International Information Power Politics

Humanitarian Technology
International Relations

D. Scarnecchia


January 17, 2019

An overextended superpower is brought low in an era of ideological polarization, set against the backdrop of a widely adopted new technology which has radically transformed people’s relationship with information. Over 10 percent of the population dies in the subsequent conflicts. This isn’t a dark portent of a potential future. It’s a lesson from our past about the dangers that can arise when technology and politics intersect.

ThoCourse of Empire—Destruction, 1836 via Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire—Destruction, 1836 via Wikimedia Commons

In his history of the modern West, the late historian Jacques Barzun asserted that the widespread adoption of the printing press gave Luther’s Reformation the traction that earlier efforts at reform lacked. The resulting combination of religious fervor and political competition created a perfect storm which allowed opportunistic princes to fracture Charles V’s holdings and tip Europe into a century of turmoil.

Today, we are at moment of rapid technological change. Digital technologies are effecting our societies and politics in unanticipated ways, and the institutions which safeguard our society are just beginning to grapple with the implications. Last month, in London, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) hosted a symposium on Digital Risk in Situations of Armed Conflict. This symposium aimed to develop a deeper understanding of the risks posed by digital technology to civilians caught up in conflict. One of its three tracks was the weaponization of information with a focus on disinformation, hate speech, and influence operations.

Unfortunately, the popular view is still of interference as discrete events, rather than a systemic problem that challenges the very future of the international system which humanitarianism operates. In the popular media, the disinformation conversation is primarily focused on singular cases, whether it is Russian interference in electoral politics in the US, the role of Facebook in the spread of hate speech in Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis, or anti-migrant violence in Germany.

However, viewing these individually misses the forest for the trees. Influence operations are a new twist on an old conflict—the struggle for international power. Policymakers—particularly those who are the guardians of International Law—must understand information operations and disinformation in this context. To not do so risks creating what Data4Democracy’s Renee DiResta recently called a “Digital Maginot Line”, that is, policies designed to meet past challenges instead of the next problem.

States and other international political actors (think ISIS, private citizens, and even corporations) use influence operations to gain political advantage or disrupt an opponents ability to act. This is best illustrated in two examples relevant to humanitarian action and the protection of civilians: the conflict in Syria and migration in the Mediterranean.


To read about Syria on Twitter is to step into a conspiratorial world where chemical weapons attacks are rebel false flags, the White Helmets are simultaneously ISIS terrorists and puppets of the West, and the entire human rights and humanitarian world has conspired with Western governments to promote regime change. This conspiratorial ecosystem weaves across blogs, social media, and traditional—albeit state-run—media.

Recent research published by Dr. Kate Starbird at the University of Washington (Disclosure: I am a co-author) reveals a transnational, information space where a handful of “independent” authors produce content aligned with Syrian, Russian, and Iranian messaging. This content is then repackaged across far-right and left-wing media, and promoted by the state-run media outlets.

These conspiracy theories haven’t remained the province of fringe online communities. They have been repeated by mainstream actors like a US congresswoman, a Virginia state senator, and printed by mainstream outlets such as Newsweek. In all of these cases, the narratives have questioned the veracity of evidence of human rights abuses and war crimes and echoed Russian officials—despite credible reporting that Syrian forces are responsible for nearly all chemical weapon attacks against civilians. Nor is this problem isolated to the United States. In Britain, a Labour MP recently praised one of the chief authors of these theories, and an activist group with close ties to Labour have lent their platform to speakers repeating these anti-White Helmet narratives. States deny atrocities because it works. They aim to obfuscate reality enough to prevent decisive action by their opponents. Similarly, influence campaigns, as a mode of propaganda, are not intended to persuade but are instead a means to disrupt official narratives, to undermine a society’s ability to act collectively towards a common goal. Further research by the University of Washington team shows that the disinformation phenomenon is more complicated than the simple propaganda metaphor would suggest, nor is it merely the domain of bots and troll armies. Instead, it is a space contested by diverse groups of actors which more closely resemble online activists—and state and other political actors are often embedded in these online communities. The resulting combination of sincere, organic activism, and cultivation by state actors makes it very difficult to disentangle what is disinformation and what is legitimate political speech.


This speaks to the power of these technologies to diffuse narratives into the broader body politic of states. And that raises the critical question: where do state-sponsored influence campaigns end and activism and politics begin? While not always directly related to any given conflict, the politics of migration in Europe illustrate how information operations are a tool of international politics, and vulnerable civilians are the collateral damage.

Russian broadcaster Sputnik stands accused of radicalizing the immigration debate on Italian social media during 2018 elections, pushing “questionable sources, biased experts and sensationalist headlines.” The EU finds that state-run influence operations constitute a significant source of disinformation around migrants in Europe and are deliberately used to fuel the rise of anti-migrant political parties. More recently, far-right YouTube personalities and anti-migration activists have been secretly filming—and allegedly misrepresenting—the activities of NGOs working with refugees in Greece, footage Russian state media are happy to opportunistically promote.

This has real-world consequences. States across Europe have begun impounding and de-flagging of NGO rescue ships, the criminalizing humanitarian activities, and are using prosecution to deter humanitarian aid. The consequences are worse—and often deadly—for migrants. While migration rates have dropped significantly in 2018, the Italian Institute for International Political Studies finds that death rates in among migrants making the crossing in September 2018 rose to 19%—and suggested that this was squarely the fault of the Italian government for deterring rescues at sea. Refugees have the right to protection and asylum. Courts have found that returning rescued migrants to Libya would violate their fundamental rights.

Technologically Mediated Confessionalization

Technology’s transformative effects on civil society have been lauded for decades, but only recently has the attention of scholars turned to the ability of illiberal actors to use these tools. This phenomenon is likely made worse by the fact that social media is qualitatively different from other media. It allows people and groups to forge new networks and identities, and to share information more rapidly. While not wholly the cause of populist politics and propaganda, these platforms have amplified it in ways that neither tech companies nor democracies anticipated.

Technology companies will not be our saviors. Facebook has been condemned by the UN for the inadequacy of its response to hate speech in Myanmar. To start, it’s wholly unclear that it understands how to handle the problem. But it’s also fundamentally at odds with it’s core obligations. Why should Facebook remove false, misleading, or dangerous content of its own volition? Facebook has a fiduciary obligation to its shareholders, not to human rights or democratic norms. Assuming tech companies share these values fundamentally misunderstands the nature and the purpose of the firm.

Drawing lessons from the past is never simple and Barzun did not hold the printing press directly responsible for Europe’s religious wars. But the press drastically altered how 16th century Europeans related to information and ideas, helping foster new identities and transnational networks along religious lines. This process of confessionalization reached across borders and interacted with existing vulnerabilities in the era’s political system, creating room for opportunistic actors to increase their own power, and ultimately reorder the international system through conflict.

Social media is a new tool in a conflict as old as civilization: the competition for international power. States use these technologies to capably manipulate activists and electorates, and often vulnerable people pay the price. Global civil society and policymakers must never assume that laws safeguarding the rights, dignity, and autonomy of humanity are durable features of history.

Indeed, many of the actors currently engaging in influence operations—both state and non-state—are not sympathetic to humanitarian action in its current form. Civil society and humanitarian actors must realize that the battle to protect civilians is being fought in the electorates and policy communities of the West as much as it is on the streets of Idlib. They must realize that they too are political actors with a responsibility to confront powers which seek to use these tools to undermine systemic protections for the most vulnerable.