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Social Media Fatalities

The website Statista suggests that the number of people using social media worldwide is “projected to increase to almost 4.41 billion [people] in 2025”[1] (from an estimated 3.6 billion, today). Social media messages and online interaction are – especially in the pandemic era – the primary way people are communicating, influencing, researching, and consuming information. Like any tool or service humanity has created, social media can be used for benevolent or malevolent purposes, both inadvertently and intentionally.

The more digitally connected people are, the more powerful social media becomes in influencing the sentiment and trust placed in organisations – from the smallest vendors to the largest international businesses. Social media has become a battleground for this sentiment and trust where a minority or fringe message can become “viral” and spread to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people in moments. In some cases, this can spark a protest, which leads to a movement that may force profound changes to society such as The Arab Spring, “Me Too”, and Black Lives Matter, among others.

Law enforcement and intelligence agencies understand the power of viral content and its potential to destabilise or contribute to damage and harm in our society. The response to this can be subtle, such as the 2012 US State Department counter ad campaign targeting Al Qaeda propaganda [2] or more forceful, like the 2016 FBI direct action program targeting and eliminating ISIS Social Media Experts. [3]

Social Media postings are frequently an uncensored feed of thoughts and emotions committed to the internet during an event or in its immediate aftermath. This online response can range from passionate support “for” or angry condemnation “against”. As the conversations evolve online, the dialogue, fact checking, debunking and, in rare cases, direct action by the platform providers themselves, can influence, distract or eliminate the online conversation.

In the wake of the 2016 report on Russian interference in the US election, Facebook and Twitter moved against Russian “Troll” farms – social media accounts designed to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt, and to amplify divisive issues in American society. [4] Recently, Twitter took action against QAnon, a conspiracy theory group, by removing nearly 7,000 accounts responsible for amplifying conspiracy messages and shaping online conversations. [5] It will be interesting to see how Social Media platforms will respond to the recent UK report on Russian influence. [6] As grand as the online psychological operations conducted by nation state actors against the citizens of another country are, Social Media postings can have a hugely detrimental and immediate effect on individuals who have expressed unacceptable opinions or chronicled poor behaviour online. Everyone may remember in 2018 when one tweet from Kylie Jenner cost Snapchat $1.3 billion. [7]

Which leads us to the most recent situation with Mr. Heshmat Khalifa, who was a trustee of the Islamic Relief Worldwide charity. He was forced to resign after being confronted with more than a dozen anti-Semitic Facebook posts from 2014 and 2015. Interestingly, Khalifa was also abusive towards Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah El Sisi.

In 2014, UK intelligence agencies and the British foreign office were aware that the UAE had imposed Counter Terrorism sanctions on Islamic Relief Worldwide due to alleged connections with the Iranian-backed Hamas. As a charitable organisation operating in more than 40 countries around the world, IRW has had to distance itself from any divisive, controversial or anti-Semitic associations from high profile individuals like Mr. Khalifa.

As a society, it’s important to understand that our social media expressions and consumption of social media information are all conducted with very limited abilities to express the full spectrum and range of human communication – when the message is one to many. Depending upon which research paper you refer to, the scientific analysis identifies 70 to 93 percent of human communication is nonverbal. Add to that just over 18% [8] of the population of the UK experience challenges due to their lack of literacy skills and we have the perfect situation for miscommunication, misunderstanding and these two items lead so many people susceptible to viral ideas regardless if they are viewed as for “the greater good” or “inherently destructive”.

[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/278414/number-of-worldwide-social-network-users/ [2] https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Foreign-Policy/2012/0524/Is-State-Dept.-hacking-Al-Qaeda-Not-quite-but-propaganda-war-is-fierce [3] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/24/world/middleeast/isis-recruiters-social-media.html [4] https://www.engadget.com/2020-03-12-facebook-and-twitter-take-down-accounts-linked-to-internet-research-agency.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAIjDZixD7EaqDTC3JUuVJTpm9rk1ly45Z2fSJKTzq2R3KK_KP7Modnan2q8xt4sMqRMp2ez4G4MZLjGh3Pn0skML448bYFZWjVrWrCbBzIq92HbzOvTqjZP-lclvsM3UNvcIGiok6vRs0kg2xI3kSxSOQxvZP0hrwo_kUXDlQON5 [5] https://eu.usatoday.com/story/tech/2020/07/21/twitter-takes-action-against-qanon-conspiracy-theory-group/5484533002/ [6] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/russia-report-paints-a-worrying-picture-of-uks-vulnerability-q62p32256 [7] https://www.vogue.com/article/kylie-jenner-tweet-snapchat-stock-fall [8] https://literacytrust.org.uk/parents-and-families/adult-literacy/

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