15 February, 2003 saw the largest single day of anti-war protests in the history of the world. From New York to Jakarta, London to Barcelona, Cairo to Sydney, millions took to the streets to voice their opposition to the US/UK led war on Iraq.
The protests ultimately did not prevent the illegal war from commencing but for the first time since the 1960s, it felt as though there was a cohesive, intentional anti-war movement speaking in a single voice. Since 2003, the US and its allies have bombed or indeed invaded many more countries, including Syria and Libya, all the while the presence of US troops in Iraq remains.
The rapid expansion of social media since 2003 has given people the opportunity to connect more than ever before. This includes giving ordinary Syrians the ability to reach out to the wider world and tell the truth about their country from their country, something which wasn’t widely possible in Iraq in 2003. Today, rather than listen to a CNN report about Syria which is derived from someone checking her emails in a hotel in Beirut, it is now possible to see, hear and interact with real Syrians on a daily basis. The power this has had in helping Syrians to use information to defend their country against aggression should not be underestimated.
Yet while anti-war protests still exist, they have not topped the numbers reached in 2003 by a wide margin, in spite of the fact that since 2003 the US has waged war after war and is today threatening Iran more intensely than at any time since 1979. What has happened?
There are two unique phenomena that have transpired to change the face of the wider international anti-war movement since 2003. While physical protests such as those against the Iraq war in 2003 take planning, in many cases the application for permits from civic leaders and the transporting of many people to city centres, today’s social media driven activism requires none of this. Today, the ability to share one’s views on social media has the potential to reach an aggregate number even higher than those who protested in February of 2003 and all of it can be done from anywhere. This has clearly been a motivating factor for those to speak out on line, rather than in the street.
At the same time, the 24/7 debate that is social media, has allowed otherwise obscure voices to amplify their heterodox views on what it means to be anti-war. While the majority of those protesting the 2003 invasion of Iraq where agnostic in their views of Saddam Hussein, today it seems as though everyone has an opinion on where they stand on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whether these views are informed by fact or by total fiction. Today, one sees some of the anti-war movement opposed to the foreign molestation of the Syrian Arab Republic, while others support those making war upon the Syrian Arab Republic. It seems somewhat of a contradiction in terms for an anti-war movement to support aggressors in a conflict, but that is the strange new reality of 2018.
While some have pointed out that these issues are due to schisms in the wider left between traditional socialists, hard-line Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyists, liberals masquerading as socialists, etc., the truth is that people flatter themselves in thinking, what for the general public are obscure debates within the political left, that they have any influence on the wider anti-war movement. When in 2003, one million people of many backgrounds came to protest the war on Iraq, I would wager that the vast majority of them could not define the difference between a Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Trotskyists or a New Left revisionist.
The reality is not that inter-leftist disputes have gone mainstream. Instead, the sad fact is that the mainstream narrative about Syria has been allowed to infiltrate discussions about the war so as to confuse the very basic issues of war and peace. During the duration of the conflict in Syria, the pro-war western mainstream media has tried to disguise foreign aggression against Syria from countries as diverse as the US, “Israel”, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, France, Britain, Germany and others, as an internal conflict. At one point they even tried to call it a revolution. Of course, the truth is that, the numbers of the anti-government agitators in Syria in 2011 were never big enough to represent a real popular revolution and the fact that they have US anti-aircraft missiles, Humvee vehicles, tanks, more machine guns than many small armies and an array of satellite phones along with hundreds of professionally designed websites and video outlets, points to the fact that this was no revolution – it was a foreign war, funded by millions of foreign dollars and it remains one.
Social media is clearly a two-way street. It allows the voice of the otherwise voiceless to be heard, but it also allows the mainstream narrative to infiltrate broader anti-war discussions. As the civil rights leader Malcolm X said, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing”. This is sadly what has happened to some in the anti-war movement. In Syria, some of the people who once marched against the war in Iraq, are today supporting those with the latest and most deadly American and European weapons, who are fighting an internationally recognised government that has consistently stood with Palestine and against imperialism.
For years, many in the genuine anti-war movement have scratched their heads and asked ‘why’ a clearly false mainstream media pro-war narrative has been allowed to infect some previously right minded anti-war individuals in the way that it is. The answer can be summarised in one word: money.
Corrupt, criminal and devious corporations like Cambridge Analytica are paid vast sums of money, to the tune of millions, in order to spread mainstream corporate political narratives in social media, while disguising these rich man’s narratives as grass roots sentiment. Form there, they can infect the minds of the gullible, who believe that statements akin to anything from CNN or the BBC, are actually coming from legitimate grass roots activists. Worse yet, because Russia happens to be a historic partner of the Syrian Arab Republic, millionaire infoterrorists can exploit the general ignorance about Russia among western audiences to smear the anti-war movement as something “controlled by the Kremlin”. How sad that such slander barely worked during the US war on Vietnam, yet it is able to convince supposedly ‘educated’ people in 2018?
As I proposed yesterday, the only solution is to pass new laws making it a criminal offence for companies like Cambridge Analytica to become involved in political campaigns or movements. As I stated:
“–A total ban on all forms of data mining/harvesting for political purposes.
–A total ban on the use of algorithms and artificial intelligence in any political campaign or for any political purpose.
–A mandatory seizing of the assets of any company involved in data mining/harvesting for political purposes, after which point such a company would be forcibly shut down permanently.
–A mandatory seizing of the assets of any company involved in the use of artificial intelligence or algorithms in the course of a public political campaign.
–A total ban on the use of internet based platforms, including social media by political candidates and their direct associates for anything that could reasonably be classified as a misinformation and/or manipulation scheme.
–A total ban on politicians using third party data firms or advertising firms during elections. All such advertising and analysis must be devised by advisers employed directly by or volunteering for an individual candidate or his or her party political organisation.
–A total ban on any individual working for a political campaign, who derives at least half of his or her income from employment, ownership and/or shares in a company whose primary purpose is to deliver news and analysis.
–A total ban on anyone paid by a political candidate to promote his or her election from an ownership or major share holding role in any company whose primary purpose is to deliver news and analysis until 2 years after the said election”.
Many countries already have limits on how much a candidate can spend on non-internet based advertising, as well as how much public space (air time etc) one can occupy. These laws are designed to level the playing field so that public political discourse does not become a playground for the rich, while strong voices attached to shallow pockets remain buried below the white noise of the wealthy pro-war lobbies.
Social media has allowed the voiceless to be heard, but if these online platforms become colonised by wealthy political campaigns, the world will largely be back to where it was prior to the advent of the web. Companies like Cambridge Analytica should be forced to stay out of politics, because if they are not, one might as well return to a feudal age where kleptocracy is the rule. At least this way, people wouldn’t be wasting their time.