Social media, public discourse and a shift in balance of power
A presentation on a social media counter-terrorism program impresses on students the power of propaganda and their critical role in influencing public discourse.
Media students gathered at Irwin Hall last week to learn about a professional collaboration that led to the dissemination of curated videos on YouTube aimed at countering the lure of “cinematic quality” videos posted by supporters and members of the Islamic State (I.S.).
This program was developed and run by a consortium of government, private and third sector organizations that included Quantum, a strategic communication firm. One of its representatives gave a detailed presentation about I.S. activity online and the results of research into susceptibility to I.S. messaging.
“Our university is in a part of the world that is affected on a daily basis by conflict, war, state-actors, non-state actors and specifically now by Daesh,” said Chair of the Department of Communication Arts Jad Melki, explaining why a comprehensive understanding of propaganda and social media is essential to youths in Lebanon in general and students of digital journalism in particular. “This defines their news agenda, their politics and their personal and professional future,” added Melki, who has written extensively on the use of media by non-state actors, including Hezbollah and Hamas.
The term Daesh originates from the Arabic shorthand for ISIS, the acronym the terrorist organization first used before their ambitions spread beyond Iraq and Syria. “We didn’t use the term Daesh in the links or videos we posted as we were looking to gain the attention of I.S. sympathizers who consider Daesh to be a derogatory term,” explained the Quantum representative as he expounded on the strategy adopted to hook and misdirect potential I.S. recruits online.
“We can’t be certain of the extent of the success of our eight-week pilot program, but over 300,000 individuals watched at least one of our videos,” he added. Dozens of videos were curated and added to playlists with the aim to counter the I.S. narrative.
“Social media has transformed the balance of power. It allows everyone to manipulate the public discourse,” said Assistant Professor for Digital Journalism Monika Halkort, who initiated the presentation. In a bid to encourage debate beyond the lecture itself, she urged her students to tweet the event live and put their critical thinking into practice.
“Governments have been completely powerless in responding to this shift. They simply have not understood how thinking politics and governing population have essentially become technical skills on a par with diplomatic skills, political skills and political foresight.” Lebanon, noted Halkort, is particularly weak in this regard, with no evident relationship between the government’s day-to-day management of its population, its infrastructure and available media facilities.
“Even the U.S. government, with its arrogance of power, tries to control the airways as they have done since the cold war, instead of engaging with citizens on the ground. For that they need to speak their language, but they don’t have the necessary mindset to do that.”
Melki agrees, but adds that the absence of a counter-attack on I.S. propaganda ran parallel to the lack of a military attack. “They weren’t interested in wiping out Daesh at first. Only recently with the bombings in western cities did they realize it is a global threat. They now realize they created a monster, just as they did with Al Qaeda.”