Can Digital Diplomacy Really Start A War?

On August 13th, 2017, Nick Miller published an article in The Sydney Morning Herald titled “Getting it wrong could start a war: Welcome to age of digital diplomacy“. The article, which attracted much media and social media attention, proposed that digital diplomacy could actually facilitate war between states. Similar sentiments have been expressed in recent weeks following two developments: the escalation in tensions between the US and North Korea and Donald Trump’s use of Twitter to issue direct threats towards Pyongyang. These have included references to America’s nuclear arsenal, a promise to show resolve in the face of Korean aggression and the use of the term “fire and fury” in relation to America’s possible reaction to North Korean ICBM testing.

Trump’s harsh language on Twitter, his use of this medium to announce major policy decisions and his unpredictability have not gone unnoticed by defence officials in Washington. According to one report, Pentagon officials were confident the President was about to declare war on North Korea via Twitter just a few weeks ago.

Those who believe that digital diplomacy can in-fact lead to war offer three convincing arguments.

Digital Diplomacy and the Road to War

The first argument is that social media has increased the speed in which news travels the globe. In the 1990’s communications scholars noted a similar effect brought about by cable news channels. Known as the “CNN effect”, scholars argued that cable news channels created a 24 hour news cycle.  To meet the demands of this non-stop news cycle, channels such as CNN had to continuously report on stories while offering analysis, testimonials, interviews and captivating images.

The arrival of CNN had a double effect on foreign policy makers. First, they were forced to continuously monitor events and comment on them as they took place. Gone were the days when a skirmish in Cuba would only be reported on the next day. Thanks to satellite technology CNN reported on events as they took place. Secondly, CNN’s non-stop coverage of events often led to their prominence in public opinion. By reporting on the famine in Somalia, CNN placed this issue at the forefront of American public opinion forcing the administration to respond in words and actions.

If CNN hastened the practice of diplomacy, social media has expedited it to the extent that diplomats currently practice “real-time diplomacy”.

The hastening of diplomacy is especially problematic in the context of crises which are by nature high intensity events in which decision makers lack information and are forced to choose between imperfect options. Crises are also complicated by conflicting, and even false, information. Here is another way in which digital platforms can trigger a serious escalation between states. Misinformation and disinformation spread online can make its way into the decision making room hampering leaders’ ability to manage a crisis. During the night of the Turkish Coup, certain nations were formulating policies for the day after Erdogan based on online reports that were sketchy at best.

Moreover, nations may at times be forced to comments on events that are not really taking place.  Only last week the Israeli Defence Forces had to go on social media to squash a rumour that its Chief of Staff had died. It is easy to imagine a scenario in which Hezbollah evaluated this message and assumed Israel was in the midst of chaos leading it to launch an assault near the Lebanese border.

Even established media outlets like CNN and Sky News often report on online rumours while adding the statement “unconfirmed social media reports”. Yet as we know, what is seen and heard on television becomes reality.

It is terrifying to imagine what would occur if automated Bots flooded Twitter with descriptions of North Korean missile movements and even begun reporting on civilian casualties in Guam following a Korean strike. Even more terrifying is the thought of hackers tacking over Trump’s Twitter account and declaring war.

The third way in which digital platforms can lead to war is through leaders’ misguided investment of political capital. All national leaders require substantial political capital in order to go to war. Wars are unpredictable, wars cost money, wars cost lives and wars killed loved ones. Yet, if necessary, leaders can invest the necessary political capital. This includes demonizing the enemy, providing proof of his malicious intentions, framing the war as just and necessary and finally assuring the public of one’s military superiority. However, once the capital has been invested, it is hard to walk back from the precipice of war- things that have been put in motion cannot be undone. Reckless leaders may thus use digital diplomacy to inadvertently create the conditions necessary for war.

Presently, it seems that President Trump is investing more and more capital in his North Korean venture.

However, it can also be argued that digital diplomacy reduces the risk of war.

Digital Diplomacy- Networks of Selective Exposure

Craig Hayden argues that digital diplomacy has seen publics disperse across various platforms. Some social media users get their information from Twitter, others use Facebook while still others relay on Reddit. Older internet users may prefer established new sites while younger ones may follow influential bloggers. This leads to a fractured public square in which no single medium or channel enjoys complete dominance.

In other words, gone are the days of an entire country getting its information from just one news channel or one newspaper. In a reality of selective exposure, the news stories that dominate the public discourse are more diverse and, consequently, the intense focus on one single crisis is reduced.

Second, social media is erratic at best. One day the entire Twittersphere is buzzing with anticipation of war, the next it is consumed by white supremacist marching in Charlottesville. And where social media leads, the traditional media follows. Here again one notices that social media may actually lessen policy makers’ need to react in real time to a crisis as online publics are easily diverted. Twitter may have therefore had a “reverse CNN effect” in which one news story can no longer dominate the news cycle for long periods of time.

An interesting question is can governments deliberately sway social media attention from a crisis in order to gain much needed time and gather information in a more reliable way. This would be a very sophisticated way of using digital diplomacy to solve a crisis or at the very least improve its management.

Third, one has to remember that on social media, the threat of war is but one more item in long feed of Tweets and Posts. For most people, the threats of North Korea appear before a video of cats ringing bells and after a friend’s engagement announcement. This could suggest that the threat of war is actually reduced on social media as it becomes one more item in a never ending list of occurrences. Consider the difference between the headlines of British newspapers last month, shown below, and a Twitter feed which list Korea as one more issue.

korea 2.png

korea 1.png

Finally, it is important to note that wars are not so easily started, even today. Decisions have to be made, consensus needs to be acquired, citizens need to prepared, troops need to be moved, allies need to be notified targets, need to be acquired and ships and missiles need to be put into position.

The road to war remains a long one.


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