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Social media in warfare

News organisations' efforts to report on military operations and geopolitical circumstances with objectivity face a deluge of digital misinformers willing to jeopardise people's suffering in the name of virality

The war in Ukraine teaches us valuable lessons about communication, information and the role of the media. It is all about points of view, interests and target audiences. The weaponised media regulations coming from Russia, in contrast to Ukraine's social media information dominance, bring us to the relationship between language and political power.

While calculated violence and bombings for political purposes can change the attitudes and behaviour of multiple audiences, social media is creating a highly complex information system. On both sides of the border, locals, volunteers and tourists are documenting their experiences. These humanised emotional narratives have resulted in a variety of communication scenarios as well as a diverse range of responses from around the world.

News organisations' efforts to report on military operations and geopolitical circumstances with objectivity face a deluge of digital misinformers willing to jeopardise people's suffering in the name of virality.

Misinformation is part of warfare. Just days before the war, Russia had claimed it was withdrawing its forces from the border with Ukraine. Open-source intelligence (OSINT) and newspaper organisations came out revealing that satellite imagery told a different story: In fact, Russia was massing troops. Old misinformation tactics used from the Trojan War to World War II now face the cyber battle – a fight without physical borders.

The digital media landscape embraces its very first real war. It had a foothold in Syria and Crimea in 2011 and 2014, but nothing compared to the current situation. The ‘first Internet war’ could be the 1990s Yugoslavian Civil Wars. Now, trolls and bots take central stage along with social media influences to spread propaganda and disinformation – yet, that is what occurs in periods of conflict or political turbulence.

In this media chess game, OSINT researchers are becoming contributors by publicly doing intelligence work simply by using the available technologies and the vast online information to provide analysis. This bridges traditional journalism to a new way of analysing events that does not contribute to governments’ selective released information and objectives. Choosing content from credible sources, as the correct approach, can also be interpreted as governments’ perspectives, which may be misleading depending on which side of the conflict a government is on. And so, the digital technology giants are in it: A tit-for-tat media war.

A digital information battle might be just as dangerous as any military operation. Control of information, control of expressing ideas are akin to using information as a weapon to instill fear, anxiety, and to rout out different viewpoints. Outside of Russia, civil society groups and activists are using ads to sneak news to Russians. Using location targeting, the ads provide veiled links to news websites or the activation of virtual private networks (VPNs) to skirt the news blockade imposed on foreign organisations. Digital detectives from all over the world have been carrying out attacks on Russia’s Internet sites, including national television stations.

In the haze of Russia-Ukraine information warfare, ironically, there are countries such as China calling for tough regulations to prohibit ‘false news’. This type of call has the potential to have a significant impact on journalistic operations, especially in countries that have a history of repressing press freedom. What is happening right now in terms of the flow of information is both an alert and a warning about the minefield that social media represents.

The emotionally appealing strategies of social media encourage users to share powerful images of violence. It means that the ethical boundaries of social networking do not correspond to the Geneva Convention norms on war. Social media companies have their own set of rules. We are witnessing a real-time and immersive conflict – as a media spectacle.

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