This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

Social media is a nearly ubiquitous aspect of everyday life, with political and social implications that societies are only now starting to approach.

With an estimated 3.8 billion Internet users worldwide, new media in the form of Web 2.0 applications and their user-generated content increasingly rival traditional media as the means of circulating and gathering information.

Central to the power and importance of social media is its visuality and the speed with which content can circulate.

Researchers and policymakers, however, have primarily focused on the political implications of social media in terms of promoting revolutionary change (e.g. the optimism around the ‘Arab Spring’), as a tool of radicalization (e.g. concerns about recruitment to terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State group) or as a resource for disseminating information and the challenges this poses to states (e.g. Wikileaks).

Celebrating militarism

The Policy Brief, Assessing meaning construction on social media: a case of normalizing militarism, from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, examines the social media content that celebrates militarism as an important aspect of everyday social media usage, and the related meaning construction overlooked by policymakers.

The findings are part of the Militarization 2.0 project, a three-country team of researchers working on a four-year study of the militarization of social media,

The report demonstrates the sheer scale of such content, discusses its meaning, shows how it is engaged with and circulated by social media users and discusses the implications for citizens and government.

The conclusions are perhaps counter-intuitive.

While the research identifies an extraordinary volume of social media content that celebrates war and militarism, much of which is engaged with by tens of millions of social media users, it is also fair to say that the vast majority of social media users do not see nor engage with online militarism.

There is, therefore, a highly effective form of ‘targeted militarism’ through which those who heavily engage with militarized social media become ever more effectively targeted by the algorithms within social media itself.

The paper explores the implications this targeting has for policymakers.

It also seeks to inform policymakers and their staff, members of civil society organizations (CSOs), and others interested in assessing the political implications of meaning construction related to social media content more generally, and the content of the large-scale producers of conventional weapons (major arms producers), the military video games industry, and private military and security companies (PMSCs) in particular.

The findings are particularly important to ministries of foreign affairs and other parts of government that engage internationally or work with international politics or are concerned with digital diplomacy and other more traditional forms of security and communication.

Similarly, it is vital for CSOs working on security issues or for disarmament, which face challenges from the online activities of those who oppose disarmament. Given how fundamental digital information and online communication are for communicating with and connecting people, this report outlines how social media can be a political tool in both expected and unexpected ways.

It highlights the underlying mechanisms that shape the messaging on social media— specifically in corporate YouTube videos, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, and homepages—and how it is crucial at this juncture to develop the skills needed to see how these mechanisms can be manipulated to emphasize particular understandings of national security associated with militarism.

The Policy Brief makes a number of key recommendations.

1) Policymakers and their staff, members of CSOs and others who engage with the public need training on critical assessment of social media. The research shows that people and agencies that engage with the public need to gain the skills necessary to understand visual social media and to identify the key tropes in the social media messaging used by a variety of actors.

These skills include the ability to identify how social media messages often are inserted into non-military spaces and people’s everyday lives, and therefore have the potential to normalize military security as the common sense default security. The Militarization 2.0 project is developing a short course on learning how to dissect social media content. This course is geared to policymakers and members of CSOs to enable them to understand the messaging in the social media content discussed here.

2) Diversification of staff skill sets can facilitate integration of critical assessments of social media content into international relations work. Social media messaging and related online behaviour are challenging what is known about how people communicate.

The interactive structure of social media and the algorithms that prompt some kinds of behaviour mean that a variety of people are needed to work together to understand what is happening on social media.

This challenge means that communications and analysis staff need to be interdisciplinary and from a variety of backgrounds. Government agencies and CSOs need to bring in staff with backgrounds in critical media studies and political communication alongside experts in technology use rather than assuming that organizational communication and analysis should be conducted only by those people who are trained in public relations and communications, or marketing and branding. It is also important to work with academics who specialize in related fields.

3) These staff should grow social media interaction beyond traditional communications to be able to critically analyse what is happening in everyday social media communication beyond the institutional channels.

Research findings on polarization suggest that policymakers and members of CSOs should look beyond their established networks to understand online behaviour. In addition to the militaristic material covered in the research, behaviour around other types of online content would be better understood if analysis included ways of targeting how algorithms contribute to echo chambers and the potential effects of targeted messaging.

4) National debates on whether militarized social media content should be more effectively restricted for minors. Given that so much Internet use is by minors, and given the ubiquitous growth of mobile social media usage by this age group, there are important ethical and normative questions to be posed about the responsibility of the state, arms and entertainment industries, and how they target militarism to vulnerable age groups.

At present, much of the concern in the ‘West’ has centred on how to restrict access to content that might contribute to ‘radicalization’ and attract vulnerable people to pro-terrorist messaging.

The conclusions of this research, however, suggest the need for a broader public debate about the ways in which content that promotes militarism also should be considered harmful. The targeted militarism found suggests that audience demographics are central to an understanding of who receives cross-platform messaging and whether young people’s online activities need closer monitoring.

5) Better understanding is needed regarding the ways in which algorithms are used in social media to effectively target specific audiences for social media content.

Algorithms drive targeted messaging. Policymakers, members of CSOs and academics need a fuller grasp of how algorithms work and their political implications.

Policymakers must consider whether militarized social media should be seen in equivalent terms as ‘radicalized social media content

Read the full report, Assessing meaning construction on social media: a case of normalizing militarism, Susan T. Jackson, Jutta Joachim, Nick Robinson and Andrea Schneiker