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Networked Dissent: Threats of Social Media’s Manipulation Essay

With the advent of new information technologies and their further use on a global level, a range of obstacles that used to hamper the process of communication among not only the representatives of different nations but also the citizens of the same state, have been removed, time and space being the key ones. With the help of the Internet and IT, people are capable of contacting each other within seconds and reach even the remote corners of the Earth.

The spur of the communication process, however, has also triggered an increase in political and social proactiveness of the state citizens, leading to a rise in people’s awareness. As a result, a range of techniques for manipulating people’s opinions on the Internet has emerged.

Although the virtual world may seem to have a relatively small effect on the real-life outcomes, the manipulation that occurs within the social media environment affects the state and its citizens aversively on social, economic, and political levels, thus, posing a threat of an unavoidable and untimely demise for the state in question.

When it comes to defining the key people, who attempt at shaping online users’ opinions about a certain event, phenomenon, person, etc., the members of the government appear to be the key suspects. The reasons behind the deduction that leads to blaming the government are rather basic.

Having a very impressive control over media and being interested in altering people’s vision of certain political, economic, and financial issues, conflicts, the government has the power to filter the information that emerges online. The recent initiative of the Pentagon is a graphic example of the above-mentioned phenomenon:

Indeed, the Pentagon publicly announced years ago that it was considering using “black propaganda” – in other words, knowing lies. CENTCOM announced in 2008 that a team of employees would be “[engaging] bloggers who are posting inaccurate or untrue information, as well as bloggers who are posting incomplete information.” (Global Research, 2011, para. 15)

The military service of the state is another institution, which may possibly be suspected in controlling the social media and filtering the information that is uploaded on the corresponding sites. The goals of the military services, however, can be viewed as far more obvious and direct.

The actions of the military service are traditionally restricted to propaganda and the analysis of the locations, of the possible sources of unrest: “The discovery that the US military is developing false online personalities – known to users of social media as “sock puppets” – could also encourage other governments, private companies, and non-government organizations to do the same” (Jarvis, 2011, para. 4).

While the examples of the political forces controlling the Internet and streaming online communication, the desired direction are quite rare. The military experiments in the designated area are relatively less covert.

For instance, the recent study of the Defense Advanced Research projects Agency (DARPA) called Social Media in Strategic Communications (SMISC) was designed to “help the military play the social media propaganda game itself” (Global Research, 2011, para. 2). Therefore, the role that the military services play in social media mostly concerns establishing a specific opinion regarding the subject matter discussed and foisting this opinion on the users either in a subtle or in a more obvious manner.

An overview of the existing social networks will show that Facebook and especially Twitter have become the staple for the environment, which serves as the testing area for exercising the authorities’ power over the opinions of online users.

For instance, the above-mentioned study, the ethical implications of which were questioned and which results delivered rather peculiar information concerning the gullibility of social network users, was carried out in Facebook and Twitter, two largest social networks not only in the United States but also worldwide. However, apart from the specified corporate giants, other minor social networks can be affected by the influence of the state authorities in their endeavors of taking power over the civilians’ opinion.

Traditionally, two large groups for the methods of shaping people’s opinions online are used, i.e., the influence or disruption of information and technological disruption.

The tools for carrying out the so-called disruption of information are surprisingly numerous. Traditionally, two methods of manipulating users’ online behavior and opinions are adopted. As a rule, injections of false material with the help of YouTube video hosting services via Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites, and the straightforward manipulation of the social discourse online with the help of social sciences (Bobba et al., 2011) are utilized as the key means of manipulating people’s opinion online.

The array of methods, with the help of which the process of implementing the disruption of social attitudes occurs, is strikingly versatile. For instance, a number of means for discrediting a specific target, starting from a person and up to a major corporation and even foreign states’ authorities, exists in the array of higher governments and owners. Among these, leakage of confidential information and its further sharing among the members of a specific social media deserves to be named the most popular tool.

Technical disruption is comparatively more complicated to carry out, yet it still has a pernicious effect on minor users and major organizations, as well as specific governments and authorities. Each falls under the category of false flag operations, which are usually defined as “an incident that is designed to deceive people into thinking it was actually carried out by someone else” (Giambruno, 2014, p. 13).

The above-mentioned methods are obnoxious in their transparency, yet admittedly efficient for luring people into believing what the corresponding authorities want them to believe. While the consequences of the above-mentioned actions may be quite diverse, they still cause the equivocal effects that plant the seed of the doubt in people’s minds and, thus, lead to the development of a variety of conspiracy theories.

Apart from false flag operations, though, authorities and organizations also put such tools as infiltration operations, ruse operations, set-piece operations, false rescue operations, disruption operations and sting operations to practice in order to direct people’s thinking the way that is considered desirable at the given point in time.

While the aforementioned actions have minor differences, each of them has the purpose of discrediting the opponent and their opinion, thus, posing their own one as the only possible viewpoint to be adopted, which cannot be denied under any circumstances (Keller, 2014, para. 5).

Despite the fact that the negative effects of the above-mentioned control of social media by state authorities and private organizations might seem obvious, the unceasing control of social networks and the process of channeling online discussions into the area that the aforementioned organizations and people consider safe, is justified often by a range of people: “The Chinese government has adopted a very similar language of cyber-security to justify its Internet control structures and procedures” (MacKinnon, 2011, p. 44).

It is obvious that the Chinese government realizes the necessity to provide its citizens with the right to privacy as proclaimed in the Due Process Clause (Due process clause, 1868), yet the need to retain its control over the population dictates the state authorities to monitor the online activities of the users on a regular basis.

In addition, these actions being covert for the most part, online users rarely analyze the implications of the control of their online conversations; therefore, underestimating the implications of social network dissent. Herein the need to spell the key effects of social media control out emerges.

Filtering the information that online users are introduced to leads to the phenomenon known as emotional cognition deserves to be listed among the key problems. Presupposing that emotional states are “transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness” (Cramer, Guillory, & Hancock, 2013, p. 8788), emotional cognition is especially dangerous, as it affects people’s ability to view facts objectively and, instead, forces them to be emotional towards a specific issue.

Since people tend to make logical mistakes when their actions are fuelled by their emotions, the specified effect is especially efficient once the need to bestow a specific opinion on people appears (Bono & Ilies, 2011).

The emotional control, which the manipulators through social networks exercise on the unsuspecting users, in turn, also has a drastic effect on not only the individuals in question but also on the state in general. For instance, when introduced to misrepresented information and spreading it across the Internet, people may trigger the development of insecurity in the residents of the state, whose authorities’ capacities are questioned.

As a result, a drastic change in the moods before the elections and, therefore, a rapid change of the political course of the state after the elections can be expected (Simpser, 2013). More to the point, some active social network users may take the misrepresented information and the subsequent call for a certain political action.

While in most cases, the latter boils down to voicing protests and holding rallies, when taken to their logical extremes, political actions may result in a revolt and the subsequent political and economic crisis within the state (Zhuo, Wellman & Yu, 2011).

Another threat, which the users of social media manipulated by the governmental or corporate bodies face, can be described as the scenario entirely opposite to the one provided above. In other words, social media manipulation may lure people into assuming that the political, economic, and/or financial situation within the state is quite passable.

As a result, corruption rates may remain just as high, and the key political conflicts may remain unresolved as long as the online users remain in blissful ignorance of the current social and political issues. Economic deterioration of the state and the following rise in unemployment rates can be viewed as the logical consequences of people’s inactivity and the unwillingness to engage in political actions due to the persuasion of the authoritative online sources (Nooy, Mrvar, & Batagelj, 2013).

It is quite peculiar that the latter two effects, which occur due to network dissent, are diametrically opposite to each other in terms of their effects on users, yet lead to the same consequences as far as the stability within a state is concerned. Whether it is the inaction caused by active persuasion or, on the contrary, active confrontation between Internet users and the current state leaders, it inevitably causes the same effect of economic decay and the inadequacy of the choices made by the parties concerned.

Viewing the situation from the perspective of the state citizens, one should also bring up the fact that social media manipulation may affect people’s votes in a very significant way.

The information that is dosed to online users in forums and social networks is in most cases very biased and unverified; nevertheless, the provision of seemingly legitimate references and graphic pictures as a proof for the data provided serves as a major boost for people to shape their opinion in favor of the person, whom the poster of the initial message supports: “The 2012 study based on this data claimed that Facebook’s “get out and vote” messages may have caused an extra 340,000 votes to be cast, and that merely manipulating the message changed those numbers by tens of thousands” (Penny, 2014, para. 15).

Affecting the safety of the citizens and, thus, undermining the security of the state, manipulation of social media clearly jeopardizes the stability of a country as an entity. When spread across the state with the help of social media, information affects every user personally, leaving a tangible trace in their psyche; thus, the very basis of the national security is defiled.

However, it would be quite a stretch to claim that states and organizations control the opinions of online users for the sole purpose of political popularity – financial gain still plays a major part in the need for altering people’s opinions and distorting the facts. Specifically, the control of markets and the state economy, in general, must be listed among the top reasons for people to support controlled network dissent (Johnson, Kewley & Evans, 2012).

Last, but definitely not least, the fact that social media manipulation triggers a rapid change in the tendencies in a specific society along with the current social moods. As a result of the specified manipulations, further subjugation of the population and the promotion of different social standards, which may conflict with the people’s national identity, convictions, and beliefs, becomes possible.

The Internet Water Army, which was “hired to post positive comments for the government or commercial products” (Lee, Tamillarasan & Caverlee, 2013, p. 1), is, perhaps, the most graphic example of the above-mentioned phenomenon.

Created by the Chinese government in order to post comments that are supposed to spur Internet debates, the above-mentioned group alters the very fabric of the Chinese society by challenging people to join a discussion and convincing them to accept a certain political or social standpoint in the process (Lee, Tamillarasan & Caverlee, 2013).

In other words, the social implications of networked dissent created by the corresponding agencies lead to the destruction of the national identity and the individual characteristics of the citizens. As a result, the transformation of the latter allows for them being puppeteered by the state authorities. Despite the fact that the effects of the persuasion, which social networks have on their users, might seem minor, the scale, to which social networks alter people’s viewpoint on a variety of conflicts, is truly immense.

It would be wrong to assume that the effects, which social media manipulation has on the people using it, are entirely negative. Quite on the contrary, social media manipulation can be used for getting rather important and useful messages across.

Furthermore, the abuse of the power of social media may be viewed as an attempt to shelter users from the adverse effects of a much greater threat. To be more exact, the manipulation of social media can be incorporated into the set of strategies adopted for the prevention of drug abuse (Cobb, Graham, & Abrams, 2010).

Moreover, recent research has shown that social media manipulation may lead to triggering happy emotions in the audience and, therefore, contributing to the reduction of stress factors (Global Research, 2011). Consequently, the threat of social media users developing psychological disorders, including depression, etc. emerge.

Moreover, the study has shown that the people, who have experienced the influence of positive messages in the social media, are most likely to pass their emotions to other users, therefore, contributing to the overall increase in positive feelings of online users.

However, the aforementioned example is more of an exception from the traditional scenario. Traditionally, controlled communication in social media leads to the promotion of political or social ideas that are looked down at as inadmissible in real-life communication; as a result, the concepts that are viewed as proper by the alleged totalitarian beholders of the state power are implanted into the minds of the people, who participate in the discussion or merely view it in their browser.

Moreover, viewing the aforementioned effect of media manipulation on people as entirely positive would be wrong. Even though the effects of the study allowed for identifying the ways of sustaining a positive atmosphere that enhances communication online, the research mentioned above is still questionable as far as its ethics is concerned.

Seeing that few to none members of the online forums that were used as the source for primary information retrieval were aware of the study taking place, the researchers could not gain informed consent from all those involved. Thus, the ethical framework of the study is very flawed.

Despite having minor positive effects, the control and manipulation of a social network, nevertheless, have a deplorable effect on a range of aspects of both the state’s operation and the lives of its citizens. Introducing specific ideas to an online form and social network users, the specified phenomenon contributes to shaping people’s identity in the way that the state’s leaders consider acceptable instead of promoting the concepts of freedom and democracy.

In other words, social networks may become dangerous tools in the hands of the people, who abuse their powers as state authorities. When controlled and turned into a networked dissent, online communication may easily become a tool for brainwashing people into

Since social media manipulation affects the process of the state economy evolution, the fairness of the political choices made by the state authorities, and the identities of the citizens, it must be viewed as a major threat.

Moreover, the negative effects of the so-called networked dissent are admittedly much more numerous than the positive ones. Since the intervention of the state authorities and corporations affects the state on several levels, starting from altering the opinions of individuals to creating the basis for a major political change, it must be prevented at all costs.

Reference List

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Nooy, W. de, Mrvar, A. & Batagelj, V. (2013). Exploratory social network analysis with Pajek (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Web.

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