When one thinks about the use of the internet in international conflict, one invariably thinks of cyberwar: the use of computer viruses and malware to disrupt and even destroy national critical infrastructure in order to cripple a state in preparation for a more conventional, physical attack. However, missing from much of the cyber warfare discussion is a critical aspect of the internet and conflict more generally; the role that information and public opinion play in conflict is often overlooked and only now being reconsidered as the powerful weapon that it is. It is in this context that a political tool from a bygone era makes its return; propaganda (the appeal to emotion and preconceived bias rather than critical, rational thought) is proving to be one of the most useful tools in the arsenal of those seeking to disrupt and reshape the global order.
The French Revolution was a civil conflict that has had an irreversible impact on the nature of human society. It is the most famous, if not the first, instance of public opinion being used to overthrow a centuries-old institution of monarchy and aristocracy, buttressed by the church. This system was promulgated and perpetuated by a system of education that was monopolized by the church and limited to the upper classes. It taught the average person that the highest authority was God, and by His grace, the King and the aristocracy had the moral, legal and religious authority to rule over the majority of people in His name. The Enlightenment scholars disagreed with this formulation. They argued that all human beings are born free and equal, and, thus, the authority to rule or lead their fellow man could come from the acceptance of the people. With the invention of the printing press, groups were able to widely disseminate these radical ideas amongst the people by way of pamphlets printed en mass. These pamphlets often contained not essays eloquently arguing for change, but cartoons depicting the aristocracy and the clergy as hypocritical, morally corrupt deviants, languishing in wealth and debauchery as the masses starved in poverty. Though the intellectual message of the Enlightenment and the Revolution was well developed and sound, it was the use of such propaganda that allowed for the turning of public opinion against the regime, resulting in its eventual demise and the consequent violence and terror of the Revolution.
The internet is the printing press on a grand scale. Where the French revolutionaries were limited in their ability to spread information and propaganda to the people of Paris (and eventually those beyond), the modern propagandist can, with the click of a mouse, reach billions of people across the globe in an instant from the comfort of their couch. It is this idea that John Arquilla, a professor at the Department of Defense Analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School, dubbed would lead to “virtual conflict in the form of society-wide ideological strife.” The internet has changed the nature of propaganda in a fundamental way. States have long used propaganda to push the message of the strength and righteousness of the government, while simultaneously disparaging foreign powers and domestic insurgent groups, dubbing them terrorists, dissidents, and traitors. Traditionally, the effect of propaganda has been limited to local populations, with states strictly controlling foreign-sourced information and propaganda. But in the Digital Age, where vast numbers of people in these societies have access to the internet, and with easily accessible tools can bypass the controls imposed by the state, the people can access information from around the world, and similarly publish their own information to reach a wide audience. It is here that the challenge for governments and social institutions in the modern day arises.
The West, since the rise of the populist far-right in Europe, has experienced what many scholars and journalists refer to as the “crisis of democracy.” This crisis is manifesting in political stagnation and widespread distrust in the political and social institutions upon which liberal democracies rely. The internet has played no small part in this crisis. Online groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous, which profess to have no firm political ideology except for a commitment to the truth, openly publish incriminating, leaked information online for the media and the general public to peruse at their leisure. The Panama Papers, leaked in early 2016, exposed the extent to which corporations, politicians and the wealthy obscure their wealth to gain financial benefit from their positions of power or simply evade their obligations to society by avoiding taxes. Edward Snowden, the infamous whistleblower, revealed to the world, with the help of the online media, the extent to which the United States is monitoring the online activities of its own citizens and those of its allies around the world. These revelations have led to widespread cynicism amongst the general public about the intentions and motivations of institutions that they are told exist for their protection.
In addition to the leaking of stolen information, societies are being bombarded with conflicting reports and propaganda from their own governments, foreign governments, and insurgent groups. All governments participate in propaganda, whether it be investing in video games, like “America’s Army,” or the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s “Glorious Revolution”; or more traditional forms like Russia Today, the Kremlin’s English-language news outlet, or Dabiq, ISIS’s own online magazine. These publications have the production qualities that people have come to expect from serious, legitimate news sites, but they blur the lines between objective, evidence-based journalism, and partisan messages designed to sway public opinions and recruit people to their respective causes. They are undoubtedly having their desired effects on populations. Young men are being “radicalised” and try to go to the Middle East to fight with ISIS or become “home grown terrorists.” Similarly, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine has been so confused by conflicting reports that a clear picture of what is happening and why is impossible to discern for the Western observer.
The culmination of this problem is the Trump presidency and the increasing division in the United States. Leaked information and propaganda have been so effective at shaking the American peoples’ faith in the mainstream media and government that President Trump can declare major news outlets as “fake news” and posit his own “alternative facts” that contradict those put forward by media, intelligence agencies or his own administration. In this situation, people have no option but to believe the stories that accord with their own preconceived ideas of the world, rather than critically engage with reports that challenge their ideas. But these could be distortions of reality or even outright lies. This is the basis for the crisis of democracy: forced to fall back on our own ideas of true and false, right and wrong, we automatically disregard anything that is said by those whose ideas do not accord with our own. Ultimately this results in a fundamentally divided society, where the absence of agreed facts disallows any opportunity for reasoned debates about economics, social and foreign policy, or even the message behind Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.