The 2010s will go down in history as the decade when social media pervaded every aspect of our daily lives. From politics to news media to social movements, the internet and major social media platforms are easily one of the biggest – if not the single biggest – story of the 2010s. In the Middle East, the evolution of social media was on clear display in the last ten years as it shifted from a force of liberalization to one of oppression before our very eyes.
The decade kicked off with a social media-driven movement of hope in the Arab Spring that saw young men and women topple dictators to realize the dream of building societies of greater freedom and economic prosperity. But now, almost a decade since Tahrir Square, Middle Eastern states use disingenuous tactics on social media, mounting propaganda campaigns to sway public opinion in their favor while developing and using new tools to stifle the online organizing and information-sharing fueling the new wave of protests across the region.
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Just like the United States, the U.K. and other democracies, Israel is also grappling with the effects of social media and foreign interference in its elections – as well as with a leader who uses social media to circumvent the news media with bombastic accusations against his opponents, the justice system and the news itself. Social media initially appeared tailor-made to promote equality.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, SnapChat and many other platforms gave everyday people a voice, created the citizen journalist and made the so-called “gatekeepers” of traditional media less relevant to the social discourse. But in the last ten years, what began as a tool of freedom quickly turned sour as corporations commercialized social media for their ends and state actors found ways to weaponize it.
Anat Ben-David, an internet researcher and senior lecturer in the sociology department of the Open University in Tel Aviv, says one can compare the 2011 Arab Spring, when social media was widely seen as a “democratizing agent,” to 2019, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was hauled before the U.S. Congress and grilled for his company’s role in “advancing the demise of democratic regimes around the world.”
“Facebook is dangerous,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told Zuckerberg at a hearing of the Senate Banking Committee in July of this year. “Facebook has said, ‘just trust us.’ And every time Americans trust you, they seem to get burned.”
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Social media initially enabled millions of citizens to coordinate political action while challenging traditional political power structures underprepared for this modern phenomenon. The Arab Spring served as a wake-up call to despotic regimes, who have since turned social media into a weapon targeting domestic and foreign populations.
This past year’s protests around the Middle East have encountered governments actively disrupting social media ahead of lethal, brutal crackdowns. Iran went so far as to shut down the internet for nearly a week in November. As The Associated Press reported, it became the first regime to effectively isolate a “modern, highly developed domestic network” – marking a “grim milestone in efforts by authoritarian governments to censor online communications.”
Totalitarian regimes need to both control and exploit social media because it targets emotion, ideology and thought itself – and the impact is immeasurable.
Ben-David explains that the change in social media began when platforms introduced commercialization and the egalitarian internet became a “funneled web.” Platforms like Facebook and Twitter started collecting user data to offer advertisers individualized targeting for products – at a price. Politicians soon began utilizing this same unregulated model, creating a world where politics is “mediated like a brand,” according to Ben-David.
Each social media platform uses algorithms to choose the content we see online, with unique sets of metrics and criteria. These algorithms are now responsible for choosing knowledge, deciding which stories and posts pop-up in our feeds, though its purpose is to please the user and promote continued use of the platform. Ben-David believes that applying this phenomenon to politics is one of the main reasons our society is becoming increasingly polarized. She says the algorithm “takes away the public space” and limits the shared public sphere, which has been key in giving rise to alternative facts and allowing conspiracy theories and disinformation to go viral without being challenged.
Governments have also utilized bots – automated accounts – to push their message on social media, a phenomenon known as “artificial amplification” that has become a standard tool of influence.
Both Facebook and Twitter have recently taken self-regulatory actions to crack down on deceptive political influence campaigns both domestically and internationally. Last summer Facebook announced that it removed more than 600 accounts tied to the pro-Trump conspiracy website The Epoch Times for using identities created with the help of artificial intelligence to push stories about a variety of topics, including Trump’s impeachment and the 2020 elections.
Last week Twitter announced that it had suspended some 88,000 accounts that were part of “a significant state-backed information operation on Twitter originating in Saudi Arabia.” Reports of Twitter suspending accounts related to state-backed propaganda campaigns originating in Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, China and Spain have also emerged.
In April, Twitter blocked 258 accounts linked to a network working to boost Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection campaign.
Some accounts were real and others were bots. While a direct link between those accounts and Netayahu’s campaign apparatus remains unclear, Facebook suspended Netanyahu’s official page in September during Israel’s second election campaign of the year after a chatbot revealed poll results 24 hours prior to the election, in violation of the law.
Israel’s current political deadlock is the result of a unique set of circumstances that evolved of their own volition, but it’s also a byproduct of the social media-driven politics of the day. Israel is marching toward its third election in under a year while the prime minister resorts to tactics that feel very familiar to most Americans: attacks on the press, due process, the justice system and civil society as a whole.
Netanyahu is using social media to scorch the electorate with bombastic and divisive rhetoric in hopes of energizing his base, discrediting his opponents, attacking the legal proceedings against him and using the bully pulpit of his office to remain in power.
Without social media, Netanyahu would not be able to take his message directly to the people. Ben-David says it’s this direct link that allows politicians to convey information without having to pass through a journalistic filter that would fact-check claims and provide commentary.
Meanwhile,Netanyahu has been taking his campaign cues directly from U.S. President Donald Trump, a leader whose election and reign has been defined by his relationship with social media.
Trump, like Netanyahu, has used social media to attack the traditional media as “fake news” when outlets criticize him. Recently, Trump has even branded his own allies in the media, like Fox News and the evangelical magazine Christian Today, as “far left” and “pathetic.” His willingness to attack the media outlets that helped get him elected underscores his faith in his influence on social media to either silence his critics or to bypass them altogether and directly land his message with his target audience.
Comedian and satirist Sacha Baron Cohen called out social media companies for their impact on modern politics in November 2019.
“It’s time to finally call these companies what they really are – the largest publishers in history,” he said in remarks that ironically went viral on social media. “And here’s an idea for them: abide by basic standards and practices just like newspapers, magazines and TV news do every day,” he added.
Cohen slammed social media as the “greatest propaganda machine in history.”
“Think about it,” he said. “Facebook, YouTube and Google, Twitter and others – they reach billions of people. The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged – stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear.”
Is there any hope that the current dynamic will change for the better?
Ben-David notes that current initiatives to regulate social media do offer hope. Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren laid out a plan, as has the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation – to some extent. But on the whole, Ben-David is not optimistic, since self-regulation within the industry will be limited by internal interests – the least of which is profitability. Those who profit from the current dynamic and hold power have little to no incentive to rock the boat.“Populism and social media go hand in hand,” she says.