Digital For Good: The Weaponisation of Digital Media

As part of our Digital For Good platform, Organic will be exploring the various challenges society faces through digital and looking at potential solutions. Today we look at the phenomenon that has seen the rising weaponisation of digital media, not only by nation states, but by individuals and organisations as well.

Media coverage of the recent military confrontation between Pakistan and India highlights how the current state of media and communications in the digital world has more in common with wartime than peace time, due to the increasing weaponisation of digital channels by state, political, corporate, and individual actors.

A recent article on the BBC about the India-Pakistan airstrikes had a familiar narrative for those with experience of wartime media relations. Pakistan and India painted very different pictures of the relative success of their respective operations – both offering up pictures and film as incontrovertible evidence.

This is no surprise. Warfare has always been as much about using media to win hearts and minds as it has the battlefield. We all expect, and have seen, the different sides in a military conflict presenting completely different versions of events.

Yet somehow this was different. What struck me was the banality of it. It didn’t seem like military propaganda. It was just another story. Just another day. Just another article where different interest groups contradicted each other with incontrovertible evidence supporting their version of the truth.

It seems to me that the media has become permanently weaponised.

Forms of communication reserved for extreme times in traditional media seem to have become the norm in digital. In the peacetime digital space, there is a constant battle for hearts and minds – not only between states – but also between interest groups and individuals.

This weaponisation of mass media has occurred concurrently alongside the evolution and democratisation of digital tools of communication.

To many like me, the emergence of digital media was a blessing. A communications revolution that democratised, empowered, educated, and connected. Yet generally we have used this new found power to go to war over almost every idea under the Sun. Our daily use of digital to promote our own interests and politicised versions of the truth puts us more inline with the 20th century propagandists of film and radio, and their aggressive, unwavering bombardment of the population.

From the shape of the earth to vaccines to Brexit and Walls. Within digital spaces we seem to have lost the capability to respectfully hold differing opinions, to differentiate fact from fiction, and to coalesce respectfully around a subject and debate it without resorting to threats of violence.

Why?

Some Possible Causes

Certainly a major reason has been that the cost of access is extraordinarily low compared to pre-digital media. Anyone can publish and build an audience for free, and if you’ve got some money to spend it only gets easier. In 2019 the cost of one ad during the Super Bowl could buy you 33 years worth of mobile ads, or 2.6 billion Instagram impressions. That is a lot of hearts and minds for your money, and anyone can access them. But at what cost? Certainly the real cost of free Internet for all is only beginning to be understood.

Secondly, and related to the first, it has proven hard to monetise quality journalism in recent decades. Impression based ad revenue means all content is created equal in the eyes of the capitalist. This means the ability of authoritative sources to provide checks and balances is reduced, and fake sources can masquerade as legitimate ones.

Thirdly, our understanding of the risks and rewards of these communication tools remains simplistic. The psychological impact of binary likes and dislikes, echo chambers, and crude algorithms is not as well understood as we would like. We remain extraordinarily digitally illiterate.

Fourth, disintermediation. The fidelity of digital communication channels remains extraordinarily low. The typical cues we would use to understand the message and the messenger, and the lack of reliable middlemen to sort the wheat from the chaff, inhibits our ability to interpret meaning and intent, and to perceive threats on digital channels.

Finally, as ever in a new environment, there is little regulation or control. Whilst this offers opportunities, it can also be abused.

A Reason For Digital Optimism

But there is reason to be optimistic.

History teaches us that all new communications tools are at first adopted and manipulated by political propagandists (good and bad) and nefarious types. This continues for a period before our understanding and regulation of these media have had a chance to catch up. From the use of the printing press in the Reformation, to the use of film and radio by the Nazis, Soviet Union, and Western world powers this pattern is repeated time and again.

As before, regulation will play a part (and indeed already is) as will education. In the UK our current secondary school attendees are badly underserved in this regard, but digital education is becoming well established in primary schools. In addition, our own, growing, human digital sophistication and literacy will make us more able to filter and evaluate sources and content.

Then there is the opportunity presented by increasing bandwidth. As our ability to use richer forms of media increases we will perhaps be able to have enough fidelity in our messages to use and recreate some of the subtle signals we rely upon to understand each other in the real world.

We will also see technology offering its own solutions, alongside more traditional methods such as regulation. Automated fact checking is potentially one part of the solution, but these tools remain very limited. In 2017, charity Full Fact developed a prototype tool that automatically scans media and Parliament transcripts for claims and matches them against existing fact checks. The Duke Reporters’ Lab and Chequeado have both built tools that scan media transcripts for checkable claims, later notifying fact-checkers to potential fact checks. These have been used by organisations like the Washington Post.

So, despite some of the negativity that surrounds digital at the moment, there is reason to continue to believe that digital democratisation of the means of creation, distribution, and curation of content and ideas, will, after a period of immaturity, become a growing force for good and positive change into the future.

Digital For Good

This will not happen on its own. Digital is just a collection of ‘stuff’. It is not inherently good or bad. It will be down to us to choose how we use it. At Organic this is why we chose Digital For Good as our platform. Digital is here to stay. It is not a niche set of channels sitting separate from the real world, it is beginning to overlay every aspect of our lives. So, if it is here for good, then it had better be Good.

On a macro level, that means we know digital can change people’s lives for the better, in ways that would be impossible without it. Some of the ways we can do that is to help stop the abuse and weaponisation of digital communication tools by developing fact checking tools, providing digital education and literacy, or lobbying for the right kind of legislation and intervention.

On a micro-level though, every day at Organic, we work with organisations to simply create better online experiences, to improve customer’s lives and make digital a good place to be. If, as it seems, Digital has weaponised the media and communications landscape, then Digital for Good, at least, is something worth coming to work to fight for every day.

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