Note: this is a slightly revised version of a talk titled “Geopolitics 2.0″ that I gave in Madrid in 2009, shortly after the mass protests in Iran. It is published here on this blog given recent events in Tunisia and Egypt. - MF
In the aftermath of Iran’s massive street protests in June 2009, that country’s authoritarian regime blamed the unrest on Western intelligence agencies and big media organisations. This time, however, the ruling mullahs lashed out at a new list of Western enemies: Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
Web-based social networks indeed played a powerful role during the uprising – not only as tools for mobilising action inside Iran, but also for influencing global opinion. The global media described the turbulent events in Iran as a “Twitter Revolution” due to the widespread use of tweets to organise spontaneous protests and disseminate information about what was happening in the country. The viral power of the Web came into poignant focus when a young Iranian woman called Neda became a tragic martyr for the Iranian protest: seconds after she was shot during the bloody repression, smartphone video images of her bleeding to death in the streets of Tehran were posted on YouTube, provoking horror and outrage throughout the world.
While the Iranian regime was not toppled, the “Twitter Revolution” marked a turning point in global politics that – as recent events in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrate — no government can afford to ignore.
The sudden explosion of Web-based networks has brought a new lexicon to the emerging geopolitical realities of digital diplomacy. Just as Wikipedia has toppled the authority of established intellectual elites, online social networks have diffused the power of mobilisation to the periphery. This diffusion of power is reshaping geopolitics as the vertical logic of states is challenged by the viral dynamics of online social networks.
Broadly speaking, what we call Geopolitics 2.0 is characterised by three significant power shifts: (1) from states to individuals; (2) from hard power to cyber power; and (3) from old media to new media.
1. States towards Individuals
The first power shift is from states towards individuals. Or expressed more formally, from a state-centric approach in international relations towards a new dynamic involving a widely disparate number of non-state actors, even individuals, who can instrumentalise the Web to exert influence by mobilising protest or inflicting violence.
This shift has been occurring for some time, as states lose their monopoly as exclusive actors in global politics, but is now rapidly accelerating due to the elimination of entry barriers via Web-based social networks. It should be underscored that this shift by no means signifies that states are no longer the main actors in international affairs. States however are today confronted with radically new challenges as power shifts not only towards non-state actors, but towards individuals. Online social networks can empower individuals with virtually no resources to act and exert influence on the same playing field as powerful states that control massive political, economic and military resources. Today a lone hacker can play cyber David against Goliath states.
This was dramatically demonstrated in 2009 when the Russian government allegedly inflicted a denial-of-service attack on Twitter in order to neutralise a single blogger in the neighbouring state of Georgia. Twitter users worldwide faced a paralysing brownout because the Kremlin had launched a cyber attack against one individual. More recently, the destabilising impact of WikiLeaks, and its diplomatic fallout, demonstrated how a single Web-based source of information can exert influence on global politics.
The Web-based empowerment of individuals marks a major shift from previous models of geopolitics, where the main actors have been either states or other easily identifiable non-state actors, including terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. Today, the identity of individual actors in the global system is frequently not apparent, and sometimes a baffling mystery. When hackers and cyber-spies strike, governments may accuse China or Russia, but the origins of these attacks and their perpetrators are never verified with total certainty. In short, it’s possible to be a significant actor in the global system, and inflict major damage on states, without ever becoming known, let alone getting apprehended and punished.
This shift has powerful implications — as we have seen in North Africa and the Middle East — for network-based political mobilization. Individuals with access to the Web can easily instrumentise online networks to organise and mobilise action – notably against states. In Iran, the authoritarian regime, perplexed by the origins of the organized protest, was completely taken by surprise when the “Twitter Revolution” erupted. Only physical repression – as the death of Neda poignantly demonstrated – saved the Iranian regime from overthrow. In Tunisia, circumstances – notably the attitude of the army — favoured the protest movement and the regime fell.
It’s possible, to be sure, to exaggerate the role of the Web in overthrowing authoritarian regimes, for in the final analysis protest movements inevitably must physically confront state instruments of coercion. There can be no doubt, however, that social media have played a powerful role in organising and mobilising action. In liberal democracies, social networks like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have become indispensible tools of electoral mobilisation and civic organisation. Governments are now acutely aware that their citizens can use these tools to voice their views and organise action. And as we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt, these tools can potentially be used to challenge authority and overthrow regimes.
2. Hard Power towards Cyber Power
Online mobilization is effective precisely because the nature of power is being transformed. We are witnessing a shift from military “hard power” towards virtual “cyber power”. Again, this shift does not signify that traditional forms of hard power are irrelevant or unnecessary, but that new forms of virtual power are emerging and can produce serious consequences for states.
Much has been written about “soft power” in international affairs. Cyber power is different from “soft power” in one important aspect: whereas the latter conveys values through culture, consumer behaviour and lifestyle (from Mickey Mouse to McDonald’s), cyber power is located in cyberspace.
States now have no choice but to master, and instrumentalise, Web-based forms of coercion. Make no mistake, states are using the Web to in cyber attacks against other states. North Korea, for example, is widely suspected of being at the origin of cyber attacks against neighbouring South Korea and other countries. Another example occurred in April 2007, when the normally tranquil nation of Estonia came under a cyber attack – targeting government, banks and media – following the relocation in that country of a Soviet war memorial. The Estonian government blamed the Kremlin for the sudden and unexpected cyber attack. While the Kremlin denied any direct involvement, the incident prompted the NATO military alliance to step up its readiness for cyber warfare.
America is a soft-power superpower, but is more vulnerable in the sphere of cyber power. This explains why the American government has invested massively in programmes that strengthen the U.S. arsenal of cyber weaponry –- both offensively and defensively. Lt.-Gen. William Shelton, the US Air Force’s chief of warfighting integration, has said that in the past the Pentagon relied too heavily on industry efforts to respond to cyber threats. This industry-led approach, he added, failed to keep pace with the threat from cyber space.
“Threats in cyberspace move at the speed of light, and we are literally under attack every day as our networks are constantly probed and our adversaries seek to exploit vulnerabilities”, General Shelton told the House Armed Services Committee in May 2009. A US National Security Council report concluded meanwhile that the American government’s policies on waging cyber warfare have been ill-informed. While these statements may be motivated by a desire to obtain more substantial budget allocations, it cannot be doubted that they reveal how states –- with their traditional institutional bias in favour of hard power -– have been slow to understand the velocity and significance of the cyber war threat.
Today the military-industrial complex may need to rely less on giant arms manufacturers and four-star generals and more on computer geeks with formidable skills on videogames like World of Warcraft. That assertion may seem outlandish, but it is actually a fact. The US Army is using Web networks like Facebook and YouTube as recruitment tools and, what’s more, is looking specifically for certain skills sets that include familiarity with virtual worlds and online videogames. As the new generation of so-called ‘millennials’ move into positions of responsibility in government and the military, they will bring with them powerful cyber skills that will be instrumentally useful in espionage and warfare.
The threat of cyber warfare is not new. In fact, the Internet itself – a product of the Cold War – was built in the 1960s by US military scientists to protect American communications infrastructure against a Soviet nuclear strike. A half-century later, those threats remain. But with one major difference: cyber weapons are not only in hands of enemy and rogue states, but can be deployed by isolated individuals ranging from bored teenagers to wild-eyed terrorists. Or, as recent events in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrate, they can also be deployed by organizers of mass protest. It should be no surprise that regimes in this region have responded to mass protest by shutting down Internet access.
3. Old Media towards New Media
The third shift is from old media towards new media like as effective platforms of global diplomacy, communication and opinion shaping – or a shift form the “CNN Effect” to the “YouTube Effect”.
In the past, governments have used mass media to conduct diplomacy and wage information warfare. Prominent statesmen, including Presidents and Prime Ministers, have been willing to appear on CNN and the BBC to convey their positions and policies to other states and world opinion. Non-state actors, too, have exploited the global media to stage events –- and sometimes to pull off publicity stunts -– to attract attention to their causes. Old media have been the privileged forum of global diplomacy and opinion shaping.
Once again, this shift does not signify that old media such as television news networks are irrelevant, but that media power has shifted towards the Web. Today the era of old media dominance, while not over, is coming to an end with the rapid emergence of Web-based forms of journalism, information and propaganda. The explosion of online networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has also challenged the traditional function of established media by diffusing media power towards individuals. These networked Web platforms are powerfully effective tools for “digital activism” by non-state actors, including individuals; but are also being deployed by states to exert influence in the theatre of global diplomacy.
The Gaza crisis in 2008 provided an excellent example of this shift towards new media. Shortly after Israel launched its military operation, a pro-Israel individual created a Facebook page called “I Support the Israel Defense Forces in Preventing Terror Attacks from Gaza”. At the same time, a pro-Palestinian individual created a Facebook page called “Let’s Collect 500,000 Signatures to Support the Palestinians in Gaza”. Intrigued by the leveraging of social media on both sides of the crisis, Time magazine published a story under the headline “Facebook users go to war over Gaza”.
Most of these Facebook initiatives were the work of individuals. But states joined the Web-based propaganda campaign to get out their message. The Israeli Army, for example, launched its own YouTube video channel in an effort to win the global PR battle by uploading videos showing carefully pinpointed strikes against terrorist targets.
As more recent events in Tunisia and Egypt have dramatically demonstrated, people turn to the Web for “live” information and commentary about what is happening on the ground. Indeed, traditional media outlets, including global news networks, frequently broadcast Web-based information and video captured by individuals, instead of relying on their own correspondents. Old media journalists once scorned the Web as “amateur”; today, they source many of their sources via the Web.
These three shifts have forced states to radically rethink their approach to global diplomacy. States are alternately censoring the Internet or deploying Web platforms to achieve their goals and assert influence. In many cases, they are doing both.
It would be simplistic to argue that authoritarian regimes are hostile to the Web while states in Western liberal democracies are embracing these technological ruptures. The United States, for example, denounced WikiLeaks and arrested alleged perpetrators. Authoritarian states, resorting to more repressive forms of coercion, routinely imprison so-called “cyber-dissidents”.
In the Middle East, Syria has jailed bloggers and blocks websites (including Facebook and YouTube) deemed a security threat. In Egypt, an Arab country that enjoys open diplomatic relations with the West, the government has punished online criticism of the state. Beyond the Middle East, the Chinese regime has imprisoned cyber-dissidents and shut down websites including YouTube, particularly over sensitive issues such as Tibet. Indonesia has banned both YouTube and MySpace. Other states that have banned websites or imprisoned cyber-dissidents include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Belarus, Burma, North Korea, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
Liberal democracies, while doubtless developing their cyber war capabilities, have been focused on the potential danger of Web-based forms of terrorism. It is believed that terrorists are using Web platforms like Google Earth to locate potential targets, especially in countries like Israel. This may explain why Google has pixillated sensitive zones in Israel and elsewhere in the world that could come under a terrorist attack. The findings of a “Dark Web” research project at the University of Arizona tracked Jihadist extremist groups using Web 2.0 media. The study, published in 2008, came across an alarming number of Jihadist blogs and YouTube uploads.
In the aftermath of events in Tunisia and Egypt, it is critical for experts in international affairs to understand how Web-based social networks are impacting the new dynamics of global politics. We have outlined here three important power shifts that are reshaping geopolitics – from states to individuals, from hard power to cyber power, and from old media to new media.