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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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  • 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..

  • 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..

Next Story

Social Media in India: Understanding The Dynamics of ‘Facebook’ and ‘Twitter’

Social media, a double-edged sword, is an evolving forum of communication in the internet media

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India has world’s largest number of Facebook Users with over 195 million users, overtaking US by over 4 million subscribers. Pixabay

Social media is a strange place that connects millions of people worldwide. It is a platform that keeps people engaged in several trending issues. However, the point of concern being, how do they react? This makes social media a double-edged sword.

Let’s take an example. Once, a photo of a young schoolboy from a poor family went viral. The boy was sitting outside a Noida metro station, trying to earn money through a weighing scale and studying at the same time. He caught the attention of one of the commuters. A picture was taken and uploaded on Facebook. The picture went viral. Now, there were several people who came forward to help. One of them was the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Akhilesh Yadav, who promised to ensure full opportunity for them to study without having to work.

ALSO READ: Social Media: Here is how it is creating Lifestyle pressure on Youth!

social media
Twitter, the microblogging site has 23.2 million Monthly Active Users in India, which is 2nd largest in Asia-Pacific after Japan with 26 million MUAs. Pixabay

This was one example or the so-called ‘positive side’ of social media. Now let’s turn the page and look at the other side of the road. Here the ‘other-type’ instances on social media:

  • In 2012, morphed pictures and videos of earthquake victims went viral. The morphed images were aimed to show that these were Muslim victims of civil riots in Assam and Burma. This was done to provoke riots by vested interests.
  • There were instances of hate and revenge messages being spread against Hindu migrants living in South India. This resulted in a mass exodus of people from the North East.
  • At an individual level, there are many examples where when a relationship went sour, one of the partners uploaded intimate pictures, videos or information, in revenge against their former partner.
  • Another point of concern is the easy access to all types of porn by minors. This is resulting in rapidly changing social behaviour and redefining morality.

The major problem being stated is that the society as a larger whole is unable to keep pace and social media is, hence, increasing the gap between older and younger generations rather than bringing them closer.

social media
There are over 30 Million LinkedIn Users in India, while 467 million users globally. Pixabay

ALSO READ: Teenagers using Social Media more likely to suffer sleep deprivations: Study

Should there be government intervention in the use of social media?

India is witnessing increasing internet and mobile penetration. With first-time users onto these platforms, the risk of mass hysteria or communal reactions increases. It is imperative for the government to get together all stakeholders of civil society and try and address the issue of balancing media freedom with media regulation.

Putting regulations or any type of curbs on the internet will be a sensitive subject in any type of free society and of course, it will result in certain opposition. However, what we need to understand is, each society is different. Therefore, every society has to develop its own mechanism to address the negative consequences of social media.

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There are 16 Million Instagram users in India. Pixabay

For example, the Indian government had blocked internet services in the state of Jammu and Kashmir during the period of eid in 2015. It was a preventive measure. However, despite the ban, there were clashes with the police and violence. The point of concern being, the situation could have been much worse had the internet and social media been accessible.

With the world getting increasingly connected through the web and India on the cusp of a ‘Digital’ revolution, the government must take up establishing clear cybersecurity laws and cyber management policies on an urgent basis. Social media could work as a development catalyst or could become a national threat.