It would not be an understatement to call the rise of social media a paradigm shift within the narrative of modern history. The information revolution has so rapidly and profoundly reshaped discourse, perception, and ideology that appreciating its full impact on society is nearly impossible without the benefit of retrospection. The reformation of the way in which information is generated and openly exchanged across the globe has given rise to a reconceptualisation of information itself. For instance, fake news, alternative facts, and the emergence of post-truth politics indicate that information no longer derives its value primarily from its accuracy or authority, but rather from its virality. From the growth of ideological ‘echo-chambers’, such as The Donald and Gab, to the Twitter Presidency of Donald Trump, the intersection of social media and politics has produced revolutionary changes to the way information, society and governments interact.
While the impact of social media on liberal societies has been radical, for nations that roughly adhere to democratic processes, protect the freedom of expression, and operate within a market economy, the course has been somewhat organic. As social media represents a global free market of information rooted in liberal values such as free-speech, whose offerings are commoditised according to consumerist logic, the character of global social media can be situated within the broader extension of socio-political liberalism writ universal. However, for illiberal societies, the rise of global information sharing has presented a considerable challenge to the maintenance of traditional power structures.
The uneasy relationship between illiberal states and global social media has evolved in an observably segmented manner, as authoritarian governments initially responded to the information revolution in a predictably reactionary fashion. However, the recent Saudi state-funded ad-space blanketing of major social media platforms within the British region represents a new stage within the evolving relationship between illiberal governments and social media. The campaign to ‘Welcome Saudi Crown Prince’ Mohammed Bin Salman (aka MBS) to London by purchasing ad-space across Twitter, Reddit, and Google is demonstrative of a shift in the way that illiberal nations are using global social media, and its liberal nature, to benefit their national interests abroad.
In leveraging social media’s free-market character, including its offering of ad-space to whoever is willing to pay for it, Saudi Arabia has signalled a willingness within illiberal states to use the liberal essence of social media to overtly promote their national agendas abroad. The Saudis’ consumer behaviour-based marketing campaign displays a rudimentary, yet innovative, attempt to explicitly manipulate public opinion within liberal societies. By adopting the accepted discourse of social media advertising, a language that liberal societies implicitly understand, the Saudis have ushered in a new era in the relationship between illiberal nations and social media.
The initial response of illiberal states to the rise of global social media was, predictably, extreme censorship or blanket banning. It makes perfect sense that illiberal governments would view the global liberalisation of information and opinion sharing as inherently dangerous to the tight control over information that authoritarian states endeavour to maintain. Many of the most popular global social media sites are either outright banned, or heavily censored and monitored, within countries such as China, North Korea, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. The bluntness of the early response to social media by illiberal states suggests that many did not immediately grasp the significance of the medium concerning its influence within the international sphere.
While the initial reaction of illiberal states to the rise of social media implied a level of ignorance concerning its significance, the second stage represents the growth of nuance and a strategic understanding concerning the power and influence of social media. Nations such as China and Russia, both technological powerhouses with sophisticated cyber capacities, rapidly came to realise that outmoded notions of state censorship were impractical in the face of the information revolution. These nations responded with a two-pronged strategy to harness social media for their national interest and transform social media from a threat into an asset within both the domestic and international spheres.
Internally, technologically savvy illiberal nations created their own state-run or state-sanctioned versions of popular global social media sites such as Vkontakte and Renren. These sites imitate the liberal nature of global social media in that they appear to extend to users the freedom to share opinion, information, and ideas. This mimicry allows citizens of illiberal countries to feel as though they are a part of the global information revolution while being effectively denied substantive access to the free interchange of information going on outside of their borders. Such tactics numb the sensation of being censored and allow for the population of illiberal nations to become digitally literate. State-run social media is also advantageous in creating state-controlled propagandist echo-chambers and for feeding curated information quickly and efficiently to large populations, while also allowing the state to easily monitor the opinions and ideas of its citizenry; all of which are essential elements within the maintenance of illiberal authority.
Up until recently, the way in which illiberal nations have used global social media to support their national interests abroad has largely been to exploit its open forum nature to spread disinformation and inflame ideological divides within rival nations. The operative strategy has been covert and surreptitious, with troll armies masquerading as citizens of other nations to legitimise the carefully crafted antisocial opinions and information they are spreading. The use of bot boiler rooms and troll factories to target controversial domestic issues and factionalise the liberal world has, so far, been both extensive and effective. It’s estimated that around 10% of Twitter accounts are bots and that there are hundreds of thousands of fake Facebook and Reddit accounts that take advantage of the free speech ethos of social media to clandestinely fracture liberal social cohesion.
From Brexit to the election of Donald Trump, the abuse of the liberal values inherent within global social media by illiberal states seeking to destabilise the liberal bloc has proven to be a tremendously effective strategy in the game of realpolitik. However, with the explicit and conspicuous marketing campaign initiated by Saudi Arabia in the run-up to the visit of their crown prince to the UK, a new chapter has been opened regarding the utilisation of global social media and its liberal norms by illiberal states to strengthen their interests abroad.
In the days and weeks before the Crown Prince’s arrival, #Welcome_Saudi_Crown_Prince – underscores and all – was plastered across social media sites within the British region. As the majority of Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter comments on the Crown Prince’s visit were unfavourable, an interesting contrast between public sentiment and the cheery Saudi advertisement hovering off to one-side took place on screens across the UK. While it can be said with some certainty that the welcoming campaign was not an outright success in generating a groundswell of support for the visit, it is still important to look at what it represents regarding illiberal states interacting with social media.
Within Saudi Arabia, commercial advertising, like access to information, is highly regulated. Just as it is nearly impossible for Western brands to advertise within Saudi Arabia, it is highly unlikely that the Saudis would allow a foreign state-sponsored publicity campaign to go ahead inside their borders. However, within the free market and liberal rights-oriented West, the ability of a state to advertise across major social media sites is possible so long as the funding is in place. The dichotomy in social and economic values between illiberal and liberal states puts illiberal states at an advantage concerning drumming up support for their national interest abroad via social media.
The Saudi marketing campaign characterises a novel and explicit use of social media and its underlying liberal norms to further the interests of an illiberal state. Unlike Russian covert operations aimed at creating a cyber fifth-column of fraudulent in-group members to manipulate the beliefs of liberal society from within, the marketing tactics used by the Saudis exemplify an overt strategy influenced by consumer psychology. As ad-space on social media is governed by the profit-seeking impetus of economic liberalism, cyber advertising campaigns often rely on the principles of psychological marketing to influence consumer behaviour. That the Saudis chose to promote their future head of state in the same medium and messaging style as large consumer brands is significant as it implies some level of awareness as to the effectiveness of such marketing in influencing behaviour within liberal democratic culture.
The #Welcome_Saudi_Crown_Prince campaign shrewdly leveraged both the omnipresence of ad-space on social media sites, as well as the consumer psychology-based advertising style that Westerners are accustomed to, in order to promote their country akin to how a company promotes its brand. It is impossible to know with certainty whether or not the Saudi campaign deliberately sought to employ psychological marketing techniques. However, it is possible to see how these techniques were nonetheless present in their advertisements.
Within advertising, effective frequency is a formula for exposing individuals to a message sufficiently to effectively communicate its meaning and have it internalised, even if subconsciously. Repetitive exposure seeks to create familiarity and manufacture the foundations of affinity and brand loyalty. While it is a stretch to think that the Saudis believed they could generate genuine affinity for the Crown Prince and loyalty to him within Britain, the hallmarks of neuro-marketing were observable within their campaign. The drip-effect within media theory proposes that mass media and advertising contribute to gradual changes in beliefs and attitudes over the long term, while the illusory truth effect is a tendency to believe the information to be correct or ‘right’ after repeated exposure. As such, the Saudis’ upbeat welcome promotion has, intentionally or not, set out the initial foundations of a brand marketing campaign that is engineered to slowly induce fondness for the subject within viewers.
It is more than likely that the goal of the cyber campaign, which was supplemented by a billboard rollout in London, was an overly-optimistic attempt to create a viral campaign online in the hopes of making it appear as though there is a base of support within the UK for close relations with the future Saudi leader. However, the Saudis’ use of social media ad-space to coordinate a marketing campaign in a fashion informed by the tenets of consumer psychology is an essential update in the way that illiberal states are able to use the liberal nature of social media to support their national interests.
In the end, the Saudis’ tone-deaf marketing campaign, featuring a clunky and obtuse hashtag paired with a picture of the Crown Prince looking slightly bog-eyed, did not accomplish much regarding a short-term manufacturing of support within the UK for this particular visit. The Crown Prince was faced with protests and even had his motorcade pelted with eggs, while online, within the mostly uncensored sphere of global social media, the Crown Prince’s warm official reception was thoroughly admonished. However, the Saudis’ social media publicity operation is still of consequence in that it represents a new stage in the way in which illiberal states exploit the liberal nature of global social media to benefit their interests. What is worth noting concerning the #Welcome_Saudi_Crown_Prince campaign is that it has opened a new frontier in which illiberal states are using social media ad-space to mount marketing campaigns aimed at endearing Western ‘consumers’ to their national brand.