Information Technology (IT) has completely transformed the means of communication in today’s world. The digital technology related to information revolution has deeply impacted the nature of modern warfare and has also introduced substantial uncertainty about intentions, capabilities and the limits of conflict. Modern society has been visibly revolutionized through digital inclusion; however, it has induced some major challenges related to security, confidentiality, privacy, transparency, and protection of cyberspace. Cyber issue is not a new phenomenon, but is widely spreading in this era of information revolution. Social media is used as a modern and fastest mode of communication, as the spread of any kind of information and propaganda is easy through it. In recent years, social media has transformed and become an important modern warfare tool. Internet technology transformed in order to meet the requirements of information-age warfare in 2006 with the launch of Web 2.0, allowing internet users to create their content instead of just consuming material that is available online. Through this transformation, the internet users were able to select what news and content they wanted to watch, and also to create any news or content based on their observations and opinions. On one hand advanced social media apps benefited the general public in expressing their views through content creation, but on the other hand it gave free space to terrorist organizations to start spreading propaganda.
The presence of terrorists, extremist groups on social media in order to spread propaganda is not surprising. The launch of cyber warfare in any society has become more convenient through the use of information technology and social media, and it has blurred the line between war and peace. In order to win a war, extremist groups and terrorists launch this kind of warfare, in order to spread their narrative and gain public support. They play with the minds of people in order to defeat any state, government or group in order to achieve their extremist agendas and political objectives. Hybrid warfare includes blended war methodology which includes irregular, conventional and unconventional warfare. It is a combination of different intelligence systems that are synchronized with fanatical fighting style. Cyber warfare includes the use of advanced information technologies by non-state actors in order to attack, damage, or hack computer systems or information networks of state or any other nation. To serve the purpose, computer viruses and denial of service attacks are conducted in order to freeze any system or network.
As social media has become an important warfare tool, therefore, attacking cyberspace through sending viral links or other suspicious messages containing viruses has become a common practice. General public keep on spreading the messages and viral links through their social media platforms, and hence are becoming warfare tools in disguise. Social media apps create a point of injection for propaganda and are drastically becoming the nexus of cyber warfare and information operations. In order to understand this and have a deep understanding of the fundamentals of propaganda, we need to examine the concept of social media trends. It is important to understand that social media has become a tool for spreading fake news and there is no way to stop any fake video, audio or text message to stop getting viral and reaching the public.
Through fake news, propaganda is penetrated in the mainstream media outlets as well and is spread in public to create panic and unrest in the society. Social media apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram employ algorithms for analyzing words, phrases and hashtags in order to create a list of hot topics that are sorted in order of popularity. The trend list is a swift method to review the most discussed news, events and topics at a given time. These trending topics are usually started by the general public, but quite often they are induced in public by the extremist groups in order to contribute to agenda setting mechanisms. Through the use of existing online networks in combination with automatic bot accounts, extremist groups, terrorist organizations and foreign agents can insert propaganda into a social media platform, in order to create a trend by rapidly disseminating a message faster and cheaper than any other medium.
The terrorist organizations and extremist groups are rapidly transforming their warfare tools and are using social media platforms, which is a very alarming situation. Children and adults of all age groups use social media and are not well aware of the agenda behind any news or video that they are sharing. Security agencies and military organizations are equipping themselves with advanced information technologies, but unfortunately, there is no proper mechanism that could stop these non-state actors from using cyberspace and spreading their propaganda. Governments in different countries have banned certain websites, but that is not enough for protection of cyberspace and shielding the general public, especially youth from becoming a warfare tool through spreading of propaganda and fake news, initially injected by non-state actors. States should have a dialogue with social media companies for combating malicious use of these apps. It has become crucial to root out the role of bot accounts in trend creation. Social media companies should be aligned with the government’s policies and equip themselves with advanced information technologies to ensure that no extremism is being spread and that the trending events and topics are actually initiated by the public and not by bot accounts. Social media companies should take their moral responsibility for the betterment of society. Furthermore, educational institutions, research organizations, policy makers, and governments should invest in and work for spreading awareness among the public regarding social media cyber-war, so that its negative impacts could be mitigated.
Haleema Zia has done MS in Management Sciences from Riphah International University. She has been associated with Counter Terrorism field since 2014. She is currently working as a Researcher at Global Foundation for Cyber Studies and Research, USA. She is also associated with Cyber Insights Magazine as an Assistant Editor. She is focused to make considerable contributions in the field of Counter Terrorism, Cybersecurity and management sciences to build a significant connotation between them.