Social Media: Double Edged Sword?

It is over a year since the social media platforms now synonymous with the ‘Arab Spring’ revolts became an integral part in shaping the ongoing media coverage of the revolutions. Understandably, much of the debate centres around the extent to which Facebook, Twitter and the like assisted in organising the protests and communicating news of government brutality.

Perhaps a more pressing issue is not so much the role played by social media in the Arab Spring but rather how it is now being used by government authorities to discredit the very protesters who relied on such tools to generate support for their cause.

The most obvious case in point is Bahrain. The only Arab monarchical state to have faced widespread revolt and also effectively oppressed its dissenting masses, Bahrain’s government has embarked on a social media blitz. As Al Jazeera’s Listening Post reported recently, Bahrain has moved from an old-school shut down of independent domestic and foreign media to a public relations offensive. In particular, it has established a heavy presence on Twitter with at least five official government accounts and many more public figures also promoting Bahrain as a country that is open, peaceful and, most importantly, democratic.

Of course, that is one of the great paradoxes of social media. It may have a democratising effect but, as in the West, such tools can be used just as easily by governments as citizens. In the case of Bahrain, what complicates things further is the use of Western PR firms to create these social media campaigns. It is no secret that the Bahraini government, with plenty of petrodollars to spend, has brought many of the big US PR firms into the country to overhaul its damaged image. It only takes a quick search of the United States Justice Department’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) to find a list that includes several of Washington’s well-established media firms including Joe Trippi and Associates which counts among its former clients, ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and unsuccessful US Presidential candidate, John Edwards.

Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of the Bahraini government on the Joe Trippi website but details of the nature of Western PR groups involvement in Bahrain can be found in the FARA database. One of the most revealing documents is a letter sent to Joe Trippi in July 2011 from another PR firm, Sanitas International. Attached to the letter is a contract outlining a strategy to, “Provide strategic council, media relations and reputation support to  The Information Affairs Authority of the Kingdom of Bahrain”. While the letter does not explicitly state what role social media was to play in the firm’s media strategy, it only takes a quick look at either company’s website to see that the use of social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is an integral part of their business model.

Social networking, like the ‘old school’ media of television and print, can therefore be seen as reflecting one of the greatest flaws of contemporary democracy: that money allows for the manipulation of communication to preserve power. You only need to look back ten years to see that veiled propagandising through creditable media platforms, is a process developed not by Arab dictatorships but by the democratically elected government of the USA as it invaded Iraq.

Joris Luyendijk, a former Dutch foreign correspondent who covered the war, offers in his book People Like US one of the frankest analyses of modern media propaganda. He describes how American broadcasters created a nationalistic tone to the coverage because communications consultancies recommended that such an angle would increase ratings. With a level of journalistic intent this conventional media propaganda can be exposed but as governmental PR breaks into the realm of social media such scrutiny becomes much more difficult.

Academics who support ruling governments, such as that of Bahrain, can establish a presence on Twitter with little authoritative attention given to their origins or intentions. ‘Grass roots’ Facebook groups encouraging opposition to rebellious protests can be created in minutes with no way of telling who is behind it. As a result, it becomes a responsibility of digital citizens to determine the motives of these untraceable social media accounts, a task that can never fully reveal the complexities and motivations of these proxies in the war for public support and legitimisation.

In a way then, social media platforms are highly indicative of both the faults and virtues of Western democratic society. However, when these communications tools are utilised by non-democratic governments in the Middle East and elsewhere they create manipulative campaigns that work against the very democratic aspirations that social media has become renowned for achieving.