That profile pic filter on Facebook might be more meaningful than you think.
Recently, in a facebook group of a Polish political party, someone concerned with the fate of Russian citizens suffering from their government's crackdown on civil liberties, asked what the Polish people can do to improve freedom in Russia.
“We will do nothing - unless you think sending letters and signing cyber-petitions will work” - one of the users wrote. Another one, sarcastically, added: “We should write »Freedom for Russia« with chalk in the middle of Warsaw”.
We could observe a similar pattern in the wake of the terror attacks in Europe, in 2015 and 2016. The flood of French and Belgian flags on facebook profile pictures - a sign of solidarity with the victims - was often criticized for their alleged lack of effectiveness in fighting the terrorism. "The terrorists (...) will not be scared off by cheap symbols" - James Mulvaney wrote for CNN. People were also mocking the trend using memes: “Cancel the jihad boys, they changed their profile pictures to French flags”.
When I read such statements, I can think of nothing but one thing: The Kremlin propagandists and jihadi recruiters are truly grateful for your passiveness. Cause while you’re sitting there and wining about your friend’s profile pic filter, they take no break in spreading anti-West misinformation or recruiting youth for jihad via sophisticated social media propaganda.
Before you accuse me of exaggerating, consider the fact that it was proved that the Russian government at least attempted to influence the 2016 US elections via carefully manufactured fake news propaganda in social media - and some allege that they actually succeeded.
It was estimated that around 140 million Facebook users were affected by the activity of the so called Russian “trolls”, from Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, producing fake news and divisive content carefully crafted to polarize the American society. The content was boosted by automatized bots and ads, and the money for the whole venture was coming from sources connected to Kremlin. Furthermore, the special report of CIA, FBI and NSA describes it as a part of "Putin-Ordered Campaign To Influence US Election".
And we’re not talking here about some “traditional” facebook spam that we were used to see. The times of the “free iPhone” scam are long gone. Yesterday spammers wanted to steal your phone number. Today they want to overthrow your government.
So make no mistake - it’s not just some Russian students earning pocket money by taking a part time “copywriting” job at some shady company. It’s an actual, conscious attempt of a foreign government to divide your nation, undermine the civil society of your country, and to ensure that the result of your election is just as they please. It’s an information warfare.
That’s why I find it hard to call the creators of social media propaganda by the term “trolls”. Call me old-fashioned, but “back in my day”, trolls were trolling for their own satisfaction, not to undermine the sovereignty of other countries. So let’s call them by their proper name - online soldiers. And you are not simply being trolled, you are being taken captive. Unless, of course, you take measures against it.
Quite a lot has been written about how to protect oneself from the influence of online soldiers. New York Times shows how to identify them by spotting red flags - generic usernames, stolen profile pictures, a lot of content published in a short period of time or unusual posting hours (especially when suspiciously aligned with the working hours in the Moscow time zone). Darrell West, in an interview for Vox, recommends also diversifying your news sources - the risk of being exposed to fakes is significantly lower this way.
While all these methods are working perfectly fine, they are nothing but self-defense. They might protect you from misinformation, but they will not necessarily protect other, less cautious people from being misinformed. That’s why we need to take active measures against social media warfare, and, to put it simply, fight fire with fire.
Now, I’m not saying that we should organize ourselves into propaganda factories, like the Kremlin’s online soldiers do. Neither I advocate manufacturing our own fake news. Not only it’s unethical, but I am strongly convinced that we’ll never be better at something that Kremlin is the best at, taking into account Russians’ creativity in producing the most divisive, dangerous and absurd fake stories the world has ever seen.
What we should rather do, is to become an online militia - a bottom-up, spontaneously organized community of people not hesitant to support Western values and truthful reporting in the Internet - by likes, shares, tweets, comments, posts - or, even better, all of these together. Your like might not feed children in Africa, but it is a potent weapon in the information warfare.
Think about it this way - If an army will think twice before invading a country where every citizen owns a gun, then an army of online soldiers should be unable to harm a nation where everybody owns a smartphone. Only if we used our Facebook accounts for something more than sharing cooking videos.
Does what I propose make us just as bad as the spammers we want to fight? No, not really - as long as the content you post is really the one you believe, and not something that you have doctored to woo the public for your own, or someone else’s gain. Social media is the closest we got to the ideal market of ideas (and the battleground of ideas, at the same time), and if truth can triumph over lies (and I strongly believe it can), then it will certainly do it there. It is, however, our job to give the truth the platform it desperately needs. Cause freedom won’t defend itself on its own.
Russia is not the only player in the information war - Islamic terrorists play the game as well. Not only by recruiting new fighters for their cause via social media. The terror attacks are no less a part of information warfare than the ISIS propaganda videos that are often circulating in the media, despite the networks’ efforts to block them. The main purpose of the terror attacks in the West is to sow fear among society - so you are afraid to get out on the street, go gift-shopping on a Christmas market, or simply speak your mind.
In that context, that French flag profile pic filter is a meaningful middle finger to anybody who wants to see you silenced.
True, there are certainly more effective ways to fight terrorism or support civic society in Russia than sharing a post on Facebook. That being said, let’s agree on one thing: unless you are willing to pack your rucksack and go fight the jihadis on the ground in the Middle East, or attend an opposition rally in Moscow, don’t criticize others for social media activity. Because it is not only the least you can do - it is also an important means of countering the information warfare that Europe is being in the middle of.
So go and spam the shit out of Facebook with whatever you believe in.