A man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him.
(photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)
This is an age of propaganda. Throughout the world, states, groups and individuals are utilizing and manipulating digital platforms to spread false information, sway public opinion and undermine social cohesion. While the methods of propaganda have changed in the digital age, substituting the radio with Facebook, its objectives have remained remarkably similar. First, digital propaganda is used to erode social cohesion. By focusing on various contentious issues, states and groups use social media sites to target disenfranchised minorities, amplify divisive social issues and drive social frustration. This form of propaganda was extensively used during the 2016 US presidential elections when Russian Facebook ads targeting African Americans focused on police brutality and the death of young African Americans at the hands of white police officers.
Digital propaganda is also used to spread false information, thereby shaping people’s understanding of current events. The Crimean crisis of 2014 illustrated this aptly, as fictitious news sites argued that Ukrainian nationalists had created concentration camps for the detention and torture of Russian minorities. Both Ukrainians and Russians following these news sites soon found themselves existing in an alternate digital reality in which Russia was completely justified in its attempts to safeguard the lives of Russian minorities in Crimea.
Yet digital propaganda does not always rely on proactive means to manipulate social media platforms and capture the attention of online audiences. Rather, it can be responsive.
Particularly, when those responding are designated trolls, employed to spam public forums and overload comments sections with misleading information or impassioned messages. These activities pose a considerable challenge as they prevent individuals from assessing the national temperament. An individual may read the comments section of a news site only to discover that the majority of readers are supposedly in favor of a certain policy, such as the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. This individual may then also come to support this policy as humans wish to belong to the majority. In this manner, public opinion and national policies also fall prey to digital propaganda.
Lastly, digital propaganda is used to create a sense of uncertainty among digital publics, given that uncertainty leads to extremism. Uncertainty is driven by the digital manipulation of images and videos. Social media users are now exposed to a daily barrage of news reports suggesting that many of the images and videos seen online are actually doctored. This instills a sense of perpetual uncertainty, as one can no longer distinguish between the real and the fake. In this climate, digital publics become more susceptible to extremist political ideologies that offer a supposedly clear dichotomy between right and wrong and true and false.
In the wake of digital propaganda, governments throughout the world have sought to increase their nations’ digital resilience or citizens’ ability to identify propaganda. Some governments have launched digital literacy programs in which schools equip students with an array of strategies for identifying suspicious digital content. Other governments, such as the UK, have created digital teams tasked with identifying and neutralizing suspicious digital accounts. Yet, studies suggest that the most effective form of digital resilience is critical thinking. Countries whose education system focuses on the development of critical thinking skills have been found to be most immune to digital propaganda, as is the case with Finland.
Israelis, on the other hand, are not immune to the influence of digital propaganda. According to a report by the Oxford Internet Institute, doctored images, trolls and bots have all been identified in the Israeli digital sphere. Unlike other countries, Israel is faltering in its attempt to increase its digital resilience. This is because Israel’s education system and its culture are becoming increasingly dogmatic. Speakers who do not conform to the current right-wing zeitgeist are not allowed into Israeli schools; representatives of left-wing NGOs are not allowed to address classes; art school students who question the legitimacy of Israeli policies are branded as traitors, whilst films and plays that question historical narratives are deemed ineligible for state funding. By silencing all forms of political and social opposition, the current Israeli government is substituting critical thinking with mind-numbing recitation, effectively undermining Israel’s digital resilience.
A critical society is one that is not afraid to ask difficult questions about its past or present conduct. It does not shy away from divergent political opinions and is willing to accept more than one narrative. It is a society in which students and artists are encouraged to question the norms and values that a country holds dear. By transforming Israel into a docile society, the current government is jeopardizing Israel’s future, for as long as dogma and doctrine replace critical thinking in schools and on the stage, Israel will be unable to meet the challenges of the digital age. Its citizens will formulate opinions based on false information, its societal cohesion will continue to erode, its public sphere will become increasingly fragmented into small groups of extremist camps while foreign actors will easily manipulate internal political processes. For these reasons, the start-up nation cannot become the shut-up nation envisioned by the current government.
Ilan Manor is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford. Patrick Thewlis is a research officer at the University of Oxford. They are both members of the Oxford Digital Diplomacy Research Group.
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