With increased access to information, social media platforms are also being employed by individuals and organizations to spread disinformation to shape negative public opinion. Along with digital literacy, regulatory laws and public awareness could be helpful in countering such propaganda.
Social media are interactive websites and applications that facilitate social networking and develop virtual communities, share information and ideas using computers and mobile phones, etc. Social media platforms offer a great opportunity to the users to share content including ideas, opinions, activities, status updates, personal messages, memories, stories, recommendations, news, articles, photos, text, audios, and videos etc. It has become an important tool for shaping public opinion. The internet has integrated the society at the global level, which can be attributed as one community and has exposed information at an unprecedented volume and velocity for public consumption. At the same time, the increased accessibility and use of social media has also allowed various actors, including extremist groups, insurgent organizations, and even political parties/groups and governments to manipulate information and disseminate propaganda in order to influence the behaviour and beliefs of individuals and communities. This manipulation may lead to increased polarization in the society and sometimes hostility towards the government and other national institutions, including the military. This has become more prominent since the advent of the fifth generation warfare, especially against Pakistan, where the country has already suffered a lot.
The effects of social media on the society are multifaceted including, changed behavior in the way we consume news and information, mental health and wellbeing, and the way we interact with one another. Social media has also affected the public's perception of the military, and is being used as a tool for state and non-state actors to mobilize support for their actions. To counter these effects, governments and regulators can implement measures such as, media literacy, fact-checking or even censorship in some cases to mitigate disinformation, fake news and propaganda.
Social media is playing a crucial role in our lives in many ways. Compared to traditional media, besides being highly interactive, social media platforms are much better in outreach, frequency, usability, relevance, and permanence. Social media contents are mostly generated by users employing Web 2.0 internet-based applications. It is much easier for people to communicate and stay connected with one another, regardless of distance, national boundaries, religion, language or time zones. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat allow people to share updates, photos, and videos, and to send message to one another in real time. Moreover, social media has also changed the way we consume news and information. People can now get news from a variety of sources, including traditional news outlets, as well as from their friends and followers on social media. However, this has also led to the spread of misinformation and fake news due to its ability to reach a large and diverse audience at a low cost and in almost real time.
Some characteristics of social media include:
▪ Connectivity. Social media platforms allow users to connect with people from all over the world, regardless of physical distance.
▪ Interactivity. Users can interact with each other through comments, likes, and shares, creating a sense of community.
▪ User-generated Content. Social media platforms are primarily driven by user-generated content, such as text, images, and videos.
▪ Realtime. Social media allows users to receive updates and information in real time, giving them access to the latest news and trends.
▪ Accessibility. Social media platforms are widely accessible, with many being available on multiple devices and operating systems.
▪ Addictive. Social media can be addictive, as it releases dopamine, the chemical in our brain that makes us feel good.
▪ Greater Outreach. Social media platforms allow users to reach a large and diverse audience, expanding their potential impact.
▪ Increased Visibility. Social media platforms can increase the visibility of an individual, group, or brand.
▪ Privacy Concerns. There are concerns about the privacy of personal information shared on social media.
▪ Spread of Misinformation. Social media can be used to spread misinformation, which can have serious consequences.
The effects of social media on the society are multi-faceted including, changed behaviour in the way we consume news and information, mental health and well-being, and the way we interact with one another. Social media has also affected the public's perception of the military, and is being used as a tool for state and non-state actors to mobilize support for their actions.
In the recent days, we have seen great penetration of social media in our society and almost every internet user uses social media in some way. Social media usage is rapidly growing because of the increased use of smart phones and uninterrupted connectivity of these devices to high-speed internet. These smart phones make it possible to access social media platforms from anywhere. Mobile versions of these social media platforms have made these platforms extremely user friendly. Other factors contributing to the fast growth of social media include availability of broadband internet, development of powerful computers and mobile devices, improvement in software tools and above all, availability of all of these at affordable prices. People share different types of content on social media which could be entertaining, inspiring, educational, and convincing. This content could be shared with different motives, some of which could be to stay connected with others and building communities, discussions with likeminded people, convince others with their ideas and thinking, support some cause or idea, bring valuable/enlightening and entertaining content to others, and for self-fulfilment and credit by others. People of different age groups on social media are a bit different in their thinking, interests, timing, online content’s consumption, and preferred social media platforms, etc. Social media is offering a great opportunity to connect people and develop communities, but on the flip side, the biggest challenge is the authentication of the shared content as the shared news can be true or false. There is no effective mechanism or ability to distinguish between the two. Social media in Pakistan and elsewhere is offering great opportunities and challenges at the same time. There are around seventy-eight million social media users in Pakistan, comprising 31.5% of the total population. Gender distribution on social media in Pakistan is 73% male and 27% female. YouTube is the most popular social media platform with more than seventy-one million audience. This constitutes 86.5% of total internet users which are around 83 million.
Social media platforms are open access which can be connected globally from anywhere without any restrictions or borders. These platforms can be used for the benefit of the society in several ways in the field of education, public awareness, raising social issues, staying up-to-date, communication and turning this world into a true global community. But unfortunately, a large number of actors are manipulating social media and using it for their own ulterior motives. The biggest concern here is the privacy of individuals and manipulating the facts by spreading disinformation/fake news in an organized manner to achieve different malicious objectives. Massive digital disinformation is one of the main risks for the modern society. Fake accounts can very easily be made on social media which can be used for different malicious purposes, including creating and spreading fake news and negative opinion building. As per Facebook’s own count, there are roughly more than one billion fake accounts on Facebook worldwide.
Social media platforms are open access which can be connected globally from anywhere without any restrictions or borders. These platforms can be used for the benefit of the society in several ways in the field of education, public awareness, raising social issues, staying up-to-date, communication and building this world to a true global community.
Social media has also changed the way we shop and interact with brands. Platforms like Instagram and Pinterest have made it easier for people to discover and purchase products, and for businesses to advertise and interact with their customers. While social media can be a great way to stay connected and informed, it can also have a negative effect on mental health and wellbeing. Studies have found that excessive use of social media can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Additionally, the constant comparison to others through social media can lead to low self-esteem and body image issues. Overall, social media has changed the way we communicate, stay informed, interact with one another and has greatly impacted various aspects of our lives. It is also important to be aware of the potential negative effects and to take steps to use it in a balanced and healthy way. Several studies and research articles have been published on how social media can manipulate the relationship between citizens and the military of a country. It's worth noting that social media can also be used as a tool for citizen journalism and activism to expose human rights violations, misconduct or corruption of government institutions. In this way, it can help towards accountability and contribute to a more informed citizenry.
The presence of media cells within political parties that generate fake news for their political gains, while putting aside national interests, is a concern. These media cells are often used to spread false or misleading information in an effort to influence public opinion and gain political advantages. This includes spreading disinformation or propaganda, manipulating or fabricating images and videos, and creating fake social media accounts to amplify their message. This type of activity can have serious consequences, such as undermining public trust in institutions, spreading disinformation, and creating divisions within the society.
Social media can be used to manipulate facts and build negative public opinion by various actors such as individuals, extremist groups, insurgent organizations etc.
Social media can be used to manipulate facts and build negative public opinion by various actors such as individuals, extremist groups, and insurgent organizations, etc. Following are the few outcomes expressed upon the society and individuals through social media:
▪ Propaganda and Disinformation. Social media has been used to spread disinformation, misinformation, half-truths and extremist ideologies by various actors such as individuals, extremist groups, and insurgent organizations, etc. These actors use social media to disseminate propaganda and false information to manipulate public opinion and shape the discourse around sensitive national issues. This can undermine public trust in institutions and create divisions within communities. Fake news is the biggest challenge the modern digital society is facing.
▪ Shaping Public Opinion. Social media is a very effective tool to shape public opinion which could be used positively to develop consensus on national issues but unfortunately, this is mostly being used by malicious actors to shape public opinion against government and other national institutions, including military. Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and their use in deepfake has made it nearly impossible to detect fake videos and audios by common available means. We have seen this negative image building campaigns during our recent operations around the western border areas and even polio vaccination drives.
▪ Mobilization and Recruitment. Social media has also been used to mobilize and recruit individuals for various causes, including extremist groups and insurgent organizations. Social media platforms provide an easy and effective way for these groups to reach a large audience and to identify and target potential recruits.
▪ Citizen Journalism. Social media has also provided an avenue for citizen journalists and activists. In some cases, this can be helpful to bring quick information and contribute towards a more informed citizenry, but authenticity and reliability of such news is always an issue.
▪ Polarization. Social media has increased polarization in the society by allowing like-minded individuals to find and reinforce each other's views, creating filter bubbles and echo chambers that further reinforce the existing beliefs. This can lead to increased hostility and reduced tolerance in the society.
Besides the society, there are certain negative impacts of social media on an individual user, some of which are as follows:
• Erosion of Privacy. Social media can lead to the erosion of privacy as personal information shared by individuals online can be accessed by others. This can then be used for malicious objectives such as identity theft, synthetic identity, financial frauds, defaming, and creating fake social media accounts, etc.
• Cyberbullying. Social media can also be used to bully and harass others, leading to a negative impact on mental health and wellbeing.
• Mental Health. Social media can have a negative impact on mental health, such as increased feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
• Dependence. Social media can also lead to addiction, where people are unable to limit their use of the platforms, which can lead to a lack of productivity and social isolation.
Military, being a part of this society, is impacted in the same way as the society from the manipulative role of social media. Social media has been ‘weaponised’ as a tool of hybrid warfare by the enemy states and ‘non-state actors’ also employ the modern techniques and divisive tactics using social media in modern times. Militaries and security setups need to do a lot to avert these threats. In the best interest of the country, it is important to use the social media in a positive way and neutralize the manipulative or negative impact of social media.
Social media can also have negative effects on individuals employed in security agencies, military and other sensitive organization which include:
▪ Operational Security Risks. Individuals may inadvertently reveal sensitive information about their location, movements, and activities on social media, which can be used by the adversaries to plan attacks or ambushes.
▪ Cybersecurity Risks. Selected persons may be targeted with malware or other cyber attacks through social media, which can compromise the security of military networks and systems.
▪ Distraction from Mission. Individuals may become distracted from their mission by spending too much time on social media, which can reduce their effectiveness and increase the risk of injury or death.
▪ Psychological Risks. Individuals may be exposed to traumatic images and videos on social media, which can contribute to the development of conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
▪ Spread of Misinformation. Military persons may be exposed to misinformation on social media, which can lead to confusion and mistrust, and negatively affect their decisionmaking.
▪ Risk to Privacy. Soldiers may share personal information on social media, which can put them at the risk of being targeted by adversaries or stalkers.
▪ Temptation to Share Sensitive Information. Soldiers may be tempted to share sensitive information on social media, which can put their unit and mission at risk.
Overall, social media can be a powerful tool for manipulation, both by individuals and organizations, and it can have a significant effect on the society, including military. It can be used to spread false information and propaganda, to influence public opinion and behavior, and to target vulnerable individuals and groups. It can also be used by the military to gather intelligence, influence the behaviour of soldiers and society and to counter propaganda. The effects of social media manipulation are detrimental to the society, and thus need to be countered effectively. It is more important for the individuals to be aware of the social media’s potential for manipulation and the steps they need to take to protect themselves. This includes being critical of the information they see online, verifying the source of information to be authentic, and not sharing any information without first checking for its accuracy and truthfulness.
The writer is an Associate Professor at NUST and Associate of Higher Education Academy, UK.
E-mail: [email protected]
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