Social Media and the Art of War – King’s College War Studies Professor speaks at UP

Posted on October 25, 2018

Contemporary war strategy will need to evolve to counter the rise of social media and the speed at which information can now be carried. This was the warning delivered by Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies and former Vice-Principal of King’s College London, at a public lecture at the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Humanities.

Prof Freedman’s talk focussed on social media as a propaganda tool in war. “The language may change, but there is nothing new about the role of narratives in conflict. Governments going to war, those encouraging them to do so, and those urging them not to, have always used stories about the past and a likely future to justify the stances they have taken. The role of propaganda, which only became a negative term as a result of [Nazi Propaganda Minister] Goebbels, has long been recognised as a vital part of conflict,” said Prof Freedman, a military historian who writes widely on strategic studies, foreign policy, and defence.

In his talk, Prof Freedman noted that war strategy will need to evolve as social media continues to change how people interact, and how information spreads. In the past, digital attacks were limited to infrastructure, such as targeting a government website or hacking a national system of strategic importance. But in the modern age, he said, “Information operations are designed to make people think differently about situations, and are essentially the same as what used to be called propaganda, just as cyber operations are essentially the same as what used to be called sabotage.”

Prof Freedman was appointed as the Official Historian of the Falklands Campaign in 1997, and subsequently served as a member of the Chilcot Commission, the official inquiry into Britain’s role in the 2003 Iraq War. His visit to UP’s Faculty of Humanities is a sign of the growing relationship between UP and King’s College in the field of Security and Strategic Studies. The visit also coincided with two workshops hosted by the team responsible for the Faculty’s research theme, ‘Peace and Conflict in Africa’, which also saw the participation of Professors Michael Rainsborough and Andrew Dorman, both from King’s College. Prof ’Funmi Olonisakin, Vice-Principal (International) of King’s College, is an extraordinary professor in UP’s Humanities Faculty, and is the driving force behind the growing relationship, which recently saw the introduction of a joint PhD Programme in Security Studies, and regularly conducts joint doctoral writing retreats.

According to Prof Freedman, social media allows individuals to originate or spread material without great difficulty. “Material can also be personalised and directed at individuals by largely anonymous people, based on their profiles. Their efforts are both hidden by, but also potentially magnified by, the sheer volume of material being produced and consumed daily. Much of this information may be presented in largely headline form, not requiring careful reading and not always with any sense of the reliability of the source. By choosing who to follow, individuals pre-select their choices, often to fit in with their established prejudices.”

Prof Freedman further explained this by unpacking how social media works to reward shares, interaction, and engagement time to make messages go viral. This means that the most successful propagators of information are those that frame a narrative convincingly enough to shape public understanding and impel people to action on a personal level. Clickbait information and sensationalist and misleading headlines allow for this to happen on a much wider, global scale through the use of social media.

He outlined the reality of wars around the world, and the factors that hamper and boost them. He noted that Western powers have, in recent years, preferred proxy wars – getting groups to fight wars on behalf of other powers in the name of defending their interests. According to Prof Freedman, “States [can] rely on non-violent forms of coercion – from hostile resolutions at the [UN] Security Council, travel restrictions on individuals, sports boycotts, economic sanctions, energy cut-offs, and the withdrawal of foreign aid. Cyber and information operations are normally included in this category of measures… although they are less helpful as overt coercive signals. This is because they are often done covertly and denied.” 

- Author Shakira Hoosain

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