In a 2007 paper titled “Of Networks and Nations,” John Arquilla, an expert of new patterns of warfare at the Naval Postgraduate School, argued that loosely knit sets of global and regional networks, enabled by the internet, had begun to challenge the authority of nation-states in the same way that nation-states had challenged the authority of empires a century earlier.
In recent years, transnational militant groups, civil society activists, and hackers have all been able to inflict defeats on lumbering state adversaries, in part by leveraging the speed of connectivity and communication afforded by the internet. “The networks came to push, to prod, and to confront. They came to solve the supranational problems of injustice, inequity and environmental degradation that a nation-based capitalist system could never, in their view, deal with adequately,” wrote Arquilla. “In short, the networks came to change things, and they came not in peace but with swords.”
The 21st century has seen the rise of “gray-zone conflicts,” where armed force, politics, and media increasingly blur together, such as the 2014 war between Israel and the Palestinians. Gray-zone conflicts are seldom interstate wars but are more likely to be civil uprisings, conflicts between states and militant groups, and domestic insurgences. As scholars David Barno and Nora Bensahel have written, these conflicts “involve some aggression or use of force, but in many ways their defining characteristic is ambiguity — about the ultimate objectives, the participants, whether international treaties and norms have been violated, and the role that military forces should play in response.”
It is within this ambiguous environment that information warfare waged online by activist groups and individuals is playing a critical, at times even definitive role. As the dominance over information flows held by nation-states evaporates, their ability to control the trajectory of conflicts by managing international opinion and maintaining domestic authority is eroding as well.
The threat of this change, as well as the political impact of viral misinformation, has led to calls from some corners for greater regulation and involvement by tech companies in putting curbs on online speech. Although improved media education for the general public is likely necessary, any nostalgia for an earlier era when information was controlled by a few hegemonic media institutions is wildly misplaced.
“If we allow the problems that exist with social media and new technologies to be used as a pretext to roll things back, it would be the ultimate crime,” says Sienkiewicz. “The old media environment in which billions of people had little access to getting their stories told – in which entire classes of people were effectively deemed by media institutions as not worth reporting on – is not something that we should want to return to. We should address the problems that exist with new media, not try to turn back the clock and deem this all a failed experiment.”
For better or worse, thanks to social media and smartphones, a version of the “guerilla world war” predicted by Marshall McLuhan – a war over information drawing in states, militaries, activists, and ordinary people in equal measure – has come into existence. The consequences are likely to transform politics, conflict, and daily life for generations to come. McLuhan himself suggested that surviving in this new world would be possible only through a conscious embrace of change, rather than a retreat into reactionary policies.
“The new technological environments generate the most pain among those least prepared to alter their old value structures,” he said, in a 1969 interview with Playboy Magazine. “When an individual or social group feels that its whole identity is jeopardized by social or psychic change, its natural reaction is to lash out in defensive fury.”
“But for all their lamentations, the revolution has already taken place.”