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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.

  • nskaile

    we have Modi

  • Is he the only one? I dont think so.

  • Tanuj Mitra

    Nicely written piece. When you talked about manufactured opinion, I want to know how the society is creating meaning on social media ? How the social construction of reality happening around ?

  • Rich Remmy

    Great article, totally hits on a bunch of truths. Too bad there’s not a whole lot any of us can do about it, besides boycotting Fb etc..

SHARE
  • nskaile

    we have Modi

  • Is he the only one? I dont think so.

  • Tanuj Mitra

    Nicely written piece. When you talked about manufactured opinion, I want to know how the society is creating meaning on social media ? How the social construction of reality happening around ?

  • Rich Remmy

    Great article, totally hits on a bunch of truths. Too bad there’s not a whole lot any of us can do about it, besides boycotting Fb etc..

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Facebook To Invest $300Mn In Local News Partnerships, Programs

The idea behind the investments, Brown said, is to look “holistically at how a given publisher can define a business model."

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Facebook, dating
Facebook owned photo-messaging app Instagram already supports the "Unsend" capability VOA

Facebook says it is investing $300 million over the next three years in local news programs, partnerships and other initiatives.

The money will go toward reporting grants for local newsrooms, expanding Facebook’s program to help local newsrooms with subscription business models and investing in nonprofits aimed at supporting local news.

The move comes at a difficult time for the news industry, which is facing falling profits and print readership. Facebook, like Google, has also been partly blamed for the ongoing decline in newspapers’ share of advertising dollars as people and advertisers have moved online.

Facebook, Fake News
A user gets ready to launch Facebook on an iPhone, in North Andover, Mass., June 19, 2017. Facebook has made changes to fight false information, including de-emphasizing proven false stories in people’s feeds so others are less likely to see them. VOA

Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of global news partnerships, acknowledges the company “can’t uninvent the internet,” but says it wants to work with publishers to help them succeed on and off the social network.

“The industry is going through a massive transition that has been underway for a long time,” she said. “None of us have quite figured out ultimately what the future of journalism is going to look like but we want to be part of helping find a solution.”

Facebook has increased its focus on local news in the past year after starting off 2018 with the announcement that it was generally de-emphasizing news stories and videos in people’s feeds on the social network in favor of posts from their friends.

At the same time, though, the company has been cautiously testing out ways to boost local news stories users are interested in and initiatives to support the broader industry. It launched a feature called “Today In” that shows people local news and information , including missing-person alerts, road closures, crime reports and school announcements, expanding it to hundreds of cities around the U.S. and a few in Australia.

Facebook, social media
Silhouettes of laptop users are seen next to a screen projection of Facebook logo in this illustration. VOA

The push to support local news comes as Facebook, which is based in Menlo Park, California, tries to shake off its reputation as a hotbed for misinformation and elections-meddling. The company says users have been asking to see more local content that is relevant to them, including news stories as well as community information such as road closings during a snowstorm.

The $300 million investment includes a $5 million grant to the nonprofit Pulitzer Center to launch “Bringing Stories Home,” a fund that will provide local U.S. newsrooms with reporting grants to support coverage of local issues. There’s also a $2 million investment in Report for America as part of a partnership aiming to place 1,000 journalists in local newsrooms across the country over the next five years.

The idea behind the investments, Brown said, is to look “holistically at how a given publisher can define a business model. Facebook can’t be the only answer, the only solution — we don’t want the publisher to be dependent on Facebook.”

Also Read: Democratic Lawmakers Further Investigate Russia’s Involvement In U.S. Election

Fran Wills, CEO of the Local Media Consortium, which is receiving $1 million together with the Local Media Association to help their member newsrooms develop new revenue streams, said she is optimistic the investment will help.

“I think they are recognizing that trusted, credible content is of benefit not only to local publishers but to them,” she said. (VOA)