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The hijacking of social media

How the state infiltrates our social media narrative

The hijacking of social media

Dear all,

The American tv drama Homeland is in its sixth season, and has had its fair share of criticism. It’s been accused of being racist, condescending and Islamophobic. It’s been called ‘the most bigoted show on TV’, its depiction of ‘Islamabad’ and ‘Pakistani officials’ has been widely ridiculed, and the producers’ lack of attention to detail has been considered incomprehensible.

A basic example of this lack of attention to detail, and of a failure to hire appropriate consultants was, of course, the name of the young son of the ‘most wanted’ terrorist Abu Nazir. The young boy, who the captured US Marine Brody tutored and became so fond of was called ‘Isa’ (pronounced Aysa). Duh. Not an Arab name I have ever heard of.

And, then, of course there was the episode of the graffiti: in season 5, a group of Egyptian artists hired to paint slogans on the walls of a ‘Syrian refugee camp’, sprayed the walls with slogans critical of the show (“Homeland is racist”, “Homeland is not a show” etc).

This writing-on-the-wall episode of course generated a great deal of additional criticism for Homeland.

But despite all its flaws and its occasional absurdity, I consider Homeland to be an important and thought-provoking show. I admire the way it exposes certain aspects of the US foreign policy, and throws light on the power of hawkish elements within the corridors of power, particularly the Pentagon.

Season 6 of the show is particularly dark: it’s not set on foreign shores and the antagonists are not only NOT foreigners — they are also from the same intelligence community as the main protagonists. Basically a newly-elected, anti-war president is undermined, sabotaged and even threatened by the security establishment of the country she has been appointed to lead.

An especially chilling part of the story concerns the discovery of an operation where people are hired to help a hawkish part of this security establishment to hijack the social media narrative. Well paid and highly regulated, these individuals are hired to maintain a number of social media accounts, using several aliases, and to create conversations using various hashtags. They pose as citizens exercising free speech and expressing varied opinions when in fact they are components of a giant propaganda machine which seeks to control the political narrative on social media.

I consider Homeland to be an important and thought-provoking show. I admire the way it exposes certain aspects of the US foreign policy, and throws light on the power of hawkish elements within the corridors of power, particularly the Pentagon.

The scenes in the show depicting the hall where dozens of these individuals are gathered to carry this work forward are very disturbing. The work is done in a highly guarded and secretive basement, on rows and rows of desks with a huge screen showing the stats of how their activity is creating ‘trends’ of ‘public opinion’.

As we can see from recent events, such activities are not merely television fiction. The work of political advertising and online marketing firms such as Cambridge Analytica and SCL have been linked to the victories of Donald Trump in the US election last November and the Leave campaign in the UK referendum on EU membership last summer. This is the sinister rise of aggressive ‘political advertising’.

Similarly, in Pakistan, the episode of the abducted bloggers has highlighted the secret war that is being waged for the control of the social media narrative. Some media observers may once have chuckled at the proliferation of Twitter accounts supposedly of attractive females (often with the surname ‘Baloch’) that would actively support defence and rightwing narratives — but it is all rather less amusing now. The bloggers went missing for over three weeks, and although they came out alive they were made walking targets by being linked to charges of blasphemy. They allege physical torture and intimidation during their detention: sodomy, beating, interrogations…

These are individuals who were active on social media criticising certain defence policies, and exposing the establishment’s links with religious extremist groups. They expressed political dissent, and they were dangerous, and an army of tweeters seems to have drowned out their voices.

This is the age of the Bots, and as Homeland depicts — the hijacking of the social media narrative is intrinsically linked to the ‘defence of homeland security’.

Best wishes,

Umber Khairi

umber
The author is a radio producer and broadcaster with the BBC, and one of the founding editors of Newsline.

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