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How Social Media is leveling the playing field between governments, militants, and ordinary people

Part 1

Decades before smartphones, the internet, and social media, the philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who worked on media theory, predicted a future world war fought using information. While World War I and World War II were waged using armies and mobilized economies, “World War III [will be] a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation,” McLuhan said, a prophecy included in his 1970 book of reflections, “Culture Is Our Business.”

McLuhan’s prediction may have felt outlandish in his own era, but it seems very close to our present-day reality. Decades ago, the barriers to entry for broadcasting and publishing were so high that only established institutions could meaningfully engage in news dissemination. But over the past 10 to 15 years, ordinary individuals have been radically empowered with the ability to record, publish, and broadcast information to millions around the world, at minimal cost.

The revolutionary impact of this new information environment — where any individual or network of individuals can create their own mini-CNN — is transforming our societies. The loss of gatekeeping authority held by legacy media institutions has opened up opportunities for long-suppressed groups to have their narratives heard: Palestinians, African-American activists, feminists, environmentalists, and dissident groups working in authoritarian societies can all find ways, not always without some trouble, to be heard.

This new media landscape, though, also created a world susceptible to unprecedented levels of propaganda, conspiracy, and disinformation. The epistemological chaos created by the global explosion of “news,” some of it of questionable veracity, has already led to serious disruptions in both politics and daily life. But there is another area of life that might be most seriously impacted by the changing information landscape: armed conflict.

Propaganda and information warfare was once the purview of nation-states, militaries, and intelligence services. Today, even ordinary people have become important players in these campaigns. Battles over narratives and information have become an integral part of modern war and politics; the role played by bloggers, activists, and “citizen journalists” in shaping narratives has proven vital.

The examples are rapidly piling up in the second decade of the 21st century. Citizen journalists and accidental activists helped change the course of history during uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, Syria, and Libya — as well as during Israel’s 2014 war against Palestinians in the occupied Gaza Strip. Very quickly, people who were once considered to be victims of war and great-power politics have become empowered as political actors. During Israel’s 2014 bombardment of Gaza and the 2016 Russian aerial bombardment of the rebel-held Syrian city of Aleppo, young women and children came to international attention for their updates from war zones, helping wage battles to shape global public opinion.

Distinct from traditional information operations waged by states, the narratives of ordinary people and activists benefit from a greater sense of personal authenticity and emotional connection. This currency has always been difficult for institutions to capture, but comes naturally to individuals and activists. Social media’s ability to bypass traditional media gatekeepers also blew apart the biggest barriers to marginalized voices being heard: political and corporate control over publishing.

Powerful institutions still exist and remain very powerful, but there is another currency that has emerged because of social media and the internet, which you might call authenticity or emotional appeal,” says Matt Sienkiewicz, an assistant professor of communication and international studies at Boston College and the author of “The Other Air Force: U.S. Efforts to Reshape Middle Eastern Media Since 9/11.”

Everyone focuses on the producers of media in shaping public opinion, but it’s really at the distribution level of information where the bottleneck has traditionally been,” adds Sienkiewicz. “This is what social media has fundamentally changed. There is a lot of focus on the ugly side, with respect to viral conspiracies and misinformation — but there is also reason to be optimistic, because many stories that would’ve been ignored before are now being heard.

The emergence of online citizen journalism has also, however, increasingly blurred the distinction between participants and non-participants in conflict, as well as activists and journalists. For those lacking decent media education, discerning truth from falsehood is becoming an increasingly Sisyphean task.

Picking through the pieces of the past few years, a few writers have begun to examine the ways that social media is shaping our understanding and experience of modern conflict and politics. “War in 140 Characters,” by the journalist and author David Patrikarakos, and “Digital World War,” by Haroon Ullah, an author and former U.S. State Department official, both represent early attempts to understand the gravity of our current information crisis.

With the lines of armed conflicts’ central distinctions already being blurred — between peacetime and war, combatant and civilian — social media has the potential to draw the entire world into a gray zone where the lines between participants and non-participants in conflict is unclear. Whereas the last World War was a clearly defined clash of nation-states with uniformed armies, our new era of tech-driven information warfare holds the potential to become so amorphous and all-encompassing that it could to seep into every aspect of society, transforming the experience of both politics and war in the process.

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