6 min read
The Uses and Abuses of Social Media: Analysis and Considerations

Giacomo Bortolazzi

In the rapidly advancing era of digital technology, social media platforms have gained immense significance as indispensable tools for communication. These emerging networks are steadily taking the place of radio or television and are completely changing the way in which information is designed and delivered. 

The explosion of social media platforms was made possible and accessible by the plurality of actors present in the digital media industry. These platforms have not only connected individuals across the globe, enabling them to share information and ideas, but have also assumed a formidable role in shaping relationships between nations’ political landscapes. This newly acquired efficiency and accessibility comes with various side effects, some being more impactful than others. The challenges created by social media and its implications are unpredictable and widespread.

Since its inception, social media has seen a steady rise in its usage for activism and political participation: the advent of new social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and many others has transformed politics worldwide. Political and business leaders as well as organizations have recognized the potential of these platforms to reach a broader audience, engage with voters, solicit support, and most importantly, shape public opinion. 

The speed and accessibility of social media comes with its own disadvantages. Being a relevantly new platform used by a wider range of people, its users can sometimes be presented with unfiltered information that leads to the spread of misinformation, especially in the field of politics, mainly due to the lack of enforcement measures against extremist and discriminatory statements by users. Technology has rapidly produced various new means of creating misinformation, such as deepfake and AI manipulation, which makes it much more difficult for the average user to distinguish between real and fake news. There are various examples of such manipulations: the famous deepfake video showing the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky announcing his surrender to Russia’s invasion, subsequently struck down by fact-checkers, dates back to March 2nd, 2022, whereas on June 5th, 2023 a falsified Putin speech aired a presidential martial law declaration in the Russian regions of Belgorod, Rostov, and Voronezh. 

The extensive use of social media, nowadays accessible to virtually everybody at any time, has also fostered the phenomena of citizen journalism and real-time reporting, which are characterized by a much wider and faster reach than traditional media platforms. Indeed, much of the information we receive from conflict zones is reported by individuals who are directly involved in the events, oftentimes providing alternative perspectives and bypassing traditional media channels. Real-time reporting through social media can raise international awareness and prompt humanitarian responses, but it also entails some side effects. Extremist groups exploit social media through similar methods to recruit followers, spread their ideologies, and plan deadly attacks. These challenges can represent a tough mountain to climb for counterterrorism efforts tasked with monitoring and addressing the online presence of extremist content.

One widespread phenomenon is the recognition by the Islamic State of the power of digital media. They started by uploading grainy videos of terrorist groups’ executions to the internet through a variety of platforms ranging from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. Telegram and Surespot were particularly used by this extremist group to recruit new members and further their ideals. According to the article by Brendan I. Koerner, the October 2015 report by the Quilliam Foundation titled Documenting the Virtual Caliphate stated that the organization used to release an average of “38 new items per day—20-minute videos, full-length documentaries, photo essays, audio clips, and pamphlets, in languages ranging from Russian to Bengali” during its peak period.

A similar phenomenon was seen in both the US and Europe. In the former case, a research brief by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism estimated that social media had a big role in the radicalization processes of lone actors in the United States in the period going from 2005 to 2016. In the latter case, the European Commission published a report on February 25th, 2022 on the Extremists’ Targeting of Young Women on Social Media and Lessons for P/CVE (Global Programme on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism), denouncing a worrying rise in the use of social media by extremist, defamatory, misogynistic, and identitarian groups to target the young audience during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Memes were first introduced as a concept by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 work The Selfish Gene, in which he defined them as units of cultural information spread by imitation. The term originally came from the Greek “mimema”, meaning “imitated”, and they were considered as the cultural parallel to biological genes in that they’re able to control their own reproduction and ends: just like selfish genes do from a generation to another, memes can carry information, replicate and transmit from one person to another through imitation, all of this by adapting to cultural evolution. The use of the term “meme” in the internet was subsequently introduced in 1994 by Mike Godwin in an article published by Wired.

Memes were around way before the widespread use of the internet. The first example of a meme arguably dates back to 1919 and 1920, but the most famous one was a comic published in a 1921 newspaper, in which the tendency of people to see themselves differently from how they appear in pictures was mocked. The comic was later popularized on the internet, thanks to which memes started to gain popularity and were consistently used in various fields outside entertainment, even reaching politics and inter-state relations in the last few years. 

Due to their mainly ironic nature, memes are often used as a form of satire and criticism towards politicians and political events as a way to hold leaders accountable by exposing their absurd or controversial actions. On the other hand, memes can also be used by state and political actors in campaigns to shape international narratives and present their viewpoints in a relatable and shareable format. Even in this regard, there are some risks: the emulative way in which memes usually spread could be used for purposes differing from mere satire and criticism, such as trying to mask extremist ideologies behind electoral propaganda. There are many examples throughout history of the use of memes to influence the results of an election, like in the most recent case of the massive amount of pro-Trump iconography created by users of 4Chan and Reddit during the 2016 US presidential elections. 

Social media has also been used to solicit international intervention by other states. In early 2023, the “Free the Leopards” social campaign was launched to put pressure on the German government due to their delay in sending tanks to the war zones in Ukraine. This type of event, later known as memetic warfare, has become a serious issue in mass strategic communications due to its unpredictable and subtle way of action: in an article published by the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence in 2016, an interview with Charles C. Johnson, the most famous right wing internet troll, made evident how important the role of social networks is in international matters - Johnson himself declared that “the best way to counter ISIS is to unleash an army of trolls on them” and underlined how the main problem still is “the lack of appreciation for social media as a battle space and the extent to which memetic warfare is already taking place”. 

Some of the most recent examples of the use of memes in international matters can be seen in the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. The use of memes in the conflict has been immense - the official account of Ukraine posted a meme about the difficulties of bordering with Russia some months before the official invasion - and strongly contributed to increased  global awareness of the turmoil in the country. What’s peculiar about the events experienced in Ukraine is the massive engagement in social media of both private and, most importantly, official state accounts. The official Twitter profiles of Ukraine and its Ministry of Defence posted memes about the commonalities between Hitler and Putin, memes about freedom of the press and human rights threats in Russia, and even AI-generated Harry Potter characters portrayed as soldiers fighting in the conflict.

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine, despite being a tragedy, probably represents the first milestone in a new way of waging war, and it highlights how social media will become increasingly influential in the next few years. From bitter criticism of policies to effective online warfares on forums, it is impossible to deny that the information accessibility and conveyance can nowadays be used as a strong weapon that can be potentially used by both private and public actors: the boundaries between citizenships and their political classes, which were not clear even before the advent of social media, became even blurrier thanks to the new and more accessible platforms that made it easier for private citizens to become effectively influential in steering public opinion towards a certain end. However, it’s a double-edged sword: how difficult will it become to distinguish between verified and unverified information? To whom do we trust with being that distinguisher? If it's still possible to draw a divisive line between virtual and real life, how will we limit its impact over real-life issues? 

The questions we ask are still more than the answers we give. For the moment the most effective solution is not to hamper access to social media platforms in an arbitrary way, which would only stir up hatred and incentivize their incorrect use, but to promote responsible use of social media and educate people to keep a balance between the blurring lines of reality and manipulation.

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