Generally, public opinion has always been considered as a “by product” of any policy action, which policy makers should be mindful of, but need not to make focal point. Media’s role has always been pivotal in shaping up public opinion in the past. But in the national security policy making, media has always played a minor role. The phenomena of populism have somehow changed the rules of the game. Policy makers are now much more concerned with the general mood of the public than what ground reality demands. The use of social media seems to further consolidate populist politics to the point where public opinion can influence national security policies. Populism and social media have given rise to a new kind of security challenge which is narrative building to influence public opinion and with that policy making.
It is quite understandable that in the highly digitalized world of today, the emergence of new kinds of security challenges is eminent. Narrative building among people is one such challenge. This seems to be a kind of information warfare which may involve carefully selected information, propaganda, disinformation or manipulation of facts etc. Such kind of tactical use of information can influence the decision-making of the target. The target can make decisions or policies against the interests of a state even without realizing. Myopic views coupled with disinformation, perceptive knowledge and downright fake news are all used for narrative building. Social media provides great platform for such kinds of tactics to be carried out. Its role in narrative building merits scholarly attention because of its extensive reach.
Narrative is a thematic account that provides people with a framework to make sense of the world around them. The people who are exposed to narratives are not just presented with the information or knowledge but also with the judgments. The people are then encouraged to consume the carefully disseminated information and accept the judgments that comes with it. The black and white accounts of the event are presented in such a way that leaves no room for the exploration of any grey area. A narrative basically provides people with a mode of reasoning. No matter how factually inaccurate or flawed it is. A widely accepted narrative among masses can turn a hero into a villain and a villain into a hero. The popularity of a narrative depends on its persuasive power. The use of social media has turned narrative building into a tactic for creating widely accepted views. If widely accepted views are in contradiction with the basic principles or policies of a state then it can hurt national interest or security of a state. In other words, the social media has intensified the impact of a narrative on the people. This can be detrimental to the security of a state.
The tendency of social media to form and mould people’s opinion on political and social matters should be concerning for the security policy makers. The evidence suggests that the platform of social media has been used to advance propaganda for the purpose of generating a conflict or exacerbating an existing one. This kind of situation demands the installation of a counter-narrative strategy to neutralize the impact of propaganda or disinformation campaigns. The counter narrative strategy should be able to tarnish the illusion or an image created by propagandists through meticulous and educational counter statements and rebuttals.
The main objective of a counter narrative should be to instill doubts among people or communities who are exposed to propaganda. The more effective counter strategy should be eroding the demands for such propaganda content by undermining its appeal among exposed people. Measures such as enhancing the digital literacy and encouraging people to be skeptical of what they see and read on social media should be taken. These measures will help people to see through the propaganda and disinformation that they have been fed.
Dissemination of information that challenges the propagandist narrative on social media platforms is essential to establish and maintain the credibility of authorities. Assisting civil society members against online propaganda will also be fruitful. Authorities and government officials are generally not effective in countering a propaganda narrative because of their lack of credibility among masses. So a state can manage its strategic communication effectively by providing support, necessary facilitations and resources to organizations and individuals who have the credibility. While doing so it should be kept in mind that it should by no means hurt an individual’s right to freedom of speech. There is a thin line between countering a propagandist and hurting someone’s right to freedom of speech. While a propagandist should be dealt with efficiently but dissenter’s right to free speech should also be protected.
The propagandist often finds propulsion among masses that have tendency to accept and believe information provided on social media as true. It’s essential that authorities should enable users to become sensible consumers of information. Awareness regarding content online and responding with the narrative of their own can be effective in debunking the fallacies put forward by propagandists.
Qurat-Ul-Ain Shabbir is a research officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) AJK. Currently she is pursuing her PhD degree in DSS from Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU). Her areas of interest include contemporary security and security and conflict analysis.