by Tahir Mahmoud (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 10, Muharram, 1434)
The Internet can be used as well as abused so Muslims have to be wary of how they approach it.
While the internet has vastly improved the flow of information and freedom to express oneself, it has also enhanced the ability of imperialist powers to manipulate public opinion by setting their agenda and marketing it as relevant to the entire world. This agenda is then used as a key component of soft power to maintain their illegitimate dominance. Islamic power institutions, and Muslim and non-Muslim societies need a better grasp of how to properly evaluate and use the internet as a soft power tool without exaggerating or diminishing its importance. Below we will analyze three primary uses of internet and internet-based tools as soft power instruments.
Prior to analyzing the strategies and tactics used through internet by state and non-state actors to project soft power it must be borne in mind that it was the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), responsible for developing technology for the American military, that initiated development of the internet. This clearly shows that the internet was designed fundamentally to project power. Just like the development of nuclear technology by Western secular regimes, its primary aim was to militarily subjugate others and not use it for the benefit of the world at large. Therefore, the internet in its essence is a power projection tool; today it is a soft power tool that is regularly used to legitimize the hard power of the imperialists.
The internet is used by state and non-state actors as a soft power tool for three main objectives: 1) to promote a certain event or concept as important globally, 2) to advance an agenda through half-truth propaganda methods, and 3) to introduce existential concepts into a society in a subtle manner in order to colonize it intellectually and socially. The primary methods deployed to achieve these goals are conducted through citizen journalism, social media and the anonymity function of the internet.
Citizen journalism provides good opportunities for average citizens to expose injustice. However, it is also vulnerable to manipulation. While classical journalism has some fundamental guidelines that are generally followed by almost all publications, the same cannot be said for the blogosphere, which is one of the main social-media tools today. A journalistic piece has a copy flow process that filters an article down to its published version. One part of this filtering process is fact checking. Blogs that make up the key medium of citizen journalism do not have these requirements and therefore are vulnerable to manipulation.
The US government apparatus frequently uses the concept of “citizen journalism” in order to give its message an aura of objectivity and truthfulness and to protect its conventional mass media institutions from being discredited. Today American government institutions manipulate “citizen journalism” to provide themselves fabricated “sources” which they later use in their conventional mass media reports.
For several months mainstream Western media outlets with links to US power institutions were reporting the so-called activist in Syria allegedly named “Amina Arraf.” She was marketed by the mainstream media as the “Gay Girl in Damascus” fighting for democracy. News agencies and other mainstream news outlets often used the fictional character created by a US citizen in Scotland to boost their exaggerated reports on Syria. As the public became aware that “Amina Arraf” was a fabrication, mainstream media outlets did not even issue an apology for their unprofessional reporting techniques that relied on a totally fictional source. This is one of the primary advantages of citizen journalism for imperialist institutions and their media outlets directly or indirectly affiliated with them. The entire blame can always be shifted to an individual. This was the case with “Amina Arraf” scam where a US citizen studying in Scotland was turned into the main and only scapegoat. This method provides the institutions of mass deception within the official government apparatus and beyond with an exit space so that they can preserve their image and continue functioning without directly taking responsibility.
The ability to remain anonymous on the internet to a limited degree is another principle function of the internet that is manipulated by imperialist powers. It provides them with the ability to create a fake aura of mass global support for their aggressive policies. During the Israeli aggression on Gaza in 2008–2009, the foreign ministry of Israel hired a team of so called internet surfers that would post positive comments about Israel on various websites and social media networks. According to the report by Counterpunch.org that quoted an Israeli official, this scheme was incorporated into the state budget in 2009 under the rubric of “internet warfare team.”
In 2011 the British daily, the Guardian newspaper, reported that “a Californian corporation has been awarded a contract with United States Central Command (Centcom) that oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what is described as an online persona management service that will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world… the Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries.”
The internet is becoming another terrain of war between the imperialist Western power elites and societies seeking to retain or regain their sovereignty and an indigenous way of life. Today Muslim nations globally are at the center of this struggle and the internet is one of the tools to co-opt or destabilize Muslim societies. Therefore, Islamic movements, societies and individuals must learn how to deter the hostile usage of the internet against them. The number-one rule of deterring the soft-war against Islam through the internet is by creating sophisticated, well-managed and factual content. Dirty content can only be beaten by clean content. The primary step to succeed in countering US soft-power in cyberspace is to avoid shutting down access to hostile soft-power content. This method of “countering” US soft-power is ancient and ineffective. With today’s VPN software, censorship of webpages is unsuitable. Censoring tools of US soft power such as Twitter, Facebook and other resources of socio-political nature are counterproductive. It gives these tools undeserved credibility and boosts interest in them. If one were to give a military analogy to censorship on cyberspace it would suffice to say that in a battle one does not win by abandoning the battlefield, but by being present in it and penetrating the lines of the hostile forces. Therefore, blocking soft-power content of imperialist powers is like abandoning the battlefield.
Another counter-strategy concerning the soft war against Islam through the internet is to create content in local languages customized for particular geographic areas. In fact the imperialist bloc has already acknowledged this factor and is actively creating content of its propaganda in various languages based on specific customization.
Socially institutionalized venues must exist in Muslim societies that would help the society to educate itself on how it can contribute on a daily basis in countering the soft war on Islam in cyberspace. Masjids could be one of the main social vehicles to do this. Apart from generating factual and logical data in an appealing manner on the internet, countering Western socio-political and economic narrative, Muslims must generate lifestyle content rooted within the Islamic legal and philosophical framework combined with contemporary methodology. The Sirah of the Prophet (pbuh), his Ahl al-Bayt (a) and his Companions (ra) offer immense theoretical and practical lifestyle instructions that are able to boost our quality of life in every aspect, from diet to personal finance. Promotion of Islamic art, medicine, diet and other ideas must be introduced to the global public through the internet, but in cooperation with conventional mass media institutions. Today internet-based tools alone cannot be the answer to soft-power imperialism; neither can the conventional mass media. Internet-based and conventional mass media tools must act as components of each other in order to effectively project positive ideas.
Data projected through the internet will play an important role in projecting Islam’s soft power in cyberspace and beyond. However, original internet and cyber tools must be developed in order to offer an alternative to the already existing tools. Modifying, upgrading and creating new search engines could be one of the ways to project Islam’s soft power through the internet. This does not mean that Muslims must begin reinventing everything about the internet; this would be a waste of time. Many already existing applications in cyberspace can be used to our advantage if we become well versed in them. There are a dozen or more of the so-called “international economic free zones” in the Muslim world, however, there are almost no scientific or technological centers that would attract Muslim IT professionals from all over the world to spearhead inventions. It is quite revealing and shameful that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has not created such a scientific center funded by all Muslim countries and businesses from all corners of the Muslim Ummah. This fact is not surprising as most of the regimes that are members of the OIC are servants of the Western imperialist powers; Islam is one of their least important concerns. Therefore, it is the duty of the Muslim community itself to initiate such projects.