The rapid spread of digital-based communications and information networks is likely to have an effect on 21st-century wars, which increasingly center on internal conflict, disputed borders of new states, and separatist movements.
The complex relationship between media and conflict is longstanding. Traditional mass media have been used to amplify and extend viewpoints and ideologies, to persuade audiences at home, and to influence opposing sides in conflict. However, both media and conflict have changed markedly in recent years. Many 21st-century wars are not only about holding territory, but about gaining public support and achieving legal status in the international arena. Governments seek to hold onto power through persuasion as much as through force. Media are increasingly essential elements of conflict, rather than just functional tools for those fighting. At the same time, newer media technologies have increased communication and information dissemination in the context of conflict.
In particular, the growth of citizen media has changed the information space around conflict, providing more people with the tools to record and share their experiences with the rest of the world. At present, the policy community that considers the role and use of media in conflictprone settings is just beginning to formulate methodologies and strategies to consider how changes in media technology could affect fundamental issues of political participation and conflict. As a result, many existing media assistance projects in conflict-prone settings reflect a traditional understanding of the relationship between media and conflict. These projects are often viewed through the prisms of state stabilization, sovereignty, rule of law, the creation of modern administrative structures of state control, and civil society support that complements state stabilization efforts.
The shift to digital media and the attendant rise of networked, participatory media is the culmination of a process that has only in the past decade reached a form that we recognize, name, and consciously construct. The rapid spread of digital-based communications and information networks is likely to have an effect on 21st-century wars, which increasingly center on internal conflict, disputed borders of new states, and separatist movements. However, those effects have yet to be seriously analyzed; at present we have mostly anecdotal evidence about the relationship of digital media and modern conflict.
Much violent conflict today takes place in or near civilian populations with access to global information networks, so the information gathered by various parties to conflict may potentially be distributed in real time around the globe. The ability to communicate, and to produce and receive diverse information through participatory media, is part of a struggle within conflictprone societies between allowing for non-coercive debates and dialogue that focus on endemic weak-state problems and enabling those seeking power to organize for political influence, recruitment, demonstrations, political violence, and terror.
The U.S. Air Force has noted that in future wars, “Influence increasingly will be exerted by information more than by bombs.”1 It is now clear that increased access to information and to the means to produce media has both positive and negative consequences in conflict situations. The question of whether the presence of digital media networks will encourage violence or lead to peaceful solutions may be viewed as a contest between the two possible outcomes. It is possible to build communications architectures that encourage dialogue and nonviolent political solutions. However, it is equally possible for digital media to increase polarization, strengthen biases, and foment violence.