Social media is one of the most influential contemporary tools for the manipulation of international, regional, and local public opinion. Through it, cases are made and one side can be biased at the expense of another, achieved through what is known as a “trend”.
This represents a general orientation towards a topic on social media sites that is crystallised within the framework of a group of publications. People adopting such trends can be personally acquainted with each other or they can be distant from each other. But the danger of this method, which affects public opinion and leads it in certain directions, is ignorance of the source of the topic raised, ignorance of the identity of the participants in raising the topic, and ignorance of its objectives.
Social media sites are used by many as tools influencing public opinion to achieve different goals, including creating a collective mindset through which the public can be led to take up unified positions on social or political issues, which amounts to creating social movements.
Social movements have been and still are an effective weapon used by people both locally and internationally to restructure the past, reshape the present, and change the future. In the old dynamic, these movements needed opinion leaders, making it difficult to listen to low-key voices who did not have a special platform to present their views. But with the advent of social media, each user has become the potential leader of his or her own movement, with opportunities being offered more evenly than in the past. With billions of people now browsing social media every day, it is easy to form social movements that can reach larger audiences.
Social media is also used to promote brands through campaigns in support of certain social issues. One of the most prominent examples of this was the launch by the US company Nike of its “For Once, Just Don’t Do It” campaign in response to the killing of George Floyd, a black man killed by a white policeman in the US. The campaign included statements rejecting racism published on social media and won a lot of public support. There is no doubt that one of the economic effects of the campaign was the promotion of the Nike brand.
Social media is used politically to disseminate both true and false information to help win victory for certain political parties. This can be clearly seen in the information war between Russia and Ukraine via social media at the present time, after the invasion by Russian forces of Ukrainian territory. Both countries and the parties supporting them have used social media to mobilise the public in their favour against the other.
The official accounts of the Russian government have tended to amplify pro-Russian information on the social networking site Twitter, while the Ukrainian government tended last April, through the official Ukraine account on Twitter, to appeal to its followers and supporters for more support by providing Ukraine with weapons, placing more severe sanctions on Russia, and cutting off trade relations with it.
Today, the information war is no longer an additional political arm that can be dispensed with in the strategies of different countries, but has become an important element paralleling military campaigns. This information war is clearly visible in the war between Russia and Ukraine, and it has become easy to see how countries use mass communication as a weapon of war.
It has become possible for electronic accounts on social media to be used to weaken an opponent who may have many real weapons by publishing ideas, news, and information, whether true or false, about it. Social media alone may not be able to bring about a large-scale change in the light of this in an actual war, but it undoubtedly has an influential role to play in it.
FALSEHOODS: Several studies have confirmed the spread of falsehoods on social media.
A study conducted by a research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, for example, concluded that falsehoods diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information on social-networking sites. It indicated that the effects of these lies were more visible in political news compared to news of terrorism and natural disasters.
The study, which examined 126,000 stories tweeted by about three million people more than 4.5 million times on social media, found that most of the falsehoods spread on social media were not spread by bots, in other words, computers linked to the network, but by real people. The study suggested that the reason for social media users spreading such lies was that false statements seem more surprising than other data and false news circulated on social media can be more novel than true news, which is one of the attractive features behind its publication.
The study found that false news stories were 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than true stories, in addition to having more staying power and carrying onto more “cascades”, or unbroken retweet chains. This indicates that social networking sites have contributed greatly to the dissemination and support of false and fake news.
The US Congress and FBI are investigating evidence that Russian and other foreign users deliberately flooded social media with untrue reports and posts intended to mislead people about political candidates in the US elections.
Recently, US billionaire Elon Musk has made statements regarding the social networking site Twitter to the effect that fake users make up at least 20 per cent of all Twitter accounts, and possibly as high as 90 per cent of them.
Although a Twitter official clarified that spam accounts make up fewer than five per cent of total users, these statements still raise questions about the extent of the reality of the persons on social networking sites that can alter public opinion whether in the manufacture of certain issues or in biasing one party over another.
Even if the percentage of accounts that do not represent real people on Twitter is less than five per cent, the confirmation of these accounts’ presence on the site confirms the danger and does not deny it.
Director of the European Centre for Middle Eastern Studies Sattar Jabbar Rahman, a think tank based in Germany, confirmed that social media is full of fake accounts, but that it is difficult to determine the exact number. The level of information forgery and fraud has increased with the emergence of social media, he said, to a large extent due to the greater freedom in publishing and circulating news and information on it without controls based on credibility and accuracy.
Rahman told Al-Ahram Weekly that many social media accounts may apply the slogan launched by German minister of propaganda during the Nazi period, Joseph Goebbels, that the more you lie, the more people may believe you. Since then, there has been a lot of development in the use of the media to manipulate public opinion and to spread fake news and rumours.
He attributed the reason for spreading lies to achieving economic and political goals, as is the case in the present media conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
He also said that social networking sites may represent a danger to the concept of the nation-state, as they have led to the weakening of this in the face of electronic empires armed with abundant ideas and information, including a lot of false information.
For example, Twitter was able to block the account of former US president Donald Trump, and Trump was not able to take any active position against this measure. This blocking affected the former president’s presence in the media.
Rahman ruled out the expectation that there will be any international controls governing social media sites in the future due to the absence of an international judicial authority that can issue deterrent rulings and the absence of an executive authority that can implement these provisions. He noted that these sites are one of the tools driving the meltdown of the nation state in the context of globalisation, and this is what the future will also bring.
IN EGYPT: Many issues have been raised on social media sites in Egypt, one of the most famous being the “Fairmont case” dating back to 2014.
This case was revived on social media accounts that published stories claiming that a girl had been lured by wealthy Egyptian youths during a party held at the Fairmont Nile City Hotel in Cairo, who then took turns in raping her in July 2020. The publication of these stories on social-networking accounts led to the opening of investigations by the competent authorities, ending in the issuance of a 15-year prison sentence for one of the accused by the North Cairo Criminal Court.
The second and third accused were sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia due to their escape in November 2021. The ruling was issued after the defendants were released by the prosecution for lack of evidence in May of the same year.
Despite the positive role of social networking sites in shedding light on some crimes, they remain a dangerous environment due to the almost absolute freedom they have to publish, make accusations, and publish allegations without conclusive proof. Many crimes are also practised on social networking sites such as cyberbullying, electronic blackmail, defamation, insults and spreading rumours, with many of these being seen in Egypt.
One of the most famous examples of rumours spreading on social media in Egypt was the “Microbus Al-Sahel” rumour that spread like wildfire on social media in 2021. The rumour’s promoters claimed that a bus had fallen into the Nile going across the Al-Sahel Bridge. Some claimed that they had seen the bus falling into the Nile, which prompted others to submit a report to the prosecution on the matter.
The prosecution assigned river rescue units to search for the allegedly drowned bus, but they did not find anything. Police investigations revealed that a fracture in the bridge wall was not related to the falling of a bus into the Nile, but was due to the crash of a motorbike into it, leading to the falling of part of the wall into the Nile. The bike rider was arrested and after questioning by the prosecution admitted that he had not reported the incident for fear of seeing his bike confiscated.
Alleged eyewitnesses then admitted that they had not witnessed the accident, but had read accounts on social media. The prosecution decided to arrest them on charges of disturbing the peace.
As a result, it can be seen that social media, by spreading rumours, can have deleterious effects on society by creating falsehoods and spreading them among the population. These rumours can create a state of confusion and division within society, fueled by accounts on social media.
On the political level, the Muslim Brotherhood and some supporters of Political Islam also reportedly use social media to create and broadcast calls for discontent against the authorities in Egypt in what has become a media and information war.
Since the Muslim Brotherhood lost political power in Egypt in 2013, it has worked to build its media empire through satellite channels broadcasting from abroad in addition to on the Internet, specifically on social media. The latter has become the freest outlet for the group’s supporters to express themselves and their ambition, which is to return to rule Egypt.
They hope to mobilise the Egyptian people into organising protests to overthrow the regime in Egypt, in order to restore them to power, or at least to allow them to return to Egypt without restrictions or security surveillance.
Among the strategies that the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters have followed to gather as many people as possible to support them have been the creation of groups and pages on social networking sites like Facebook, sometimes suddenly changing the names of these groups and then starting to use them to promote protests in Egypt. One group, created in January 2019, saw its name changed in September, for example, while another, created in 2017, changed its name two years later.
Figures supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, or who consider it to be a national political group despite its extremist and exclusionary ideology, have also appeared on social networking sites. They have launched a number of campaigns aimed at mobilising Egyptian citizens against the authorities and calling for “revolution” against the regime.
The bloc supporting the Brotherhood on social media has attracted followers by creating hashtags that serve their extremist ideology and that mix religion and politics. They still have the ability to mobilise electronically, though this has not allowed them to return to their previous position, and all their attempts to return to power have ended in failure.
In 2020, Facebook announced that it had closed a network of fake accounts operating in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, adding that this network was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and had published content related to terrorism in Egypt, Morocco, and Turkey.
This was an admission by one of the most famous social networking sites, if not the most famous, that the Muslim Brotherhood uses fake accounts, known in Egypt as “electronic committees”, to promote terrorism and support its cause in the media.
FAKE ACCOUNTS: Osama Mustafa, an IT expert and CEO of the Tawasol Company that specialises in digital software, said that Elon Musk’s statement in which he claimed that the number of fake accounts on Twitter was up to 90 per cent of the site’s accounts was exaggerated.
It was probably related to trying to reduce the price of Twitter stock in the sale Musk was trying to arrange with the owners of the company, Mustafa said. It was possible to accept a figure of 20 per cent of fake accounts, though even that was high, he added, pointing out that fake accounts on social-networking sites, used as tools to put pressure on various groups or individuals, are being combated by the companies concerned by requiring that a mobile phone number be linked to all accounts and not used for multiple ones.
Facebook has also put in place software that can stop accounts sharing a similar IP address.
Mustafa said that the owners of social-networking sites do not need to create fake accounts to serve their own purposes, but they may leave fake accounts active without canceling them because they serve in one way or another to achieve political and intelligence goals for certain countries. The owners of social media sites may intensify the topics they see fit to suit the policies of such countries, he said, and to reduce the significance of policies that do not suit them. Both phenomena may be seen in the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.
Mustafa added that Twitter is a US company, and it does not officially publish material opposed to US policies. Both Russia and Ukraine use fake accounts as a result, along with deception and electronic hacking in the context of the war between them, which is an electronic war in the context of a larger global war.
Such propaganda warfare between countries has existed at least since World War I, though in a more primitive form. Countries later would jam radar systems and use electronic tools for espionage and eavesdropping, Mustafa said, and social media is simply the more modern tool for use in today’s electronic wars.
The Muslim Brotherhood uses electronic means in its war against the authorities in Egypt, and one individual may have many fake accounts on social media, Mustafa added. These aim to promote certain issues and suppress others, while adding to tensions in society.
At the time of the 25 January Revolution in 2011, people were mostly new to social media and were ready to believe what they read on it, he said. Today, the situation is different, and people have become more aware of fake accounts. Even so, the impact of these and their activities remains, meaning that the state media has a responsibility to publish correct information to combat them.
The writer is a researcher in political science, and managing editor of the Middle Eastern Visions Platform of the European Centre for Middle East Studies, based in Germany.
A version of this article appears in print in the 16 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.