What do ISIS militants and #OccupyWallStreet activists have in common? A lot, as it turns out, when viewed through the lens of security and defense analysis. Both operate as de-centralized nonstate entities, both swarmed and occupied physical spaces in ways that caught everyone off guard and both mastered the use of digital communications for added advantage in recruitment and logistics. In short, despite their vastly different motivations, tactics and social impacts, these movements are, each in their own way, a threat for governments precisely because they operate in ways that authorities find hard to predict and manage.
The rise of networks means that power is migrating to nonstate actors, because they are able to organize into sprawling multiorganizational networks (especially “all-channel” networks, in which every node is connected to every other node) more readily than can traditional, hierarchical, state actors. This means that conflicts may increasingly be waged by “networks,” perhaps more than by “hierarchies.” It also means that whoever masters the network form stands to gain the advantage…
Netwar has a dual nature, like the two-faced Roman god Janus, in that it is composed of conflicts waged, on the one hand, by terrorists, criminals, and ethnonationalist extremists; and by civil-society activists on the other.
I raise all these issues not to stimulate more paranoia among digital activists (god knows there is enough of that already) but to kickstart a necessary reflection. Necessary because the disruptive power of networked groups, self-organizing and horizontal as they may be, is often upheld as somehow virtuous in itself by progressive digital activists.
As Arquilla and Ronfeldt’s study explains, social networks and internet-facilitated movements have their dark side too and the emergence of ISIS is a dramatic and fearsome expression of this. Understanding this potential can help well meaning activists to separate the mechanics of networked society, including greatly increased facility of promotion, recruitment and organized collective actions, from the values and ethics of the networked movement itself. This calls for a clear definition of end goals and also forces a reflection on what tactics are and are not acceptable when confronting existing power structures.
To their credit, even the defense analysts cited above see the potential benefits of networked nonviolent civil society movements working globally to advance human rights across the world. I myself believe that more power distributed to more people will make the world a better place and that the rising power of progressive digital activism is an expression of this potential. As the cliché goes, this power also comes with responsibilities. Essentially, the responsibilities of using de-centralized networks in such a way that history books will remember this not as a time of terrifying ‘Netwars’ but as a time when networked civil societies put the world back on the right path.