Sign in

The Geopolitical Repercussions of the Digital Age

“In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time — literally — substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.”

- Peter Drucker, father of modern management consulting

In 2020, the development of new technologies will continue to accelerate at an exponential pace. These technologies will continue to arrive well ahead of the regulations and standards required to govern them. In fact, there is little global consensus about how to regulate the impact of new technologies, or indeed, whether they should be regulated at all. For all of the many benefits that have come with progress, including global connectivity and the rise of the gig economy, there has been a dark side as well — one with the potential to create massive shifts in a global geopolitical climate that is already fraught with unprecedented levels of volatility.

With billions of people around the world accessing platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Instagram, to name a few, social media has become a powerful force for political and cultural change, and a force that is more than capable of influencing global geopolitics. In the past three years alone, propaganda and disinformation spread on social media platforms have resulted in Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and a deepening of the partisan divide in politics in the United States, created justification for the Qatar blockade, sowed violence against both individuals and religious or ethnic groups in countries like Myanmar, India, and Sri Lanka, and played a role in a number of protests that have led to government changes, such as in Sudan.

Certainly, neither disruptive technologies nor the weaponization of information to influence events are new developments. In the 13th century A.D., Genghis Khan, leader of the Mongol Empire, ordered each soldier to carry three lit torches at night to make his army appear larger. But, psychological warfare used to mislead, intimidate, demoralize, or otherwise influence the thinking or behavior of an enemy has traditionally fallen within the purview of nation states, and such techniques were restricted to use during times of war or periods of geopolitical conflict between countries.

Expanding Disruption: Three Trends

In 2020, however, the range of uses — and users — of digital disruption to affect political outcomes has expanded in ways that are strikingly different from the historical norm. There are three main trends driving the conversation about the significant geopolitical threat of digital disruption. The first is the ability of non-state actors, or indeed, even a few individuals, to use new technologies to wield influence or shift political outcomes on a large scale. The second trend is that of authoritarian governments using new technologies, or even simply restricting access to the internet, to repress human rights, quash dissent, and discredit political opponents. The third trend is state actors using new technologies to spread disinformation to discredit political opponents, bury opposing views, and influence foreign affairs with regularity, not just during times of war. According to a recent study by Oxford University, the number of countries with political disinformation campaigns more than doubled to 70 in the last two years, with evidence of at least one political party or government entity in each of those countries engaging in social media manipulation. While most government-linked disinformation efforts in the last two years have been focused domestically, at least seven countries have tried to influence views internationally.

Additionally, there is a new level of professionalism to these types of information campaigns. Users need no longer seek out a teenage hacker on the darknet with questionable affiliations; they can now hire a company that operates more or less transparently, such as New Waves, the Egyptian company swept up in a Facebook cleanup campaign in August. Digital disruption and influence operations have the ability to create and even accelerate political unrest in a way that has not previously existed. Revolutions like those that transpired during the Arab Spring can now occur in a matter of months rather than years, making this trend a significant risk to businesses, particularly those with substantial operations in emerging markets.

Non-State Actors Using Social Media Influence Campaigns

The new technologies of digital disruption have made it possible for non-state actors, or indeed, even a few individuals, to wield influence or shift political outcomes on a scale and in a way that just wasn’t possible ten years ago. Social media platforms create the opportunity for otherwise disenfranchised people to find like-minded associates and to communicate more freely, sometimes building a surprising level of social influence. Both the Green Revolution in Iran and the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa are examples of this. On the other hand, the Islamic State has also been quite successful using social networks to inspire and recruit jihadists from around the world.

There have also been a number of instances in the last few years where economic tensions and growing inequality fueled by ineffective governance have spurred social media influence campaigns that have led to a range of awful outcomes, from random violence to xenophobic attacks. As we have discussed previously, in Sri Lanka, a social media narrative of hate and anti-Muslim rhetoric helped drive extremist recruitment that culminated in a series of suicide bombings on Easter that killed more than 250 people and injured hundreds more.

Other examples include:

  • India: In April 2018, false rumors about child kidnappers, called “child lifters,” went viral on the messaging service WhatsApp (owned by Facebook), inciting mob violence. Some of the fake messages described gangs of kidnappers looking for victims. Others included a video of alleged perpetrators snatching a child from a motorbike. The video was actually part of a public service announcement from Pakistan. The false messaging led to the deaths of more than two dozen people, the direct result of an increasing climate of fear and suspicion provoked by phony information. Ironically, it took a traditional print media campaign to raise awareness about fake messages and quell the violence.
  • Sri Lanka: In February 2018, Buddhist mobs in the central part of the country burned down dozens of Muslim shops, homes, and places of worship. The riots were triggered by a road rage incident that resulted in several Muslim men beating up a Sinhala truck driver who later died in the hospital. While there was no indication the driver was attacked because of his ethnicity, a rash of posts and videos on social media sites by anti-Muslim crusaders exploited the incident to call for violence. This incident typifies the anti-Muslim rhetoric that is still rampant in Sri Lanka. Other examples include a rumor that a Muslim-owned restaurant was spiking food for non-Muslims with sterilization pills in an attempt to make Muslims the majority group in Sri Lanka. Similar rumors told of Muslim-owned clothing stores that put sterilization gel in undergarments meant for Sinhalese women for the same reason.
  • South Africa: In September 2019, reports emerged of xenophobic attacks across the country against dozens of businesses owned by foreigners, including Nigerians. Graphic images of the destruction and looting taking place — some real, some fake — continued to exacerbate the violence and led to reprisals. South African-owned business were targeted in Nigeria after videos and images of burning bodies — purportedly, the bodies of Nigerians in South Africa, but proven to be unrelated to the recent violence — were shared on WhatsApp. Reports of Zambians attacking South Africa-owned businesses caused Lusaka to cancel an upcoming soccer match with South Africa in the capital city.

When Governments Leverage Technological Disruption to Tighten Domestic Control

There has been a marked rise in recorded internet service disruptions globally, and African governments are leading the pack in 2019 — a trend that may very well continue in 2020. Internet disruptions were reported in five countries on the continent in just the first three weeks of the year. In fact, in the last five years, at least 22 African states have partially or fully blocked the internet or obstructed social media networks due to a political uprising, elections, or ahead of national school examinations.

For businesses with operations in Africa or other parts of the world where this is common, the resulting disruptions can lead to more than just lost time and money. It can also put businesses in a position where they risk losing trust and credibility from clients and partners abroad. Ethiopia, with its emerging tech scene, fast-growing economy, and relative stability, is in many ways an appealing emerging market, but every year since 2015, the country has shut down the internet at least twice for reasons ranging from anti-government protests to states of emergency. The internet watchdog NetBlocks estimates that for every day the internet is blocked in Ethiopia, the country loses over $4.4 million. What would it cost your business if you lost internet access unexpectedly for 24 hours? For 48 hours? What if you didn’t know when you would regain connectivity? These are some of the calculations foreign investors have to make.

Examples from around Africa in 2019 include:

  • Democratic Republic of Congo: In January, an internet shutdown heightened fears of tampering in an election already marked by delays and violence. The election to replace president Joseph Kabila, who stepped down after 17 years in power, had already been delayed for two years. Tensions remained high, as the country had never had a peaceful transfer of power since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960. Internet provider Global and telecom operator Vodacom told the AFP that they had cut access to the internet on government orders. This was not the first time the government had shut down the internet to manage political opposition.
  • Algeria: In March, as widespread protests called for president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down, reports of internet outages in parts of the country appeared. The disruptions in connectivity were described as being “consistent with technical means used to limit the flow of information in order to quell protests and media coverage of the opposition.” Additional sources reported that state media was being directed not to cover the protests. There was also evidence that access to social media platforms was restricted.
  • Chad: March 28 marked one year since the government ordered the country’s telecom companies to block access to social media platforms. The outage is one of the longest running shutdowns in Africa, surpassing a 230-day internet blackout in Cameroon that ended in 2018. In both instances, the actions were taken to quell unrest: growing protests over a constitutional change in Chad and attempts by the Francophone-dominated government in Cameroon to stifle dissent and calls for secession from the Anglophone southern state of Ambazonia. After nearly a 16-month blackout in Chad, President Deby restored access to social media platforms on July 14.
  • Sudan: In April, reports of a nationwide power outage surfaced immediately following a complete block of social media. Officials at the Ministry of Electricity and Water offered no explanation for the blackout, but the timing coincided with escalating protests against President Omar al-Bashir’s 30 year dictatorship. It was the second such incident since the protests began: the government had previously blocked access to social media for 68 days beginning December 21, 2018 and ending February 26.
  • Benin: In April, the internet was shut down ahead of an election in which there was no real opposition. Voters headed to the polls to choose 83 members of parliament from two parties, both allied with president Patrice Talon. The outage came on the heels of a nationwide blockage of social media and VPNs (virtual private networks), which are often used to circumvent such censorship. Amnesty International referred to the pre-election climate in Benin as extremely troubling, citing a crackdown on peaceful protests and a wave of arrests targeting journalists and political activists.
  • Somalia: In May, the government cancelled and rescheduled national high school exams so it could first block access to social media platforms, after officials at the Ministry of Education discovered academic papers being sold and shared on social media.
  • Ethiopia: In June, the government disrupted internet connectivity to prevent students from cheating on nationwide exams. Social media apps like WhatsApp and Telegram were restricted, and text messaging was disabled. The June internet shutdown came just days after two major events (the ICT Expo and Startup Ethiopia) where authorities promised to boost both the startup community and internet connectivity landscape in the country. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in April 2018, and despite some positive developments, his administration’s rhetoric hasn’t always matched its actions. In August 2018, the government blocked the internet in the country’s restive east to quell protests.

State Actors Using Social Media Influence Campaigns

Manipulation of social media is quickly becoming a preferred tool of countries like China and Russia, where covert influence campaigns complement despotic tactics on the streets. Most government-linked disinformation efforts around the world in the last two years have been focused domestically, but at least seven countries have tried to influence views internationally: China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. In the Middle East, those campaigns are increasingly being coordinated across borders in an effort to bolster authoritarian rule, spread disinformation to discredit political opponents, and influence foreign affairs.

In early August, Facebook announced that it had shut down hundreds of accounts belonging to New Waves, an Egyptian company run by a former military officer and self-described expert on internet warfare, and an Emirati company with a nearly identical name (Newave) and digital track record. While the operations could not be conclusively linked to the governments of either Egypt or the United Arab Emirates (UAE), there are a number of hints that suggest a link. New Waves operates from military-owned housing in eastern Cairo, and the content of its messaging followed closely the foreign policy objectives of Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia.

The New Waves campaign sought to:

  • Support Sudan’s military on social media during this summer’s protests
  • Support Khalifa Hiftar, the Libyan warlord who counts Egypt and the United Arab Emirates among his staunchest allies
  • Praise the United Arab Emirates
  • Criticize Qatar, a sworn enemy of the Saudis, Egyptians, and Emiratis
  • Support the Saudi-led war in Yemen
  • Promote independence for Somaliland (a key objective of the UAE as it jockeys for influence and lucrative contracts in the Horn of Africa)

Repressive governments, with their monopolies on resources and authority, have the upper hand on the digital battlefield, as they are less constrained by morality and laws that protect freedom of speech and freedom of information. It is now easier than ever for autocratic regimes to manufacture both the narrative and public opinion, using relatively inexpensive tools that require minimal skills. Regardless of content, disinformation campaigns sow discord and chaos.Ultimately, online influence operations and election interference are more likely to weaken democratic institutions, not least by undermining alliances and shaping policy outcomes. In the post-truth era of digital disruption, conflict will continue to rise.

Examples include:

  • China: Beijing closely monitors and censors internet traffic within its borders, including by blocking access to popular social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. However, this summer, reportedly for the first time, Beijing used these platforms in an attempt to help neutralize the anti-government protests in Hong Kong. “These accounts were deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground,” Twitter wrote in a blog post. Many of these accounts accessed Twitter using VPNs, however, some were using unblocked internet addresses originating in China, a likely sign that they were operating with the permission of the government.
  • Iran: In July, Twitter announced that it had banned nearly 5000 accounts associated with foreign governments — part of the company’s reaction to accusations that it facilitated Russian meddling in the 2016 US election. Of the banned accounts, 4,779 were linked to “coordinated, state-backed activities” Twitter believes were associated with or backed by the government of Iran. Of the accounts linked to Iran, 1,666 accounts tweeted global news favorable to the government of Iran, 248 accounts engaged in a contentious discussion of Israel, 2,865 used targeted social and political conversations about Iran. Of the remaining banned accounts, four were associated with the Kremlin- backed Russian Internet Research Agency, 130 accounts originated from Spain, and 33 originated from Venezuela. Additional accounts were removed in another sweep by Twitter and Facebook in September, the latest in a series of takedowns targeting deceptive political content.
  • Saudi Arabia: The Saudi government was also caught up in the recent Facebook sweep, along with New Waves, for running covert influence campaigns on Facebook and Instagram in an attempt to increase support for the kingdom and attack its enemies. The Saudi campaign targeted a range of countries across the Middle East and North Africa, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan.

Accounting for the Geopolitical Consequences of Digital Disruption

In 2020 and beyond, the trend of malign actors — be they state or non-state entities — using social media will continue, as it is by far the most powerful non-military tool available for expanding influence and propaganda, and in some cases, even for what passes as official communication between leaders. Expect to see an increase in the use of deep fakes and other machine-learning technologies to create convincing but false images, audio, and video files to amplify future influence campaigns. Also expect to see cyberattacks, influence campaigns, and disinformation play a major role in the 2020 US presidential campaign.

  • Russia will continue to employ digital influence operations that focus on inflaming social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities, and disparaging politicians and other thought leaders who are critical of Russia. Moscow is likely to continue utilizing additional influence tactics, like spreading disinformation, conducting hack-and-leak operations, or manipulating data to target US policy, actions, and elections.
  • Beijing is already in control of the information environment inside China, but the recent Facebook and Twitter activity spurred by the protests in Hong Kong have pointed to an escalation in tactics. China is expanding its ability to shape information and discourse relating to its reputation abroad, especially on issues that Beijing views as critical to party legitimacy (Taiwan, Tibet, human rights). China will continue to use legal, political, and economic levers — such as interest in Chinese markets — to shape the information environment, but expect to see the increasing use of cyberattacks in the United States designed to censor or suppress viewpoints it deems politically sensitive.
  • Iran will continue to use digital disruption and influence operations to target audiences in the United States and a number of allied nations in an effort to advance its agenda. Earlier this month, the Iranian government was tied to attempts by hackers to identify the email accounts of current and former government officials, journalists covering political campaigns, and accounts associated with one major presidential campaign. For Tehran, especially in the near future, harming an adversary is likely more satisfying, and more feasible, than bolstering its own position.

Digital disruption and social media influence campaigns will continue to impact the world order and will contribute to shifting the global balance of power. Unlike in the past when countries with the most military might and economic clout became world powers, in the future, look to those countries, or even non-state actors, with the best access to data and a sophisticated understanding of how to employ it to emerge as the world’s most influential actors.

This power shift is changing the dynamics of global politics permanently, and thus, creating tremendous geopolitical risk to governments and businesses alike. Social media and digital disruption are the great equalizer of the 21st century, allowing those who can harness and wield them to defuse asymmetry in the balance of power and challenge the traditional state-centered model of hard power.

Another effect of shifting global power can be seen in the new types of relationships developing in international relations between different stakeholders — citizens, corporations, governments, and others. The current digital environment is devoid of boundaries, moral or otherwise. It is now par for the course that some state actors see private sector companies as holding even more valuable data than rival intelligence agencies, causing a true muddying of public-private lines.

The relationship between governments and citizens is also shifting, as digital technologies and social media allow for easier and more rapid mobilization of people for political purposes. One significant danger inherent in this shift, of course, is in technology companies inadvertently becoming the dominant broker between citizens and governments, particularly in developing economies. Facebook positions itself as a private entity and as a promoter of facts, yet its willingness or obligation to remain politically neutral is untested at best. This highlights the critical need for the regulations and standards required to govern new technologies to keep pace with development.

The challenge in risk forecasting, and indeed the key geopolitical threat posed by digital disruption, is the unpredictability of both black swan events and human behavior. Digital technologies and influence operations have the ability to create and dramatically accelerate political unrest. The key is in understanding what’s on the horizon and preparing for how to navigate it effectively.

Interested in learning more?

For more information about how digital disruption could affect your business, or to schedule a confidential consultation, contact our team at Luminae Group.

Originally published at www.luminaegroup.com on October 10, 2019.

Luminae Group is a global advisory firm specializing in geopolitics and risk forecasting. Learn more: http://bit.ly/2lQednN

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store