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HomeBlogThe Manipulation of Social Media in Shaping Global Politics

The Manipulation of Social Media in Shaping Global Politics

President Trump meets with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in the Oval Office / The White House

The intersection of social media, state propaganda, and corporate influence is a messy affair. The anonymity provided by online platforms means that these relationships are extremely difficult to parse. Yet their existence and continuing influence on politics is clear.

By Amadeus Narbutt

The entanglement of social media and politics in recent years is striking. President Trump treats his Twitter account like a pulpit, the term ‘fake news’ is now common parlance, and misinformation is pervasive. Concerns about bias and manipulation in social media came to the fore of public debate in the wake of the American Presidential election of 2016 when accusations of electoral interference were levied against Russia. Though the extent of Trump’s personal ties to any Russian conspiracy remains unclear, it seems certain that the Russia-based Internet Research Agency did employ social media bots in order to inflame public discourse in the run-up to the 2016 election. Yet despite all of this baggage, social media remains the main source of news for about half of Americans and Canadians. 

Originally published in 1988, Chomsky & Herman’s ‘Manufacturing Consent’ was a groundbreaking study of mass news media which claimed that it operated along a ‘propaganda model’ as system-supportive institutions of elite American society. Particularly, the authors studied the coverage of foreign policy to show that the biased nature of mass media functioned to provide a limited range of opinion within which news media discourse operated, one which did not question the aggression of American actions abroad. One of the crucial ‘filters’ that created this propagandistic nature was the corporatized ownership of media conglomerates; the rich and powerful owned the press and so they controlled the narrative. 

With the rise of the internet and social networks, many predicted a ‘democratization’ of media, communication, and knowledge. Now everyone has a publishing device in their own pocket, and the power of the people would speak the truth. There were some promising developments like the Arab Spring in 2011, which was originally titled the ‘Twitter Revolution’, though only Tunisia sustained positive democratic developments long-term. Clearly, social media created some new avenues for political participation and mobilization. Politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Elizabeth Warren can interact with the public in real-time through social media forums, fielding real questions from real individuals without the middle-man interference of a corporate news outlet. 

Yet these positive developments are accompanied by many frightening and eerily authoritarian consequences. The Intercept has reported that Facebook profile data has been used by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers to surveil and arrest immigrants. Recent developments in artificial intelligence and facial recognition means that companies like Clearview AI have the capability to end the concept of anonymity in public places. Abroad, recent cases of manipulation of American-based social media platforms have attempted to bolster American foreign policy interests. After the coup that occurred in Bolivia last November, which ousted anti-imperialist leftist President Evo Morales, social media was filled with the hashtag #BoliviaNoHayGolpe. The hashtag – which means ‘there is no coup in Bolivia’ – was used by individuals who claimed that the ouster of Morales by military force was a democratic act. Yet a closer look at the explosion of tweets showed that nearly a third of accounts using the hashtag were created on the day of the coup, suggesting they were registered for the specific purpose of creating a wave of ‘authentic’ support for the new regime.

These kinds of manipulations are commonplace globally, from Germany to Rwanda and China. Interestingly, the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) shows that democracies are more involved in the manipulation of social media than authoritarian states. This is likely due to the fact that democracies – at least nominally – have some use for perceived consent from their citizenry, whereas for authoritarian states, traditional censorship and propaganda tactics suffice. 

In these developments, there has been a disconcerting relationship between large technology companies and governments. Specifically, the report from OII describes Facebook as the “platform of choice” for social media manipulation. In the 2017 German elections, the far-right neo-fascist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) hired consulting firm Harris Media to manage their social media campaign. The Trump-linked firm, in partnership with Facebook, created personality models of Germans who would be susceptible to AfD messaging and paid Facebook to target those communities specifically through advertisements. This campaign led to the AfD surging to third place with 13% of the vote, and allowed a nationalist party to enter the Bundestag for the first time in decades. 

A similarly frightening occurrence can be seen in far-right demagogue Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil in 2018. Bolsonaro rode to victory on a wave of misinformation that was disseminated to Brazilians via WhatsApp (which is owned by Facebook). As the main messaging app used by 120 million Brazilians, the communication network it has amassed and the personality profiles that Facebook’s algorithms generate are goldmines are for political influence and manipulation. 

The intersection of social media, state propaganda, and corporate influence is a messy affair. The anonymity provided by online platforms means that these relationships are extremely difficult to parse. Yet their existence and continuing influence on politics is clear. Social media – as it stands currently – is not a democratic expression of political interests, but rather a new medium for disinformation and manipulation. Further, since these online ecosystems are increasingly becoming recruiting grounds for political extremists, the situation only becomes more difficult to untangle. Often it is difficult to tell what online content is targeted misinformation by bots and what is the genuine opinion of those who have already been converted by the propaganda of others. 

The manufacturing of consent is still occurring, but in a pervasive digitized platform that exists in everyone’s pocket. This reality is dystopian and impossible to escape; the dangers Chomsky and Herman identified are if anything more frightening and powerful today than they were thirty years ago. In terms of its impact on global affairs, the rise of social media and the internet have done little to aid democracy. Instead, mass surveillance, far-right radicalism, and propaganda have become the new normal. 

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor