Using social media to spread information and give up to the minute news has become a popular method for activists to get their stories out. During the Arab Spring and the revolutions that have followed, youth movements on Twitter, Facebook and Youtube created their own networks that were watched closely by CNN, Al Jazeera and Reuters.
Social media is often seen as the news of the people, but those wishing to stay in power have caught on. During some of the major incursions in Syria, the Syrian Electronic Army made their way from message board to message board spreading a pro-Bashar message. They insisted the rebels were terrorists, that this was opposed by most of the Syrian people. That they appreciated Bashar al Assad’s policies on religion and ethnicity.
Although one might find it easy to see through, in reality many bought into these ideas hook, line and sinker. Although fighting militias with ties to radical Islamist groups exist within the rebel movement in Syria, to claim suddenly that those once heralded as ‘freedom fighters’ had warped into terrorists overnight shows just how successful the Syrian Electronic Army’s attempts were at spreading pro-government propaganda.
On the other side of the spectrum is a Haaretz article with similar claims regarding Israel. A number of young adults, savvy with internet message boards and how such claims can sway opinion, are paid (with more than 3 million shuttled into such programs per year) to “represent Israel in anti-Zionist blogs.”
Given this history, it comes as little surprise that The Guardian has now noticed an influx of pro-Russian comments across their own message board. The Guardian’s former correspondent for Russia has called this a “well attested phenomenon in Russia”
Comment mills work to help turn public opinion against those speaking out. For instance, if someone posts an anti-Russian comment they quickly become inundated and buried under an overwhelmingly pro-Russian stance. On the internet, the democratization of opinion often works off the guise of common knowledge. A stacked number of opinions on one particular side can, and does sway readers to believe that it is in fact public opinion.
A moderator at The Guardian broke down how they discovered what they’ve called an ‘orchestrated attack’: ”We can look at the suspicious tone of certain users, combined with the date they signed up, the time they post and the subjects they post on. Zealous pro-separatist comments in broken English claiming to be from western counties are very common, and there’s a list of tropes we’ve learnt to look out for. These posts may be suspicious but it’s when the content of them breaks our community standards that we will step in.”
Although this social media warfare often presents itself on informal message boards such as Reddit, Facebook and Twitter, in recent years they’ve been targeting those in search of serious news stories. The New York Times, BBC, The Huffington Post and The Guardian have all noted increasing campaigns by propagandists, trying to sway the opinion of commenters.
So what is the well meaning person in search of unbiased information to do? Well, as much as we’ve learned to rely on social media to spread breaking news and information, it might be time to take a step back. Let journalists and news organizations, which must stand behind the fact-checks and verifications, handle the larger news stories. Don’t be afraid to do your own research using reputable sources as well.
While breaking news and updates will always have a place in social media, it ought not to be the place where we form immovable opinions on larger global issues. Because you can never know who is behind the comment, who is behind the tweet, and who they are truly working for.