Geopolitics in a digitalised world: what do social media have to do with foreign policy?

By Rafael Goldzweig, Research Coordinator at Democracy Reporting International

The narrative of social media’s role in democracy has changed over the years. At first, social media was seen as giving a voice to groups without voices in the mainstream media, especially during the Arab Spring and popular responses to governments’ austerity measures following the 2008 global financial crisis. Evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit vote and US presidential elections reversed this narrative. Fast forward to 2020, when a wave of false information during the covid-19 pandemic brought the challenges of online disinformation to every country.  

Russia’s use of digital tools to influence other countries’ internal politics is now old news: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia have now established themselves in this field. Recently, the European Union accused China of being behind a huge wave of covid-19 disinformation campaigns aimed at weakening how governments respond to the pandemic.  

The last decade saw the transition of social media from a tool of individual empowerment to an environment where information is weaponised for geopolitical gains. New state and non-state actors have entered the disinformation game, finding new ways to deceive public opinion and achieve geopolitical goals with every technological development. Looking at the national level, elections became a focal point for influence campaigns. Internationally, foreign policy actors witness hybrid threats as the new frontier of diplomacy in the digital space. Multinational private companies such as Facebook and Twitter now have a substantial influence on national sovereignty issues such as political advertising, online political speech, and broader geopolitical developments through the power and policies of their online platforms.  

This June, Democracy Reporting International (DRI) and the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) think tank brought together foreign policy and technology experts to discuss trends and effects of the strategic use of social media for political gains. The two-day discussions revolved around the need to involve the foreign policy community in the geopolitical challenges posed by disinformation campaigns. The discussion also raised awareness of the new trends in this field, focusing on potential ways to minimise the negative impacts of the online environment.  

Two case studies illustrated the complexities of this issue: Ukraine and Libya. In addition to dealing with an ongoing conflict, Ukraine held presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019 while Libya was expected to hold elections in 2019 as part of its political transition roadmap. These highly politicised and militarised contexts bring new perspectives to the strategic use of social media for geopolitical purposes. 

From the Russian perspective, the West created the environment for modern information warfare by inventing social media platforms, which facilitated revolutions and protests around the world. From the West’s perspective, Russia started online information warfare against its neighbours (Georgia and Estonia) and in particular against Ukraine in 2014. Since the Maidan revolution and the Russian annexation of Crimea and the attack on Eastern Ukraine, Russia has been trying to influence opinion in some regions of the country in favour of Moscow, while using social media to further polarise political discourse in other regions. This, in a country where media freedom and polarisation were already issues 

Pro-Russian narratives originate mainly from well-known media outlets, such as Sputnik and Russia Today. These were then widely shared and artificially pushed on different social media channels as the attack unfolded – in an online environment full of junk news and clickbait content that helped the success of these influence campaigns. In 2017, the Ukrainian government banned Russian social networks like VKontakte (VK) and Odnoklassniki, arguing that they were abused for Russian interference. Nevertheless, disinformation challenges continued, as could be seen during the 2019 elections. DRI’s analysis also showed that domestic actors, including presidential campaign teams, used disinformation tools, such as inauthentic Facebook groups, to attack the other side. 

The Libyan online environment has turned into a battlefield of competing narratives that mirror the complex interplays between local actors, competing national governments and the many foreign actors involved in the conflict. In this situation, social media exacerbates foreign policy challenges and creates vast opportunities for online manipulation 

DRI has been monitoring the Libyan online space since 2018. We found that high-trending narratives circled around national security conversations, public figures and political leaders. One of those leaders, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi (the son of deceased former leader Muammar Gaddafi), had his electoral campaign fuelled by a public relations campaign run through the “Mandela Libya” Facebook page, involving numerous fake accounts. This web page was established shortly after representatives of Gaddafi visited Moscow.  

The majority of Libyan media outlets are based abroad and, with no history of an independent media in the country, social media often follow the leads of TV stations that report from and for Libya. Many of these are highly polarised. Exacerbating the problem, without a functioning state and institutions, Libya lacks authoritative sources on developments in the country. In the case of Gaddafi’s candidacy, much of the content pushing his campaign online ended up being captured by online news outlets, reaching a larger audience than the social media users who were originally exposed to it.  

Amidst such complex geopolitical situations, social media companies often fail to adequately deal with false content or hate speech that affects public opinion. This can damage human rights, national sovereignty and conflict resolution. Both the Ukrainian and Libyan cases underline that strategic communication – be it to strengthen a country’s soft power or as a means to sow conflictsremains central in geopolitics. What is more concerning is that such actions happen in a privatised space, where a handful of companies have the power to define the limits of what can and cannot be done. Often, they choose inaction, avoiding action to prevent abuses 

There is some reason to hope, though. Tech companies partnered with the World Health Organization to use authoritative information as a guide to identify and take down false content related to covid-19 

With the increased relevance of disinformation in geopolitics, we are witnessing the strengthening of strategic communication bodies, such as EU and NATO StratCom, and several bodies within foreign ministries 

However, we do not yet see a genuine connection between traditional foreign policy channels, the tech expert community and social media platforms to define how to best deal with these hybrid forms of influence. Tech experts in foreign ministries are often siloed in communication departments rather than seen as essential political analysts that are needed across the board of foreign policy action. Traditional diplomacy will need to adapt to the new reality to face the new online threats to national sovereignty, democratic transition, conflict resolution and human rights. 

Photo credit:  KimMcKelvey, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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