March 2014        

Social media: Whose interests do they serve?


I can’t help but wonder if the internet and all its “social media” outlets, such as Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, blog sites, Instagram, etc., have been the biggest help or the biggest hindrance in fostering unity among left political forces and in creating new narratives of events happening around the world.
     There has been a definite increase and shift in how stories are breaking; and in the age of digital technology and the arrival of broadband internet there has been a transformative shift in how the public interact, receive and relay information on an almost infinite number of topics. This has enabled them not only to enter but in fact to shape the traditional media discourse. Before the arrival of the digital revolution, this had been under the exclusive ownership of institutions of the mass media.
     So, on the face of it, this can’t be a bad thing. The public have taken some power back from the private and state-run media monopolies, and have the capability to create new or different narratives that surround current and historical events.
     Just as an example of how social media have exploded, in 2003 there were fewer than 1 million active English-language blogs; today there are an estimated 450 million. Facebook, the largest social networking site, which relays a lot of the current events and political information, has gone from nil to more than 1.3 billion users in the space of ten years. The figures are staggering.
     The rise of social media was met with an initial optimism for a more democratically owned and controlled media discourse. Some writers enthused that “these personal publishing systems have given rise to a phenomenon that shows the markings of a revolution—giving anyone with the right talent and energy the ability to be heard far and wide on the Web.”¹
     The rules of the old institutionalised media game have dramatically changed with the explosion of citizen and participatory journalists. The citizen-journalists are the people who research, create, produce and publish their own media content, whereas participatory journalists contribute content to an established media entity, which frames and shapes the discourse. Many heralded it as the new dawn of media production—“out with the old and in with the new”—where media production would be decentralised and content would not be manufactured by large corporations but would be created by the citizens themselves.
     The only problem with this is that the establishment newspapers, television news channels, experts, pundits, magazines and the rest have adapted to the new climate of public participation. It’s not that the established media institutions have brought about this shift themselves, or even that they wanted it, but it has forced them to take heed of the technological advances and how the public are interacting and using them.
     The bigger picture would suggest that it is just as fundamentally about maintaining control in generating and framing content in order to manufacture consent as it is about adapting to new markets to meet the bottom line of profit-creation. They have caught up with the technology-savvy citizen and are employing and swallowing up the very spaces people created for expressing alternative views—blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and the rest—to their own advantage, both for profit and for manufacturing consent.
     Even more worryingly and sinister, something that has only recently been coming to light since the Snowden archives opened, is the fact that intelligence agencies such as the American NSA and British GCHQ are manipulating, infiltrating and disrupting the flow of social media discourse. Classified documents are revealing the extent of this manipulation. “Among the core self-identified purposes of JTRIG [Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group] are two tactics: (1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets, and (2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate on-line discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable.”²
     This has never been so clear as it is today. Think of such recent events as the “Arab Spring,” the London riots in 2011, the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya, the “rebel rising” and foiled invasion attempt in Syria, and the events unfolding in Ukraine and Venezuela.³ Why is it that in one country protesters are labelled as criminals while in others they are freedom-fighters? And whose interests does it serve to quickly put a label on them?
     More and more of the information being fed to the media is coming from participatory journalists. But who can say they are a legitimate or a trustworthy source? To paraphrase an article I read recently on Venezuela, authoritative reporting is about fact-based accounts, not recycled and unchecked tweets from Twitter, or Youtube videos appealing for help against “dictatorships.” These are mechanisms that are used to promote confusion and delusion among the general population.
     Unfortunately, the people’s class-consciousness is at its lowest point at the present time, and so the proven right-wing, pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist and outright fascist elements that have been the driving force in many violent demonstrations against elected governments in Venezuela and Ukraine, or going back to Syria and Libya, are hidden. The anti-government and reactionary forces have funds and support from the United States and the European Union and their agencies, with their agenda, their content and their ability to manufacture consent being employed in their interests through the social media and among the more traditional media outlets.
     Let us be clear, though: we can’t say that all those governments are bastions of progress. However, it is the aggressiveness of the imperialist states, their willingness to ally themselves with fascists for their own benefit and their clear utilisation of media manipulation that is of greater concern. Of course history will tell us that this is nothing new.
     So has anything changed with the digital revolution? Has that initial optimism of democratised media been realised? Has the revolution been televised, “liked,” and shared? Has anything changed?
     It would be naïve to think that vast swathes of the Irish population (never mind the rest of the world) would have suddenly turned their back on traditional media, as the general population tends to trust these over other, new media sources. Arguably what it has led to is a widening of the debate or the media discourse. Where once the monopoly of the media would go unchecked, or the content they produced and reproduced could not be questioned in any large-scale, interactive medium so as to cast doubt on their trustworthiness, it is now open to public scrutiny, which has coincided with the rise of citizen and participatory journalism.
     This new-found freedom has led to a wider expression of ideas, some highly critical of the establishment, some supportive of it. Blogs and social media sites have become a forum that has developed and enhanced citizen journalism, giving a voice to the otherwise voiceless in a monopolised industry. This, we can say, is a positive development.
     But there is a serious cautionary label that those on the left should always be aware of when dealing with social media, and that is that class warfare will always find an expression in any place where class conflict and the battle of ideas exist. Social media are just the latest arena of class struggle. All too easily people and groups can be seduced by the human story without looking beyond the individual and seeing the deeper social, economic, political and class forces at play. For those who lack political or class consciousness this can be forgiven.
     Publications of the CPI, such as Socialist Voice, are trying to educate and build that class-consciousness among working people so that the narrative created by the establishment media can be contradicted and countered. What cannot be forgiven is the support by any groups on the left for the forces of reaction, fascism, and Imperialism. This sows confusion within the working class, weakening and splitting the consolidation of forces on the left. What it ultimately illustrates is a lack of a concrete analysis of concrete situations.
     You can’t, on the one hand, advocate socialism while on the other strengthen the hand of imperialism. How the left here in Ireland and elsewhere perceive and publicise the situations in Ukraine, Venezuela, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine or Cuba illustrates how confused and disunited the left are.
     For example, North Korea, with all its faults, is without doubt one of the most explicitly anti-imperialist states, and has had plenty of social media attention over the past year or so but with very little in the way of support for its anti-imperialist position. This isn’t to say we must drape ourselves in the North Korean flag, or that we can’t be critical of particular governments. To put a cat among the pigeons, the next time North Korea is under attack from imperialism will we on the left send our message of solidarity to them on Facebook, Twitter or in any other way, or will we hang them by “liking” and sharing western media propaganda, which has a proven agenda of destroying “the reputation of its targets”?
     Will we support the US and Saudi-backed rebels in Syria one day, while the next share our videos of protesting against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands? Should we condemn the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but ignore the role of British imperialism in both the north and south of our own country? Will we always hold the goal of socialism high for all to see while underneath we scorn the revolutionary achievements and advances of the Soviet Union, Cuba, and other socialist states? If we do, whose interests do we serve?
     This should be food for thought. However, given the stepping up of violence and of extreme right-wing, reactionary and overtly fascist groups organising on a number of continents, with direct support from the EU and the United States, and the fact that they are able to conceal this so well under social media pretexts of freedom and democracy, we can no longer sit on our hands and choose a bit from column A and a bit from column B.
     It’s time to stop the pretence. The left either takes a critical and disciplined anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist stance, uniting under the banner of the working class, warts and all, promoting national and international solidarity, or we continue in this charade of mistrust, of sectarian, disjointed and disillusioned politics.
[EON]

References
  1. Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis, “We media: How audiences are shaping the future of news and information,” at www.hypergene.net.
  2. Glenn Greenwald, “How covert agents infiltrate the internet to manipulate, deceive, and destroy reputations,” at https://firstlook.org/theintercept. Another good article on this subject is “The secret playbook of social media censors: The ‘counter reset’,” at www.globalresearch.ca.
  3. Julia Buxton, “Venezuela: The real significance of the student protests,” at lab.org.uk/venezuela—student protests.

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