lives of those who don’t matter.

“A lot of manipulation is going on in social media. Firms have their in-house IT departments which push and promote their agenda and stifling the democratic process. You will not hear about sensitive issues like land acquisition on platforms like Facebook and Twitter because they are against the status quo.” says Rajan Vohra, a computer science researcher in data mining.

The human intervention

Like every media, Social Media too has its ways, overt or covert, of manufacturing opinions. The difference is that on the new medium (Internet), due to its personalized interactivity, convincing/coercing is easier. Any active political commentators on Social Media can tell the treatment meted out to them.

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A vocal and cohesive minority is all it takes to create trends on Social Media. The hashtag wars between BJP and AAP trending daily on Twitter say a lot about opinion formation and consent manufacturing. A company or political party with its army of loyal supporters can drown any voice of dissent. The case is not just limited to Social Media, prominent news sites have also reported incidents of online bullying on sensitive issues.

“The image of reality promoted on Social Media is not necessarily the true picture. Truth is not based on a hundred, or thousand or even ten thousand people saying something. Facebook groups and Twitter handles of political parties and big firms have thousands of followers. For them, pushing their agenda becomes a cake walk, as does drowning out dissident voices. Most of the times the real issues are not so simple as touted on Facebook or Twitter.” opines Madhav Dhar, an economic consultant.

Whose media is it anyway?

According to Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model, the ownership of a media outlet shapes its content. The nexus between the US government and Google was exposed by Julian Assange in his piece, “Google is not what it seems” while a recent report claimed that 25% of news on Twitter is bogus.

Posting, sharing, liking, commenting in a quasi-real life simulation on issues public or personal is as close as the masses can get to being a creator of mass media messages in today’s world. However, the ground reality remains that even these media platforms are owned by someone. They have their own structure of gate-keeping or filtering information, and possibly agendas too.

sm-questionmark-237x300The scope of Social Media in terms of reach makes it a sort of Midas touch of media, whose alchemical effects are not entirely unknown to the big money, the vested interests. PR companies like APCO have the ability to alter Google search results while paid ads on Facebook tremendously increase the visibility of posts.

Postscript

Every age has its Hitlers and Stalins. And every age has its ways of propagating their ideas, good, bad or ugly. However, the meteoric rise in the use of technology has made billions sitting ducks for advertisers and propagandists. The dark side of the fairy tale called Social Media is yet inconspicuous to the attention deficit users playing mirror-mirror-on-the-Fb wall, but the big bad wolf is on the prowl outside.

Today, discretion and critical thinking are attributes needed more than any other time in history.

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