The rise of post truth politics, wherein, the politicians rely on using rhetoric to win the elections and influence public opinion has become a prominent feature of politics in recent times. Use of social media and political communication intersect at an unprecedented level in this scenario. Technological revolution has transformed every sphere of life and politics. International relations remain one of the most affected arenas in these circumstances. There is no denying that social media has changed the dynamics of political communication. It is imperative to study these dynamics for scholars of political communication. Moreover, its impact on national security and foreign policy merits analysis as well.
People who have access to internet and social media have an effective platform to exhibit their views on domestic and foreign policies of their respective governments. It is also a place to get updates about latest political developments. Thus politicians and political analysts alike have started considering it as a main platform to express their thoughts and ideas on all major issues prevailing in their respective countries. However, the prevalence of social media also seem to have played its role in the rise of populism in not only the developing states but also the developed states as well.
Social media seems to have given impetus to right-wing populism in the West. President Donald Trump not only relied on populist political rhetoric before elections but implemented his policies based on it as well. Trump not only delivered on his promise to ban Muslims from entering the US after his victory but also withdrew from international treaties as well. Right-wing French politician Le Pen who campaigned on the agenda of Islamophobia and anti-immigration, came pretty close to winning the presidential elections in France in 2017, something that her father could not achieve in pre-social media era. In Brazil, fourth largest democracy in the world, the victory of right-wing Bolsonaro in the presidential elections has shook the global political landscape. The world was aghast at his assertions regarding gun-ownership and dictatorship. The rise of these populist politicians suggests that populist political rhetoric is easy to sell on social and electronic media rather than ideas that are factually accurate.
Social media has not only given a platform to discuss crucial political issues but also to spew political rhetoric to demean one’s opponents. And this trend is not only exhibited by the politicians belonging to opposition parties but by apparently seasoned journalists and analysts as well. It is an easy tool to malign one’s opponents as the miscreants can get away with their comments in the absence of any fact-checking.
Fake news played a critical role in getting the message across in this scenario. Scholars of political communication opine that the prevalence of fake news has heralded the era of post-truth politics wherein the importance of truth has diminished in the face of plethora of fake news and bogus opinions circulating in both electronic and social media. Real issues are given secondary coverage when trivial things are given prime time by the anchors on news channels. Political rhetoric pertaining to social issues and domestic policy is understandable but national security and foreign policy are not spared by these people as well.
Meanwhile in Pakistan, the recently elected government of PTI has come under the ire of rhetorical criticism on social media. From PM’s traveling in a helicopter to an Israeli airplane landing in Pakistan, the political pundits do not spare the government of harsh and divisive criticism regardless of the consequences. Speculations in the guise of assertions regarding country’s foreign policy and security are circulated without any authentication from the government.
Pakistan’s move to take loan from the IMF to avert the economic crisis became one of the most talked about issues on the social media. There were legitimate reservations regarding the repercussions of such a move. However, some viewed it from a zero-sum perspective, and warned of grievous consequences and mocked the PTI government for overturning their promises made before the elections. Apocalyptic scenarios were conjured in the wake of Pakistan’s negotiations with the IMF. The Jamal Khashoggi affair became another major divisive issue wherein people came up with their respective opinions as to how Pakistan should deal with the Saudi Arabia in the wake of this diplomatic crisis facing the country. The realist perspective was swept under the carpet to gain the moral high ground. The considerations were legitimate had they been not biased. The deep-rooted antagonism against the government rather than the actual incident is manifested in various posts on this issue. The prospect of not having to go to IMF subsided in the conversations on social media amid this criticism.
While it is imperative to communicate consideration of all ethnic, religious, and sectarian groups in a country, foreign policy is one sphere where bipartisan support is critical for the national interest of a state. Pulling it in the domain of political bickering and rhetorical ideals does no good for any citizen of the state. Thus, it is necessary to dissociate this domain from jingoistic political rhetoric. Handling foreign policy related issues is an intricate matter. A government, be it from any political party, is at the receiving end of criticism from the opposition but also the public at large. While chest-thumping and jingoism may win a leader more popularity, an act done with the very spirit may harm a country’s national interest.
While the term “U-Turn” is used euphemistically, it has little meaning in terms of policy and governance. Imran Khan’s decision to seek a bailout from the IMF or Trump’s unwillingness to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan, are normal processes whereby leaders change their approach after assuming power. Media and detractors’ constant reminders about the leaders’ previous pronunciations without context , impedes a leader’s ability to take decisions that are needed, because of the fear of backlash.
At a time when Pakistan is looking for external support to extricate itself from various crises of serious proportions, fake news on matters related to inter-state relations could adversely affect Pakistan’s diplomatic campaigns. Fake news on domestic issues also poses challenges in the foreign policy domain. Playing up a local event on mainstream and social media without verification could be detrimental to Islamabad’s international image, something that is a major foreign policy concern for Pakistan. Although the use of fiery political rhetoric and divisive criticism is dangerous but cannot be dealt with by curbing freedom of speech and expression, which are fundamental rights of the citizens.
There needs to be a change in political culture which makes people more sensitized to the nuances of diplomacy, national security and foreign policy. Politicians, and the ones in power, should be taken to task but divisiveness and jingoism can impede the functioning of the government. Moreover, fake news can only be controlled when people would learn to verify the news from credible channels rather than sharing. Moreover, it is the responsibility of the politicians and analysts to share responsible content on their social media accounts. Inter-state ties are not conducted on emotions; they can become more complex if decisions are made in the midst of charged environments. Thus, in order to allow actual policy to take center stage, critique on foreign policy and national security issues must be measured and free from political affiliations.
Zainab Dar is a Research Associate at the Center for Security, Strategy and Policy Research, University of Lahore.