The events unfolding in Gaza will shape the course of global politics in the pivotal decades to come. Media is a key component of that political process, both in informing and shaping the opinions of populations worldwide, and already, emerging narratives are being leveraged by Russia to advance political ends.
The information war does not happen in a vacuum. Hostile disinformation strategy is designed to leverage existing ethnic, historic and political faultlines with the objective of widening existing cracks in social fabric to reduce cohesion, consensus, and the capacity of target governments.
At RNW Media, we are seeing three key media trends related to the Gaza war:
- EU, US Legitimacy Undermined
Monitoring social media in the MENA region, RNW Media is seeing strong patterns of anger and dismay at perceived inconsistencies in official Western responses.
For decades, European policymakers have sought to build global alliances based on the idea that democratic values and the rule of law, both international and domestic, are the best framework for healthy, prosperous and free societies. Media development has been a core component of this, the rationale being that free media and freedom of expression furthers these policy aims – a position that RNW Media supports.
Trending social media themes across the region point to stark disparities between European government and media responses to the loss of life between Israeli and Palestinian civilians, as well as the freezing of development aid to Palestinian civil society. The wide traction accumulating around these themes indicates that perceptions of European institutions and their role as arbiters has been severely undermined.
Comments reflect a sharp loss of confidence in European governments’ authenticity, and in support for the values they espouse. One such example:
“World conscience is fake. The institutions built by the west are there to support their colonial projects…We are alone.”
RNW Media’s position is that acting consistently with the rule of international law and with the values of democracy and human rights is not only the moral imperative – essential to safeguard and prevent further loss of innocent lives – it is also the most impactful way to further European foreign policy aims, including lasting peace in the Middle East.
- Fracturing of Digital Media Space
Tech platforms have been ill-equipped and biased in their responses to the war. RNW Media partners have documented examples of censorship, shadow-banning, and the demotion of Palestine-related content, and of unchecked anti-Arab hate speech and/or incitement on social media platforms. There has also been a rise in anti-semitic media incidents across numerous contexts.
Besides the moral imperative of acting in alignment with universal values of impartiality, human rights and equality, bias and/or discrimination in the tech platforms’ treatment of different online communities has long-term social and security implications.
RNW’s core position is that people need quality information to make informed decisions. That necessitates that they are able to trust the sources from which they get their information. If trust in existing digital platforms erodes further, users will increasingly turn to alternative platforms such as the Russian social platform VK, which supports 86 languages and grew to a record high of 101.7mn monthly global users in 2022.
This risks further splintering the digital space, deepening polarisation, diminished opportunities for moderation of harmful content, increased risk of extremist influence, and the clear risk of Kremlin-sponsored narratives gaining in ascendance.
- Russian Narratives Growing Traction
While Putin oppresses his own people at home and in Ukraine, media strategists are using events in Gaza to position Russia as the standard bearer of justice for oppressed people around the world. Russian state media, as well as media proxies globally and Russian bots, are highly effective at leveraging these narratives for Russian political advantage.
The threat to the rules-based global order of Russian media strategy influencing sentiment across the Global South is already being seen, for example, in shifting power structures in the Sahel, as well as in voting patterns at the UN Assembly. Growing Russian influence on the political process (for example through the Wagner Group’s ties to governments in countries as diverse as Belarus, Syria, Sudan, Mozambique, Central African Republic, Mali, Libya, Venezuela, and Madagascar) further erodes traction around the idea that the democratic, rights-based order offers citizens the best opportunities to live fulfilling and prosperous lives.
In the brave new realms of digital media and social influence, authenticity is a key concept. Simply put, if you want people to follow you – to adopt your ideas, to buy your product or even your brand of politics – you need to be seen to be authentic. Consistency and integrity are key components of authenticity. It is a bitter irony, given Putin and the late Yevgeny Prigozhin’s human rights records, that they are able to paint themselves as the authentic voice of the downtrodden. Indeed, this points to the fact that in the rising competition between global powers, digital media is key.
RNW Media’s strong recommendation is that pro-democracy institutions and governments must urgently update their media practices to be able to compete in the modern digital media landscape. The pro-rights sector, from civil society organisations to establishment political bodies, is relying on strategies that are simply unfit for the current technological landscape. That means the bloc’s ability to influence global sentiment is waning.
Where RNW Media sees cause for optimism, however, is that, whereas strongman authoritarianism may promise justice in the short term, the corruption and clientelism that lurk behind authoritarian promises has been proven time and again to diminish quality of life for the vast majority of citizens. By acting in accordance with the human rights values that they claim to promote, European policymakers can ensure that populations around the world continue to aspire to human rights and democratic values.