Over the past decade and with the increase of the human dependence on smartphones, social networking sites have become an essential part of daily life for Internet users. The social media platforms themselves became a tool for changing the form of advertising and publicity, and building awareness around the world. This tool is now the most powerful one in the process of the so-called propaganda industry that Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman have talked about in the book “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.”:
In terms of media and propaganda, access to larger segments simultaneously through these platforms was an important element, which distinguished them from radio and television. In terms of content, the development of Web 2.0 has been instrumental in making the two-way communication between source, content producer and recipient. The recipient himself, or user in technical language, became a producer of content on the Internet, which created an atmosphere that initially helped to break the state of monopoly of the digital content production by countries, governments and large corporations.
User Generated Content is itself a source of information and content on the Internet, which has changed the form of advertising in a basic and structural way. Increasingly, users rely on each other to determine their preferences regarding products and even ideas. They rely on the power of advertising campaigns and what the company, government or even political party promotes in the phase prior to the emergence of the user content factor, which made any desire to promote anything based on several key elements, including user content.
Now, what users share on social networking platforms is so important that it is very disturbing to capitalists, ideologists and thinkers, and certainly governments and regimes. This has had a major impact on political life and the fabric of society in most countries of the world, because the content produced by the user himself now reaches the rest of the users and affects their purchasing behaviour, ideas and beliefs.
Accordingly, we see how your writing becomes important, can change the equation, tip the scales, cause heavy losses to large companies, expose governments and force heads of states to step down.
A 2014 study by Inpowered, an American company involved in digital marketing and user behaviour analysis, found that content became more important during the five years prior to the study than before. The study, which observed users’ behaviour when exposed to content about some products, such as phones, cameras, video games and other products, divided the content into three sections: the content produced by the product experts, the content of the users’ comments and ratings and the content of the producers themselves. The result of the study indicated that the content produced by the experts and their comments about the product was the most credible, followed by users’ contents and comments on the daily use of the product, and lastly the promotional content of the companies themselves.
It is true that this study was in the context of electronic devices, but it is necessarily known that it measures the behaviour of the same user who is subjected to promotional campaigns of ideas and ideologies on the same platforms. Actually, what applies to the physical product can be projected and applied to the intellectual product too, so advertising companies are now interested in marketing the product, whether intellectual or material, marketing for experts’ opinions about this product and marketing as well as trying to control the content produced by users.
That general atmosphere was initially the cause of many leaps in the process of sharing information and news through the Internet, which has become out of control in many cases. In the business market, platforms have been competing with one another to attract users by integrating different ways and means to share what they want and produce creative content. So, it went beyond the written text to the image and video, then evolved to support the techniques of photography and live broadcast.
How to create an electronic mess?
This new equation has made the content produced by users important, and even more important than what companies and governments themselves produce. In the context of politics, which is our concern in this article, we can imagine how urgent the matter has become for governments, and how the control over users’ content, supportive and dissident citizens in this case, became a fundamental objective to ensure the stability of governance and the implementation of government policies.
A massive public information campaign to promote human rights standards in the country could end up failing because of a “tweet” of a celebrity from the same place about the real situation. That figure could be an “expert” depending on the classification of the aforementioned Impowered study, or just an ordinary person with a lot of followers. In both cases, what is issued by the two of them is more important than what is issued by the government itself.
Now, we as a regime or government want to control the content from the other side, and we mean the content produced by all users, supporters before opponents. We control supporters through identifying their speech and directing it to serve the interests of the regime, so that all the messages published on the various social networking platforms will be coherent, integrated and organized, prompting our plan and thoughts, and the hashtag which we want to promote as a government. As for opponents, we control them through questioning their credibility and creating an electronic warfare in the space we create as a government, through rules and hashtags we launched.
This is often done through creating these opponents truly, or even delusively, which is easiest and most affordable. The most important thing is to create an electronic chaos, many opinions here and there, and unlimited space of randomization, which makes the legal opinions of users or experts either controlled by us, as a government or regime, with hostile campaigns, or lost amidst this vast stream of opinions, known as the “hashtag poisoning.”
Data and software are more important than guns and planes
In order to control the policy strands and the “political trend” creation, which governments and regimes want in light of this vast amount of input and data, we found that the passwords are often used by scientists and data and programming specialists around the world. Then comes the role of media, which in turn became active in the area of data and programming, with new types of journalism, such as data journalism.
It is not only a process of accumulation and compilation of users’ information and data and what they publish in all kinds, but the analysis of those practical data is the most difficult and complex operation. Indeed, hundreds of millions of gigabytes of images, places, texts and videos and fingerprints and face recognition need large processes of nomination, classification and analysis, so that it can form a useful element in creating the trend that we want. That step produces our first basic material, which is digitally processed data.
Here comes the role of programmers who benefit from all these data and the results obtained while developing their programs, in addition to manufacturing new programs that enable them to always control this trend. The manipulation is exerted through complex programming processes relying mainly on artificial intelligence, which develops as the data increases and grows in terms of storage and analytical capacity with enlarging user-generated content.
That is exactly what Mark Zuckerberg pointed out in his 2010 interview with Wired, when he revealed that the more exchanges, commentaries, sharing and likes on Facebook, the better life gets thanks to the interaction of users and their production of content on the blue website. However, Prof. Christian Fuchs, head of Communication and Media Research Institute at the University of Westminster, wondered: “Whose life would be better?” Would it be that of users or businessmen and political leaders? The data transcends its importance from a mere action of sharing activities with friends and followers to become a wealth and power tool used by Zuckerberg against us without our full awareness.”
This type of data is often useful for research and analytical purposes, but above all its can be utilised to make profit. As for political propaganda and political trends, the data itself must change. We, as a regime, must have a role in formulating this data in order to deceive research centres and our people, as to craft a fake electronic public opinion.
This is done with the help of professional data, publicity and public relations companies that manipulate information by producing large amounts of content, using many fake / automatic accounts to push a particular vision to the forefront of social platforms and thereby creating a de facto reality for all users who are forced to accept this vision. Hence, the process requires some real accounts, or as we will call it here “manufactured real accounts.”
Categorizing the nature of users’ accounts on social networks
To better understand this, we need to analyze and categorize the accounts on social networks. We stress here that we will study the accounts of the websites’ users, and not users themselves. That is to say, the whole public has accounts, but the accounts do not necessarily reflect real people as some are fictional and programmatic. We employ four categories of accounts on social networks depending on the relationship between the real identity and the digital identity of each person. My real identity is what I am in reality, and my digital identity is what I want to show others when I use the Internet.
1. A real person and a real digital identity
At this point, the matter is simple and clear. A real person, who has a name, place of residence, occupations and a whole life, chooses to create an account on Twitter, for example. He inserts his real name, picture, phone number or e-mail, and starts interacting on the platform according to his real interests. Let’s assume, for instance, that the person is fond of cars and blogs constantly about them. Moreover, the same person is a supporter of Real Madrid and recurrently posts news about the games, comments on them and publishes portraits of the players. This is a real personality whose real identity is reflected through a digital identity.
2. A real person and a fake digital identity
Here we find a person who has chosen not to reveal his true self and created a complete digital identity different from the truth. This is done perhaps for the purpose of hiding something or fraud or out of a desire to act freely in larger digital spaces through searching, writing and watching things he cannot watch using his real personality, such as pornography. Nonetheless, such behaviour may be motivated by a sense of inferiority which leads to attempting to have a life on the internet that he/ she cannot have in reality.
3. A fake digital account with the identity of a person who does not exist (fictitious / automatic)
In this case, we find an account for a person who does not exist at all. These accounts are usually created for the purposes of electronic advertising. It is a software that is often programmed, known as an Internet Bot or bug/ e-committees. These accounts have no real identity, which means that they do not belong to any specific person in reality. They do not have a digital identity too, but use public figures as a personal profile picture instead, or not using a personal image at all. Thus, the name of the profile user (the Handle) is replaced with a serial number or a code generated from electronic generators, Code Generators.
These accounts are used at certain times only to support a particular Hashtag or to promote a particular idea or product, but usually the accounts are both detected and deleted by Twitter, or remain out of service.
In 2014, the number of such accounts was estimated at 23 million. However, it is important to note that these automatic accounts are not used only in political propaganda, but are generally programmed for the basic purpose of supporting human effort in the publishing process, either automatically or through certain companies and services specializing in the weather or the stock market, and so on. These automatic accounts publish according to their programme and without human intervention. A study conducted by The Pew Research Centre concluded that two thirds of the user content on Twitter and other websites is generated through automatic accounts.
4. Integrated digital identity of someone who does not exist
This type of accounts is the most professional and it is used by large companies. These companies create electronic accounts and each of these has an integrated digital identity, forged like cinematic characters in movies. That is to say, there is a picture of a person and a name that may indicate affiliation to a particular family or community. Also, each fake account has its interests, as illustrated by the following infographic that examines a digital identity of a person from Saudi Arabia as an example.
This type of accounts is mainly fake like the other type that we talked about earlier. The difference is that these accounts are fed to always publish posts, every day, just like real human beings. In this regard, Noon Post contacted private sources interested in creating these cells and this particular type of accounts on Twitter platform in one of the Gulf States. The source said: “The higher the efficiency of the account’s daily update is, in terms of timing and quality of posts that go along with the character traits including some tweets about personal life, the closer the characters are to reality and the more difficult they are to be distinguished.”
These accounts are created to publish specific posts at the time of advertising campaigns, and here comes professionalism. Imagine that you are browsing Twitter, and you find a certain trending hashtag in your country. When you click on the hashtag, you will find that many users are posting about it and a group of fake accounts publish duplicate tweets. Nevertheless, you will also find accounts with different interests, age segments and different cities that support the hashtag. The idea that is being marketed is that these propaganda are supported by different places and people, but have common interest in a particular issue. The real user will then think that these issues are actually spread and then the mind starts to believe the credibility of what being promoted. However, the difficult task here, as our source pointed out, is to “create characters that are commensurate with what is intended to be raised for public opinion in future issues. Therefore, the characters have to be well planned and pre-built because the process of building their digital identity takes months.”
Electronic warfare… fake accounts managed by governments
To understand more what is happening in cyberspace, specifically on Twitter, for the creation of a political trend, we will show some examples that have clearly emerged during the recent Gulf crisis. The electronic armies in the Gulf are still among the most powerful armies in the world, not only because of their large number, but also because their owners use the best experts and international companies specialized in this matter, and that take a very large amounts of money. But, those states have a lot of money and they don’t bother paying high costs for such matter.
As we have previously explained, the process is more complicated than the promotion of a particular hashtag in the local or international trends. This task is not difficult and does not require much effort or money. Based on a BBC investigation, this matter does not require more than $ 200 to give them to a company in Saudi Arabia in order to set up a fake trend for a few hours using the programmed fake accounts.
The real success lies in the management of the three types of accounts (first, third and fourth) for the creation of an organized advertising campaign. Each type of accounts has its own role and way of management. The first is carried out by people to whom the messages to be promoted are sent, and they must circulate the messages in return. If they do not agree, they are forced to do so through moral assassination, neutralization and squandering, or by security arrests.
The third and fourth types, fake accounts and accounts with integrated digital identity, are run through the management of what is published in them and its timing to coincide with the publication of the first type. Consequently, the trend would be a mixture of real accounts of public figures that have influence on different segments and that have a large number of followers, in addition to pre-created accounts for that specific purpose. Thus, the trend becomes highly-interactive and encourages normal users post about it.
This propaganda is not only carried out by publications, but it would often be enough to support what was published by only retweeting it, to show that the publication gained a wide online support and thus gaining wide real life support. This is what actually happened with US President Donald Trump’s tweet, when he said he has great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, and they know exactly what they are doing.
Journalist and Researcher Marc Owen Jones, who is interested in the Gulf region and political propaganda, studied the interaction that followed this tweet. He found out that it got the highest rate of retweets compared to all the president’s tweets in this period with a great difference.
When examining the accounts that made the retweet, it was found that most of them were fake/ automated accounts that were created between August and September of the same year (2017). Most of them interacted with the tweet at once between 3:00 and 4:15 pm.
This example shows the process of providing support and circulation of what is mainly written for the purpose of legitimizing and promoting that what is written is trending in the online community. The other type of accounts revolves around publishing itself. It can also be clearly found in the Gulf, and during the Gulf crisis specifically in the hashtag which was spread at the end of June 2017 and that demanded the closure of Al Jazeera (We demand closure of Al Jazeera TV Channel). In an article on Bahrain Watch investigative website, a sample of more than 8,000 tweets showed that 71 % of tweets were auto-generated.
More than two-thirds of the tweets from the understudied sample of accounts from the hashtag were auto-generated tweets aimed at promoting the closure of Al Jazeera. In general, according to the Washington Post, about 29 % of all tweets against Qatar were auto-generated.
We could conclude from all of this that there are experts in the creation of the political trend. Some of them use it directly for their own interests and others provide it as a service within the set of public relations services and as a way to polish the mental image. The regimes and governments in different countries mostly use this service. It is a powerful propaganda tool that can serve the image of the Saudi regime, strongly influence the referendum on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union or support US President Donald Trump’s position during the presidential elections.
This article was first published by NoonPost on Medium.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.