The rapid rise of information and technology in the last decade has ushered in a new era of conflict and competition in the world. Researchers predicted back in 2007 that there would be new strategies and methods of exploitation online as most platforms went digital. In 2010, the House Armed Services Committee observed that “competition and even conflict in cyberspace are a current reality.” The Munich Security Conference 2020 also discussed threats arising from new technologies and the detrimental use of social media for democracies.
Governments and individuals may choose from a menu of tactics and technology and blend them in novel ways to match their own strategic culture, location, and goals. As a result, twenty-first-century conflict is characterised by numerous forms and strategies of combat, both military and nonmilitary that converge in more destructive combinations.
With the advancement of technology and communication, new methods of control and persuasion have emerged. Many state and non-state actors worldwide are active on social media platforms to dismantle democratic governments through modern techniques and tools. For the last decade, social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have played a significant role in world politics. The political situation in Syria and the Middle East, the 2016 US elections that resulted in the rise of Donald Trump, the elections in India that resulted in PM Modi’s fascist government and the 2018 Pakistan elections that resulted in Imran Khan of the PTI becoming Prime Minister of Pakistan are all striking examples of how social media is contributing to the rise of right-wing movements around the world. The Munich Security Conference 2020 discussed threats arising from new technologies and the detrimental aspect of social media for democracies. These public platforms, which were expected to strengthen democratic institutions via public journalism, have instead hit democracy at its very core, the world over, as a tool of propaganda.
Narendra Modi, Donald Trump and Imran Khan are perfect examples, each in their own way, of what digital media can do to a public and country. Below are some of the tools and strategies these leaders used to rise to power at the expense of truth and public good.
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) has always been ahead of the competition, leveraging digital media to develop its image and that of its leader, Imran Khan. However, as the country spiraled into chaos and turf battles erupted during PTI government, many believe the party’s obsession with projecting a “good image” was disconnected from reality. It was the party leader Imran Khan’s obsession with social media which led many to term PTI a “social media party” and the Khan-led administration as a “hashtag government.” PTI portrayed a vision of Pakistan in the future where there will be milk and honey everywhere, but the reality was diametrically opposite, leading to IK’s dismissal. For the susceptible young and masses who were fed half-cooked news, a make-believe world was constructed.
Even after their removal from power via a no confidence vote, the PTI through its social media team is hyper-active on various platforms such as Twitter and Facebook in campaigns which push a line far removed from reality. One such campaign has been the PTI leader Imran khan’s claim that the US government conspired to remove him from power. As per sources, the ex-PM himself used the term American conspiracy hundreds of times in his speeches, which went viral in Pakistan through his social media team, but not even once was this allegation supplemented with facts.
Narendra Modi made extensive use of social media campaigns in the 2014 elections to rise to power by manipulating public sentiments through lies and deceit. For opinion-building among the youth, Modi’s BJP made heavy use of rumours and fake news. Just one example: Modi’s supporters propagated false information that the Gujarat government had built perfect roads leading to banana orchards for farmers. When the report was researched, it was discovered that there are no banana orchards in Gujarat. A formal campaign of changing minds was carried out on mobile phones by text messages and Whatsapp groups, which was considerably more convenient and cost effective than genuine campaigns with loudspeakers, DJs, singing and dancing – the latter approach having remained to this day a forte of PTI in Pakistan.
In the digital era, Twitter trends and hashtag activism matter more than actual good governance. Regardless of how well the BJP or PTI social media staff are at managing public image, the fissures are beginning to appear – even online. The drawback of this new tendency is a declining trust of the public in media, journalism and a highly polarised public opinion; all of which are detrimental to liberal and democratic practices and institutions around the world. Towards this end, there is need for more research on social media and democratic norms.
Researchers must consider how existing political and media institutions influence the political effect of – and reactions to – the risks posed by media technological advancements