Conflict in a digital world
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THERE is nothing new about propaganda in wartime. Although its origin is contested, a popular adage about conquest and power reads that history is written from the viewpoint of those who wielded power. And in wielding that power of “truth”, a concept for which the only absolute is that it is relative, history could be written or rewritten to control narratives and cement the dualities of heroes and villains, drawing from specific reference points which justify certain actions as right, fair, or just.
From the world wars to the cold war to more contemporary conflicts, the obsession of global powers to control the narrative has surged with the deepened interconnectedness of the international system. Allyship is the order of the day. The concept of hero and villain will largely be decided now as a democratic process within the corridors of the United Nations General Assembly, and, more particularly, as a consensus process at the mercy of the indomitable Permanent 5 of the UN Security Council.
With social media platforms moving away from a place where families and communities connect to more of a place for extensive political and politicised discourse, controlling the narrative now means a dominant presence in mainstream platforms– Twitter, Facebook, TikTok– and even control of the structuring of those platforms whether through regulation or “deep fakes”. Recognising the power of discourse online to translate to offline action, misinformation and disinformation campaigns have reached new heights.
The undeniable is that social media is a major player in violence at micro and macro levels. From the Arab Spring to the 2020 siege against the U.S. Capitol, social media platforms are conduits for powerful mobilisation.
The Washington Post and ProPublica, a data-driven non-profit organisation, jointly investigated the role of Facebook in the attack on the U.S. Capitol following the 2020 defeat of then-U.S. President, Donald Trump at the polls. The investigating duo said in a 2022 article: “Facebook groups swelled with at least 650,000 posts attacking the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory between Elections Day and the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol, with many calling for executions or other political violence…”.
“The barrage — averaging at least 10,000 posts a day, a scale not reported previously — turned the groups into incubators for the baseless claims supporters of President Donald Trump voiced as they stormed the Capitol, demanding he get a second term. Many posts portrayed Biden’s election as the result of widespread fraud that required extraordinary action — including the use of force — to prevent the nation from falling into the hands of traitors,” the Washington Post article on the investigation said.
Although Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act (1996) gives immunity to companies behind internet-based platforms like Facebook and Twitter for the things posted on their platforms by users, the pressure has been applied by U.S. lawmakers for these platforms to take responsibility and implement minimum “community standards” for users.
Responding to the concerns of lawmakers, Facebook, now operated by parent company Meta Inc., hastily implemented an Oversight Board tasked with supporting the company with policy and content moderation. The effectiveness of the Oversight Board has largely been questioned considering it still “relies on funding from Meta, it has a contractual relationship with it governing its use of user data, and its founding members were hand-picked by the company,” according to the technology reporting agency, The Verge.
In February, The Verge reported, Meta asked its Advisory Board to issue an “advisory opinion on how it should moderate content during wartime. The conflict had raised a series of difficult questions, including under what circumstances users can post photos of dead bodies or videos of prisoners of war criticizing the conflict.
“And in the most prominent content moderation question of the invasion to date, Meta decided to temporarily permit calls for violence against Russian soldiers, Vladimir Putin, and others. All of which raised important questions about the balance between free expression and user safety.”
Recognising the power of social media not only in its own democracy but in democracies around the world, the U.S. government has taken a new approach which could be regarded as internet diplomacy. On April 4, the U.S. State Department announced that “the Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy (CDP) began operations today… the CDP bureau will address the national security challenges, economic opportunities, and implications for U.S. values associated with cyberspace, digital technologies, and digital policy,” according to a U.S. State Department media note from the Office of the Spokesperson.
This blend of foreign policy and the internet is evidence of a changing world, rapidly accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic’s lockdown measures. With more and more countries depending heavily on their digital infrastructures — Guyana also moving in that direction — and more conflicts having social media as their conduits, it’s prudent for any government to pay attention to what’s happening not only in its cyberspace, although the internet is borderless, but also in the cyberspaces of other territories, recognisable by the network of users who share commonalities of language, experience, and nationhood identifiers.

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