The media landscape as we know it is rapidly changing. Nobody could have imagined the times we are currently going through, say, 10 years ago. Social media is taking over the world by storm, and the once mighty mainstream media machine is slowly dying, with the endgame not in sight.
Throughout the years, social media has been labeled as many things. Some saw it as a new way for the surveillance state to spy on its people, but some others hailed it as a new way to propagate free speech. Lots of people have been brought into the political process by social media, and it played a very big role in recent popular uprisings such as the protests against the regime in Iran in 2009, in the Arab world uprising in 2011 and in the Euromaidan movement of 2013. To many, tweets seemed mightier than the sword. As Kofi Annan said: „By connecting people and giving them a voice, especially in countries that curtail the right of assembly and freedom of speech, social media was viewed as an unprecedented global force for citizens’ emancipation.“
However, authoritarian regimes soon started cracking down on Internet freedom. They feared that this type of communication tool was beyond the understanding of their old fashioned security establishments. But it did not take long for them to learn to use these tools to their own advantage. Smartphones and Internet are spreading like wildfire in the developing world, where democratic institutions are not based on such firm ground like their Western counterparts. For example, the last gubernatorial elections in Indonesia experienced a surge in fake news to heighten sectarian tensions in order to mobilize voters. But the problem is not limited to the developing world. Once governments mastered the techniques to use these tools at home, they started using them abroad. One widely known example of this is the alleged Russian meddling in recent elections taken place in France, Germany, Ukraine, and last but not least, in the 2016 US presidential election. Facebook estimates that the Russian content in its network reached 126 million Americans, which amounts to around 40% of the population. In times when even the most technically savvy nations cannot protect the integrity of their elections, it is pretty easy to guess how tough it is to hold elections in developing countries.
At this point, we are talking about information warfare. The wars of tomorrow are not going to be fought on battlefields, they will be fought behind computer screens or through proxies acting on behalf of more powerful countries. The absence of facts and data, and the possibility of manipulation, fuels conspiracy theories. This is a global threat to democracy and freedom. It undermines the legitimacy of democratically elected governments at a time the trust in government is already very low.
Citizens are gradually divided into small ideological groups, fueling biases, and diminishing opportunities for healthy debate. A robust atmosphere for debate is necessary for democracies to function, and the absence thereof lays the foundations of political pluralization, and lessens the capacity of our leaders to forge political compromises, which is a stepping stone for our democracies to work.
Once hailed as guardians of free speech, social media companies now are being labeled as villains. Is this the right way to handle this problem? Will blaming social media and cautioning against it solve the whole ordeal? This is where you come in, distinguished delegates. The future is in your hands, because you are the participants in the political process. It takes only a handful of willing people to change the world, because it is the only thing that ever has done it before. But you have to act fast, because social media could be just the start of a slippery slope leading to a truly Orwellian world in which Big Data gets manipulated by Big Brother.
I wish you luck in your MUN career and hope to see you at this year’s session of IELMUN.