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Digital wars and conflicts

Different types of digital wars and their impact on social perceptions of conflict. Also wars over hearts and minds and the concept of militainment.
This week we’ll look at digital wars, or more broadly, at the ways in which warfare and conflict have been transformed by digital technologies. When I say digital wars what comes to mind? Many people will say digital weapons, drones, for example. Indeed, drones have become almost synonymous to digital warfare. The latest development in a longer trajectory of remote and depersonalised combat. If you think of wars in ancient times when enemies would be in immediate proximity to each other, inflicting injury on each other’s bodies, and witnessing this injury really up-close. Gradually, the combatants became further and further removed from each other. For example, invention of gunpowder substantially increased the distance between the shooter and the target.
Then came aviation warfare and made the distance even larger. And now drones, which can be operated remotely halfway across the world. Not only that the wounded bodies are far removed, but the actual human targets of war and now entirely out of sight. This is one way in which digital technologies are transforming what is understood and enacted as war. Another way is cyberwarfare, which in short refers to hacking and other attacks on computer infrastructures. These can be carried out by lone individuals, or groups, but also by state actors. Cyber warfare has expanded political conflicts from the ground into online spaces.
For example, when two countries that are at war or political dispute over their borders, in addition to diplomacy or military invasions, engage in hacking into each other’s online presence, governmental websites, for example, or attack computer systems that support state finances or a power grid. Does cyberwarfare require changes to international laws that regulate military conflicts and rules of engagement? Think for example, shouldn’t international humanitarian law include civilian victims of cyber attacks? Should cyber attacks themselves be regulated, for instance, in the case of penetrating additional infrastructure, should for example, hospitals and school computer systems, be out-of-bounds? Digital combat is only one way in which digital technologies transform war and conflict. Another very important one is the war over hearts and minds.
A battle over how we think and feel about wars. First and foremost, there is social media, which in the recent years has become a site of political propaganda. This happens when national or international groups get mobilised online to promote their point of view; or when social media is used as a propaganda tool at the time of a political conflict. This can be as benign as various groups vocally expressing their opinion via social media messages and viral auctions. But it can also include deliberate misinformation and fake news that can fuel violence on the ground.
Furthermore, digital conflict can take place when governments or social media platforms actively censor particular political content, by preventing messages from going out, or by shutting down counts for political reasons, or even by cracking down on activists via social media surveillance. Secondly, we must remember that today in our media saturated environment wars don’t just happen far away. Often, they take place in the palm of our hand, literally under our fingertips, scrolling through a touchscreen. This could be news and images of warfare brought to us up close. But perhaps most interestingly, they can penetrate our spaces of leisure and play. I’m referring here to war-themed computer games.
This is what several scholars have described as “militainment”, an interplay between militarism, which is a way of solving political disputes, by means of war, rather than, for example, diplomacy. So interplay between that and the entertainment industry. The same technology of virtual reality and simulation is used to train soldiers preparing for combat, and to play computer games, which are a huge industry. Now those games are sometimes set in the past. Among most popular is World War II, for example. But they can also be set in the present and refer to actual wars, current or recent. which are staged as a game. In the so-called first-person shooter games, the playr sees the world as a soldier and in combat.
But often through the lens of a weapon. The aim of the game is to win, which often means to kill others. The question is, does such framing desensitises us to the brutality of war? Does it make wars look like a game? Does it dehumanise those depicted as enemies of targets? They are simply on your computer screen. Does this mean that first-person shooter games are generally supporting a militaristic approach to political disputes, instead of pointing to the devastating human cost of how, of any war and encouraging us to seek alternatives. So finally, the question is, do war themed games have to support war? Can online games promote an alternative view of wars and conflict?
Can virtual worlds be a space of anti-war digital politics?

In this video, Dr Adi will first introduce different types of digital wars and their impact on social perceptions of conflict: drone warfare, and cyberwarfare. She will then describe wars over hearts and minds – political propaganda, fake news, censorship, and other forms of information warfare. Finally, she will introduce the concept of militainment.

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Digital Politics: Digital Activism and Cyber Warfare

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