You've surely been made aware of the scourge of online fake news that's misleading unsuspecting citizens, and abusing the power of the internet to reach an audience and advance a political and ideological agenda under patently false pretenses.
And talk about doing it across cultures and religions – therefore, imposing your country's agenda onto internet users in another part of the world, or those originating from there – a space and a culture where, by the way, you have no legitimate business to meddle – certainly not without full disclosure. Unless, of course, you undemocratically claim that right for yourself.
Many readers somewhat weary of the “Russians everywhere!” narrative might at this point start making their rhetorical plea, something along the lines of, “Please tell me this is not about the Russians.”
I'm here to tell you, this story is not about the Russians. Though, of course, it could easily be. Security and intelligence agencies, especially in big and powerful countries, are pretty much all the same in their intent and purpose, and in their universal lack of regard for individual rights and democratic traditions. The difference is usually their level of competence and success. And, of course, the public front that they manage to present.
Now, Middle East Eye (MEE), an independently funded online news outlet, has a report that shows the British authorities as dabbling in online meddling – by means of establishing misleading, or let's just say it – fake Instagram and Facebook accounts.
Their goal? To influence Muslims in order to steer them clear of “radicalization.”
But in true democracies, do the ends still not justify the means – or not?
In this case, “the means” were those employed by the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) that works under UK government's internal affairs segment, aka, Home Office. In their misleading online presence, they decided to get hip with the younger crowd: the accounts were named “This Is Woke” – and they offered the cagiest and utterly misleading explanation as to who was behind them by stating it was an entity wanting to have “critical discussions around Muslim identity, tradition and reform.”
Okay. But when the OSCT described itself falsely as “a media/news company” in these Facebook and Instagram pages and accounts – they outright lied. And that's a huge problem.
“Woke” – for those of you who might have missed it – is a phrase originating from African-American jargon, that, as the report suggested, means “to remain aware of social and racial justice issues.”
And from this, it would seem that the OSCT was addressing its online Muslim audiences only in English and using highly specific “youth” language. Speaking from the point of view of someone who would like as much “terrorism to be suppressed online” as possible – sorry, but that had to have been strike one, OSCT.
Strike two, of course, was getting outed like this, and so quickly. According to the report, these fake accounts are said to have been less than six months old before they got busted.
Strike three could be coming soon – as MEE said it was appealing the organization's refusal to reveal more relevant information under UK's Freedom of Information Act.
When challenged in this way, the OSCT “confirmed that it held such material but refused to disclose any, citing the section of the act that concerns national security.”
But what the website has managed to get so far is not inconsequential. It tells the story of fake social media accounts clearly geared towards manipulating their users.
Take this, a quote from the report: “Launched earlier this year, the network features videos with titles such as ‘A trillion ton iceberg has broken off Antarctica' and ‘Millions of pangolins are hunted each year'. Alongside them are other videos with titles such as ‘It's time to hold extremism to account for terrorism, not Islam'. This video went viral, being viewed 1.7 million times.”
If you're an ordinary, law-abiding citizen minding your own business, who also happens to be Muslim – and sick and tired of being labeled as the villain of the universe – this is exactly the sort of soothing rhetoric you would want to hear from somebody, anybody. Too bad that it had to come from – to paraphrase the rhetoric used by US “newspapers of record” – an intelligence propaganda mouthpiece of the UK government.
But if you were an actual terrorist, this kind of thing would likely do little to dissuade you. And these positive and accepting messages, interspersed with viral clickbait trash, are clearly treating their Muslim audiences disrespectfully, the way somebody might treat our dog or cat when it comes to administering some medicine they don't like: hide it inside a treat. Trick them.
The concept of “winning hearts and minds” of another culture originated as basically a “divide and rule” tactic. Now, it has obviously moved on to the vast online expanses, but without evolving much. “Woke” or not, fake content is fake.