Category: Politics

How personal branding paved the way for post-truth

Over a decade ago, an idea was born that seemed innocent at the time, even ground-breaking. It was the idea of personal branding; marketing one’s own skills like a product. In this piece, I’m going to reflect on how the personal branding mindset has played a role in creating today’s polarised and tribal online environment.

In his original Fast Company article,‘The Brand Called You’, author Tom Peters urges his readers to develop their personal brands by delivering talks and developing word-of-mouth marketing around their unique skills. He briefly mentions the importance of showing familiarity with new technology (such as email), but as a rather minor consideration. After all, it was 1997; the digital world hadn’t yet become an inextricable part of everyone’s lives.

Fast forward a few years to the early 2000s, where people had started publishing their own content using blogs and personal websites. The social media platform MySpace was launched in 2003, followed a couple of years later by Facebook. These tools were powerful and they allowed ordinary people to broadcast their message, whatever that might be, to large audiences. It was a whole new way to build the brand called you.

Digital tribalism

The growth of social media and blogs spawned a whole generation of online content creators, some successful, many not. People could now reinvent themselves personally and professionally simply by producing relevant online content and sharing it with audiences via social media. The trick to success was finding a bunch of people with whom your message resonated, i.e. your tribe.

The idea of ‘finding your tribe’ is central in branding strategy, both for commercial marketers and personal branders. Personal branding gurus often stress the importance of being bold and even divisive in the content you choose to publish. The goal in doing so is to eliminate those who aren’t on board with your opinions, leaving only your loyal, like-minded tribe remaining.

Arguably, this tribal approach has instilled in the digital generation a habit of being strongly opinionated online. It’s all too easy to be bold and divisive when you’re safely behind a screen. You can blog, make videos and write ebooks to your hearts’ content.

But creating effective content for personal branding takes up a lot of time and mental energy. Not everyone wants (or has the skills/motivation) to write original blog posts about their key career interests. Luckily, there’s another approach: content curation.

This popular and effortless alternative for building a personal brand community involves sharing other people’s content with your target audience, sometimes (but not necessarily) adding your own quote or original take.

Curation can be done quickly and with the minimum of effort; an appealing strategy in a time-pressed world. For example, content curation on Twitter could be as simple as retweeting articles and tweets relevant to the personal brand you wish to create. By doing this consistently, you can attract like-minded people, which then gives you a tribe, or brand community.

Another relevant factor in the development and solidification of personal branding is the deliberate design of online social networks. This encourages users to take actions which generate more likes, clicks and engagement from their audience.

Content curation and social networks’ design are symbiotic processes intended to complement one another, leading to a cycle where people create (or curate) content, gain approval from their tribe, experience a positive self-esteem boost, and repeat. This ongoing process generates increased traffic for the social networks and more revenue for their vital advertisers.

Personal branding meets politics

In 2008, online social networks made their big debut in politics as part of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Obama won the presidency, and followed up in 2012 with another win and another dose of digital political campaigning.

By then, more and more people were using social media and the first signs of manipulation were began to emerge. On top of that, attention spans were beginning to erode as people became used to a lifestyle lived almost wholly online. The introduction of Apple’s iPhone, and the resulting explosion in smartphone use exacerbated this shift, giving people access to social media in their pockets at all times.

It created the beginnings of a world where everyone on a bus or train would have their head down staring at a smartphone. Once we gained the possibility of sharing content at the touch of a ‘share’ button, content curation as part of maintaining a self image would soon become habitual for many. By 2016, social network use was prevalent, most people had a smartphone, and information was flowing non-stop.

Politics had firmly entered the personal branding arena, and campaign managers deployed increasingly clever strategies, such as digital profiling and social ads, to win over voting populations. This practice came to a head with the EU referendum in the UK, closely followed by the 2016 election of Donald Trump as US president.

Going tribal

To better understand what drove these events, it’s useful to first consider the innate human tendency to see the world in terms of ‘us vs them’. This is well demonstrated by the work of behavioural psychologist Henri Tajfel on what he called the ‘social identity theory of group conflict’, in particular the ‘minimal group paradigm’.

The minimal group paradigm shows that people define themselves in opposing groups over the most trivial of matters, such as a coin flip, grouping themselves into ‘Heads’ and ‘ Tails’. Once divided into groups, people tend to favour their own ingroup while disadvantaging, and even derogating, the outgroup. If people can get tribal over a simple coin flip, imagine what they’d be like over political ideology.

Further research has shown that not only do people tend to strongly favour their ingroup, but they also have a tendency to derogate the outgroup. This us vs them mentality manifests in many areas of life, from harmless rivalry over cities and sports (e.g. Boston vs New York or Manchester vs Liverpool), to more serious issues of racism, xenophobia and nationalism.

It also manifests in the digital world, exacerbated by today’s entrenched tendency for personal branding and ‘finding one’s tribe’. People receive positive reinforcement as part of the in-group whenever they broadcast their identity to their fellow brand community members. They usually do this by sharing content, whether their own, or, more commonly, curated from others.

Two infamous political examples are the behaviour of Trump supporters versus Clinton supporters, or Leave versus Remain supporters. Both sides commonly derogate the other (e.g. libtard, Brexiteer) and view their ingroup as superior.

That’s not the only way social identity theory manifests itself in contemporary digital politics. In addition to derogating each others’ perceived political outgroup, it’s become common practice to derogate, and even dehumanise, certain outgroups in wider society, normally minorities such as Muslims, refugees or immigrants.

These groups have become easy targets because of an array of social and political events over recent decades that have put them squarely in the firing line. Ever since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the British and US mainstream media has consistently highlighted attacks committed by Muslim perpetrators while downplaying similar ones conducted by non-Muslims.

What’s more, the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS triggered a massive influx of refugees from Syria and Iraq into Europe. Together, these events produced a climate of fear and uncertainty; fertile territory for innate ‘us and them’ attitudes to thrive in a digital sphere where online tribalism (in the personal branding sense) had long been a common practice.

Tribes before truth

This leads to a very current concern: the rise of online misinformation, often known as ‘fake news’. With such a huge flood of information now available via our smartphones, we don’t always have time to read everything in detail. So we take shortcuts and get lazy about processing information properly. We simply don’t have the time or inclination to think deeply about every piece of content we interact with online.

Nevertheless, we crave engagement and approval from our ‘tribe’. Perhaps we’ve become somewhat addicted to it, to the extent that we sometimes share articles without even reading them. Recent research found that between 50–70% of all URLs on Twitter are shared without being opened, suggesting that people share them based only on the headline. This has heavy implications for the spread of misinformation, and suggests too, that fact-checking probably won’t work.

In an online space rife with misinformation, why would someone share an article without reading it first? Arguably, broadcasting our affiliation to our digital tribe matters more to us than veracity. More critically, broadcasting this affiliation to our ingroup is likely to involve derogation of an outgroup. After all, we really want those likes and shares, and that’s often the best way to get them.

One of the key goals in sharing content on social media (especially Twitter) seems to be to signal that ‘we’ (the ingroup) are different from ‘them’ (the outgroup). This dichotomy shows up most disturbingly in stories about ‘Muslim rape gangs’, refugee ‘sex mobs’, and terrorist attacks that never happened (e.g. the fictitious Bowling Green massacre).

In this tense milieu, it’s easy for misinformation to get picked up and spread as part of the ‘tribal broadcasting’ process, or ‘content curation’ in personal branding parlance. If a certain news story fits people’s ingroup vs outgroup narratives, they’re probably going to share it on social media. Truth may come second to tribalism.

The real danger comes when this digital tribalism plays out in real world scenarios, such as an uptick in anti-immigrant hate crime, or violent events such as ‘Pizzagate’. Both have been linked to online misinformation.

You might ask what the social media giants are doing to address this issue. They’ve made various efforts to implement reporting tools so that users can report hate speech. They have also shut down particularly heinous accounts such as InfoWars, that exist purely to peddle misinformation and hate.

But digital tribalism in fact boosts all the metrics that spell success for social media firms, creating a self-reinforcing situation. One can’t help but wonder how far they’ll actually go to rein this in.

If only we could all quit social media, en masse. Would that solve the problem? Or does it run deeper than that?

Can ‘Online Surges’ Drive Long Term Attitude Change?

It comes as little surprise to learn that today’s wave of anti-Muslim online sentiment is being led by specific Islamophobic organisations, and channelled through public figures such as Tommy Robinson and Pamela Geller. And over the last three years, a spate of incidents tied to Muslim perpetrators, including vehicle attacks and knifings, have added fuel to the fire and, in the minds of some, justified their anti-Muslim viewpoints. Indeed, one often notices a sense of warped, self-righteous ‘public duty’, among online commenters who bash Muslims and link them ceaselessly to terrorism. After all, aren’t terrorists a danger to our society; public enemy number one? Surely it’s acceptable to point that out. When looking through the lens of online news and social media, especially in the unbridled comments sections, the casual observer may come to feel that the majority of Britons hate, fear, and dehumanise Muslims.

But that particular picture of public opinion could be misleading. The true makeup of this climate of hate may come as more of a surprise. A soon-to-be-published report (and numerous bloggers and journalists) claims that many of the social media accounts spreading anti-Muslim sentiment online aren’t who they claim to be. Many aren’t even human, while others don’t represent ‘organic’ human opinions. Here we have the bots and paid sock-puppets. One is generated by algorithms, the other operates from a pre-existing messaging playbook. Attempts to engage them in dialogue often feel like arguing with a brick wall, or an extremely resilient ideologue; impervious to reason of any kind. Oddly, people often describe ardent Trump supporters in this way.

In terms of the climate around Muslims and Islam, these media manipulators use a range of tools to try and shift public opinion on a wide scale. A lot of psychological devices come into play here, for example the bandwagon effect. In this, people tend to do something just because others are doing it; such as blindly adopting a popular opinion around a contentious social or political issue. It’s a tool that’s been used for decades in political campaigns and commercial advertising. When bots and sock-puppets masquerade as ordinary British and American citizens (cleverly leveraging their profiles to appear so) who hate Islam, they are relying on the bandwagon effect to encourage real citizens to adopt similar views. When it looks like so many people are talking badly about a certain group or person, it’s easy to assume the rumours might well be true. The bot armies also latch onto people like Tommy Robinson to amplify his messages, and add their own, whenever a relevant story breaks.

Unfortunately, terrorist attacks have become a critical asset in a giant influence ops campaign. Just as PR stunts drive content marketing traffic in the commercial world, so attacks (or rumours of attacks) also drive anti-Muslim ‘brand-building’ in the world of organised Islamophobia. It’s an interesting symbiotic relationship that would merit further study. The prime goals of the campaign appears to be driving wedges into society, creating an atmosphere of fear and turning groups against one another. Persuasion, whether by means of disinformation or fact, has attitude change as its end goal. A range of psychological theories purport to explain the processes behind it, but for now it’s more important to focus on effects. Whoever is masterminding these influence ops wants to shift the pendulum and create a new anti-Muslim normal in public opinion. They are using every tool at their disposal to do so, including false amplification, echo chambers, and visual disinformation.

But is the campaign working? To find out, we need to measure subtle shifts in public sentiment over a span of years, and then find out how to tie them to anti-Islam messaging campaigns. Of course, results are likely to be skewed by certain factors. One could be the mainstream British media, in particular the Express and Daily Mail, where coverage of all things immigration, refugees and Islam often teeters on the brink of disinformation, especially in the ways in which topics are spun. Specific incidents, especially of visual disinformation, such as the Muslim woman at Westminster, could be used as starting points to track associated sentiment online. Fearful knee-jerk reactions to terrorist attacks are to be expected, but broader long-term shifts in sentiment are harder to track. What’s more, they are far more insidious, corroding society from the inside out.

Who’s winning on the digital battlefield?

On the eve of the French presidential elections, there’s a sudden flurry of activity on social media. A candidate’s name – #Macron – is trending on Twitter. So what’s the news? A large stash of Emmanuel Macron’s private emails have been hacked and leaked online.

Sound familiar?

That’s because it’s happened before. You probably remember last year’s debacle about Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails. This more than likely contributed to her losing the election to Donald Trump. If nothing else, it created an air of public suspicion around Clinton that did irreparable damage to her reputation. I still think back to that hacking event and recall it as a haze of rumours and misinformation; I was never totally clear what the core of the issue really was.

And in light of this latest development with France, I begin to wonder if confusion is actually the goal in all this. Perhaps we give whoever is behind this too much credit by assuming they’re actually pulling the strings of public opinion. What would be easier, and perhaps just as damaging, would be simply to sow the seeds of mistrust. With everyone at each others throats, arguing bitterly about what is and isn’t ‘fake news’, there’s room for the malevolent forces to continue their underhand work of sabotaging democracy. When journalists digging deep to report the truth on something can so easily have their work discredited as ‘fake news’ by none other than the US president himself, we really are veering into a disturbing new reality.

Who is actually responsible for this mischief? Sources point to a Russian hacking group known, among a variety of other names, as “Fancy Bear”. It’s the same group said to be responsible for hacking Hillary Clinton’s emails last year. “The key goals and objectives of the campaign appear to be to undermine Macron’s presidential candidacy and cast doubt on the democratic electoral process in general,” said Vitali Kremez, director of research at Flashpoint, a business risk intelligence company in New York, in an interview with the New York Times.

We should not underestimate the abilities of Russia in this arena. Dmitri Alperovitch, of CrowdStrike, told the MIT Technology Review that Russia ‘gets the true nature of the battlefield’ in a way the West does not. “They’ve been thinking about this for a very long time,” he said. “It actually goes at least as far back as the Tsarist era in the 1860s, when they created one of the first modern intelligence agencies, the Okhranka.” So Russia has been doing this sort of thing for decades, but the rise of digital offers the perfect new landscape for even deeper subterfuge.

But there’s one ray of hope; and that’s in how the French media has responded to the Macron email leak so far; by not reporting on the contents of it. This seems a smart move. Part of French law requires candidates to stop campaigning between midnight on Friday to when the polls close at 8pm on Sunday. Candidates are forbidden to give media interviews or issue statements. The timing of the email hack was likely designed to coincide with this, in an attempt to release the emails while Macron was unable to respond. But denying the fake news trolls the oxygen of media publicity cuts the head off the snake; removing much of its potential to harm. The same goes for terrorist incidents. ‘Propaganda of the deed’ as terrorism was once known, relies on shock and awe to achieve its ends. In an ‘always-on’ digital society this effect is massively amplified and completely fake incidents can even be instigated, by anyone anywhere. If the media had denied the ‘oxygen of publicity’ to groups like Isis from the very beginning, the world might be less messy today.

The emergence of Isis fuelled the rise of the far-right, giving white supremacists and ultraconservatives the opportunity to rise up and gain power under the guise of ‘protecting’ the nation from threat. Of course that ‘threat’ is constantly portrayed as emanating from Islam and Muslims. And so the cycle continues. But the example of France is certainly a promising one. The election outcome will reveal if it actually worked. Perhaps going forward, these issues could be mitigated by a more scrupulous mainstream media, one that’s less desperate for ‘clicks’ to ensure its survival, along with citizen journalism collectives such as Bellingcat, to shed light on old issues and reveal new cracks in existing narratives.

Images of Islam: How fake news drives public opinion about Muslims

“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act”

– George Orwell

Through misinformation to political change

Misinformation about Muslims (including refugees, immigrants and ordinary citizens) has been used to construct harmful narratives, reinforce existing Islamophobia and, arguably, create a fertile environment for enacting profound social and political change. Although the role of Islamophobia in the media has been explored in depth, less research has been done into social media, especially the role of social media images. These images are highly susceptible to manipulation when taken out of context, or attached to wholly fake news. They can be used to promulgate certain political agendas, heighten divisions in society, and cause actual harm to vulnerable groups.

In March 2017, shortly after Khalid Masood attacked Westminster, a certain image began circulating on social media. It depicted a young woman wearing a hijab. She had a distressed expression, clutching her phone as she walked across Westminster bridge. Behind her, one of Masood’s victims lay on the pavement, surrounded by concerned passers-by. The image went viral across Twitter, Facebook and a range of anti-Islam blogs.

The intense discussion it generated focused on the recurring narrative of the woman showing ‘disdain’, which degenerated into intense Islamophobic stereotyping. Some users implied that the woman had sympathies with the Westminster attacker. Others posted tweets and comments in her defence but the damage had already been done. It seemed as if yet another layer had been added to long-standing negative public perceptions of Islam and Muslims.

Going viral: Islamophobia online

There are many studies on the portrayals of Islam and Muslims in the print and television media. However, the social media realm remains relatively under-studied in this regard, in relation to its size, prevalence and increasing influence upon shaping social attitudes. Research suggests that negative attitudes towards Islam and Muslims remain frequent in the social media context (Törnberg and Törnberg, 2016).

Users commonly perceived Muslims as ‘a homogeneous out-group embroiled in conflict, violence and extremism’ (ibid., p.133). In general, Muslims and Islam are regularly portrayed in the UK media in a variety of negative contexts, such as being a ‘threat to security’, a threat to ‘our’ way of life’, and positioned as being perpetually in conflict with mainstream ‘British values’. (Moore et al, 2008).

Moreover, media coverage of Muslims seemed to have ‘gained its own momentum’ (ibid., p. 10) over time, starting with 9/11 and growing since then. It suggests the presence of innate Islamophobia, where journalists do not question the dominant narratives of Muslims but simply perpetuate them. In terms of images, the research found that the most dominant images were those of lone Muslim males, particularly in police mugshots, suggesting associations with terrorism, extremism or deviance (for example, the hook-handed cleric Abu Hamza was frequently featured).

Subjects of images were commonly located outside police stations or law courts. In addition, Muslims depicted in media images were most often found in prayer, preaching, or in protest groups. This indicated a primary focus on themes either of terrorism or of cultural/religious differences, among the majority of media images depicting Muslims (ibid., p. 28).

Poole (2002) reinforces these findings, claiming that topics commonly associated with Muslims and Islam have included ‘terrorism’, politics and reactions to the war in Iraq. News coverage tends to link Muslims to global events, creating strong associations between Islam and situations of conflict and violence. Where there is domestic coverage, it tends to highlight situations that ‘focus on social tensions’, ‘raise questions over loyalty and belonging’ and consistently cast Muslims as being in opposition to ‘traditional British values’. Deep-rooted perceptions of Muslims as ‘the other’, combined with suspicion around their loyalty to ‘British values’, and ‘our’ way of life, could ignite feelings that spur users to believe negative fake news in relation to Muslims, and share images and stories that support their beliefs without engaging in critical analysis.

In recent years a fresh series of newsworthy incidents related to Muslims, such as the murder of Lee Rigby, various ISIS atrocities, and attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin and London, have encouraged members of the public to express their opinions about Islam and Muslims on social media. People have also become more likely to share images associated with Muslims without stopping to check their veracity.

Muddying the narrative: fake news 

This has led to the spread a number of ‘fake news’ stories, where images of Muslims have been linked with certain news events, taken out of context, or used to create entirely fake news. In these cases, it is not merely the mainstream media to blame. Members of the public can easily create and share fake news, contributing to reinforcing negative perceptions of Muslims and perpetuating an ongoing narrative that has the potential to do harm.

Online narratives can also cause harm in the real world, as explored by Imran Awan (2016) in his research linking a rise in hate crimes against Muslims to a corresponding rise in Islamophobic content being shared on Twitter and Facebook. Awan argues that a large proportion of comments posted on social media about Muslims possessed an ‘extremist and incendiary undertone’. He offers a typology of Facebook Islamophobia in an attempt to explain what compels people to post and share such content (ibid., p. 8).

None of the aforementioned studies, however, specifically explore the role of images on social media. Images can be powerful, even more so than words, and they dominate the contemporary media landscape. Digital technology has opened up new avenues for ordinary users to create, edit, and doctor their own images. Images on social media therefore play an important role in constructing fake news and driving the narratives that fulfil political agendas. This is a significant area worthy of further exploration.

Bored of selective outrage

When I first heard the news about yesterday’s incident at Orly Airport in Paris, my first thought was ‘I hope he’s not Muslim’.

I’m not Muslim. So why do I care?

Because I’m bored of the constant stream of outrage. I dislike how people on Twitter and Facebook revel in lambasting all Muslims because of one more incident that supposedly ‘proves their point’ – that all Muslims are part of some dastardly global terrorist plot. It feels as if these commenters are watching and waiting, ready to pounce with their vitriol as soon as news of an incident breaks, no matter how minor.

I can’t subscribe to any view of Muslims being innately prone to terrorism because of their religion. Part of that inability comes from my being a reasonably intelligent and cosmopolitan human, but otherwise it’s because this outrage is selective, misdirected and full of holes – and that bothers me.

In fact, it infuriates me.

Can’t mentally ill people and criminals be Muslims too? Or are those categories reserved for white people? Can’t the two things be mutually exclusive, rather than religion being treated as the sole defining factor?

Why is it always the same old story every single time? Couldn’t a random guy, prone to criminality, perhaps suffering from mental illness (but who just happens to be from a Muslim background, with a Muslim name and brown skin) one day decide to attack people in an airport?

Anyone can claim their deeds in the name of Allah. It doesn’t necessarily make them part of a wider terrorist plot. With the constant public hysteria surrounding ‘Islamic terrorism’, widely reported, it’s not hard to imagine someone latching onto it as support in their criminal mission, even if they aren’t religious at all. It’s part of the bandwagon effect.

Out of interest, I compared Google results for the Orly incident with the recent Canadian mosque shooting. In the former incident, only the perp died. Arguably, he brought it on himself by trying to grab a soldier’s weapon in an airport. And he was already an experienced criminal known to the police.

But in the Canadian incident, six innocent mosque-goers were murdered by a white man with a gun. He had no criminal background whatsoever. There would have been no way to predict the attack. I find that terrifying.

The first page of Google speaks for itself. The Orly would-be attacker, once his identity emerged, was immediately labelled ‘radicalised Muslim’, and his attack (which killed no-one except himself) described as being ‘treated as a possible act of terror’.

Whereas Alexander Bissonette, the mosque killer, is described as a ‘student’, a ‘suspect’, and perhaps, in one of the more critical headlines, a ‘mosque shooter’. Even worse, an innocent witness of Moroccan background was mistakenly thought to be the shooter, before the real one was identified.

Al Jazeera describes Bissonette as ‘a French-Canadian university student known for his far-right views’. The word ‘terrorist’ is suspiciously absent from most of the coverage.

Yet this guy murdered six people because of their religion. He was driven by extreme right-wing, white supremacist political views. He killed for the sake of those views. Is that not the very definition of terrorism?

Terrorism has been around for a long time. It was around in the French Revolution, where Robespierre and the Jacobins conducted their ‘Reign of Terror’.

It was around in imperial Russia, where disgruntled students became ‘radicalised’ and committed public attacks – ‘propaganda of the deed’ – designed to create fear and bring down the ruling regime.

And terrorism was very much around in the late 20th century when the Irish Republican Army conducted attacks across the UK. These groups are only a few of the thousands of armed resistances that have existed throughout history; there are many more, spanning a wide range of cultural contexts.

They have cropped up wherever inequality and injustice are found, in a misguided attempt to somehow ‘redress the balance’ and achieve a ‘better life’ for themselves via the cause they represent, despite the warped methods they choose to get there.

The point is: terrorism is not specific to any religion, race, nationality or culture. We need to stop treating it as such.

It would help if we could put terrorism into perspective. But that will remain difficult unless the language we absorb from the media every day is adjusted to portray a more balanced picture of what’s really going on in the world. Although in this era of clickbait for revenue, perhaps that’s just a futile dream.

Nevertheless, we can do our part to help by thinking critically beyond the headlines and continuing to call out selective outrage whenever and wherever it occurs.