By Rob Cline and Olivia Dupree
Facebook has come under fire by Washington lawmakers and the American public in recent
months for their apparent involvement in the 2016 election. It has been discovered that Russian
disinformation operations paid for targeted Facebook ads that promoted Donald Trump and
sowed divisions in the electorate by touching on cultural wedge issues.
Facebook’s leadership failed to identify and curve these propaganda operations on their site, raising questions about
the company’s ability to independently maintain a truthful and fair media platform for Americans to get information.
While this problem seems uniquely American, we need to point out that Facebook is a global
website. Nations across the world have experienced Russian disinformation campaigns through
Facebook over the past two years. It has been discovered that the Brexit campaign in the UK was
plagued by Russian social media influence, as well as the French presidential campaign.
While it’s majorly important that Russian intelligence is interfering in the elections of Western
democracies, there are places in the world where groups utilize Facebook for much more
dangerous outcomes. In Myanmar, the militant government in power is engaging in ethnic
cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims. This brutal violence against the Rohingya has been fueled,
in part, by misinformation and anti-Rohingya propaganda spread on Facebook.
In countries like Myanmar, social and governmental instability means that traditional news
outlets like newspapers and cable TV have much less sway with the public, something both
Patricia Kabra and Louisa Williams spoke to when visiting our class. Without these forms of
media, the public forum moves to open social media platforms like Facebook. Facebook has
become the primary news source for most citizens of Myanmar.
This sets up a huge problem: Facebook creates a massive, open public sphere and leaves
everyone else to deal with the consequences. As the New York Times put it: “Correcting
misinformation is a thorny philosophical problem for Facebook, which imagines itself as a
neutral platform that avoids making editorial decisions.” Unfortunately, like we saw with fake
news in the US presidential election, people seem to have a willingness to accept what they see
on Facebook as true. This means the government of Myanmar has been extremely successful in
alienating the Rohingya through misinformation campaigns.
For PD practitioners, this represents an information crisis. On one hand, Facebook is an essential
tool in the modern age to reaching broad audiences that you would normally not reach with
traditional media. On the other hand, Facebook is an untrimmed landscape ripe for
misinformation and deceit by those who want to manipulate public opinion.
Battling social media disinformation will likely become a common practice of public diplomats
around the globe. US envoys who want to maintain the US’s image abroad will most likely have
to deal with Russian backed anti-American propaganda campaigns. Additionally PD
practitioners will have to learn how to deal with the social and political upheaval that comes
when disinformation campaigns are successful in their host countries.
Resource: Facebook as a Tool of Global Propaganda
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s). They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.
Why are so many Muslim women in Europe susceptible to ISIS propaganda? Many of them join ISIS to commit jihad, or violence in the name of the “sustained struggle” to advance Islamic extremism. In 2014, about 18 percent of all European ISIS members were female. As of August 2017, experts believe the total number of women is more than 550. But are women brainwashed by the Islamic State or choosing jihad of their own free will?
Many Muslim women in Europe are enticed by ISIS’s recruitment videos and social media presence. ISIS portrays the Caliphate as a utopian land where ISIS’s very narrow view of Islam is strictly enforced. ISIS uses Hollywood-level video production and a social media strategy which rivals any Silicon Valley startup. On social media, women members of ISIS promise their women viewers a fulfilling life married to a devout Muslim man in the Caliphate. These women leave discrimination and alienation in Europe to support jihadis in Syria—or to take jihad into their own hands.
But why are ISIS recruitment efforts so effective? Answering this question requires an overview of how Muslim women are excluded from European society. For example, many French people do not consider a Muslim immigrant living in France to be “French, ” regardless of citizenship. A “French” identity includes Western clothing, language fluency, and a desire to assimilate. The French government and mainstream media view national identity narrowly—“traditional” so as not to make white French citizens uncomfortable.
Immigrant Muslim women are marginalized and their religion, way of dressing, and race are always at the forefront of their minds. They are forced to define their “Muslim” identity as incompatible with their “French” identity. Many choose to perceive themselves as “Muslim” rather than “French” in a nation that shows them time and time again that they do not belong. Taub calls this phenomenon “identity choice.”
ISIS uses these cleavages created by the French government to target French Muslim women who want to wear religious coverings and marry a devout Muslim man without being cast as a social pariah. Recruiters appeal to women fascinated by extremism and enamored with escaping France to join the Caliphate. By creating media channels apart from the French mainstream, ISIS can control the slant and message of their posted content to target and lure.
The divergence of media outlets can explain why recruitment videos spread like wildfire.
The fork in the road: ISIS creates a sophisticated rival of mainstream media, which garners attention from the women who embrace this romanticized extremism
However, ISIS’s savvy productions only explain part of the phenomenon.
ISIS’s chosen messenger? Other women.
British women recruiters are master strategists at romanticizing life under ISIS: they catch more flies with honey than they do with vinegar. ISIS women reach out to other women by creating News Frames of the propaganda. Through a process called framing, they shape and interpret the content of ISIS videos and social media posts to win the upper hand in reaching French Muslim women—their target audience.
The most powerful way to frame ISIS propaganda is to create a utopian image of the Caliphate that is consistent with what many Muslim women have already determined to be their ideal society.
Women recruiters can frame ISIS propaganda to convince a woman that joining is in her own best interest. Here’s three ways how:
By glorifying this active role for women, recruits develop an affinity for a Caliphate ready to welcome them with open arms.
Despite its recent territory losses, ISIS still manages to release a few recruitment videos. Nations committed to countering violent extremism cannot fight fire with fire: instead of sensationalizing the videos and perpetrators to the public, European officials and mainstream media outlets must disseminate content that exposes these recruitment tactics that put women at risk.
In addition, French society must broaden their definition of “European” to include Muslim immigrants. In order for this shift in public opinion to occur, European mainstream media needs a new approach: discussing Muslim women as French citizens or residents, not permanent outsiders. Media accomplish this goal by at the News Frames stage of the model above.
Elected officials in Europe must rise to their higher calling as public servants and unite citizens of all religions and national origins under a new “European” identity. Factionalism may be good for getting votes, but this tactic has succeeded at the expense of Muslim women’s livelihoods. This is the most difficult and far-reaching change to implement, as the model suggests.
If France better integrates its immigrant communities, French Muslim women can emerge from the margins of society. ISIS’s power to prey upon these women diminishes when women can practice their religion, wear garments of their choosing, and access education and employment opportunities.
ISIS’s glossy social media images will lose their luster for the many women they once seduced. The news frames won’t be as effective for Muslim women immigrants once Europe stops treating them as “the other.”
Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.