The Internet and the digital space have driven a fantastic leap into a new era of communicational confrontation. Apart from certain libertarian ideological bases associated with the initial shaping of the Internet, it is a fact that the freedom that governs this space for exchange has also enabled the rise of a new architecture of cognitive and information offensive. An essential line of work for communicators and free media is to increase their knowledge of this architecture in a world that is rewriting its partitioning of conflict.
The Symptoms: Disinformation, Manipulation and a Climate of Hostility
From the many symptoms of this conflict, media misinformation is probably the most visible and debated phenomenon of recent years. The issue has been on the agenda since 2016 with the Brexit episode and Donald Trump’s election in the United States. Since 2019, the pandemic, echoing previous crises (Syria since 2012, Ukraine in 2014, Burma in 2015, Brazil in 2016), has defined a new international scope for this phenomenon, including a defense and security dimension, with the multiplication of attacks on communication systems or external interference in electoral processes.
Media-judicial manipulation has been another related phenomenon in the political and economic sphere. With the scandals of Odebrecht and Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato), which began in Latin America and then spread to Europe and Africa, hundreds of political leaders were literally swept away, just when the Latin American political cycle was upsetting the balance of the Pax Americana1 in Latin America. Far from being undertaken exclusively by conservative sectors under the slogan of the fight against corruption, such manipulations, in which the media component has been decisive, were done in other circumstances and by different political forces, regardless of their political color2.
In addition, against the social background, several open societies show a new atmosphere of diffuse medium-intensity confrontation, which is expressed in the increased aggressiveness rooted in the internal fractures or vulnerabilities of societies. Interactions in the digital sphere fuel this Hobbesian-like hostility of all against all. Depending on the scene, information flows, having become a sounding board or manipulation vector, are shaping a modified perception of reality. They work to alter over time the legitimacy of authorities (or of certain social references) and to exacerbate radicalizations. Although all citizens are potential participants in this space, a very diverse range of actors has been identified in the commands of such upheavals.
A New Information Confrontation Outlook
These three briefly mentioned modalities fail to capture the long list of processes of influence. Other observations, such as the reports of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, give an idea of the geometry of these now globally widespread problems3. But they serve to highlight on three planes the marks of a new communicational era. Although the goal to persuade or manipulate is nothing new, it is unprecedented in terms of the intensity, the degree of interconnection and the impacts of these new conflict levels woven into the information sphere. In short, what is new is the offensive use of information and its ubiquity in a communicational space that is more fluidly related to all other civil, socio-political, military and economic levels. The disinformation crisis that began in the last ten years under the slogan of the “post-truth era” has somehow revealed this new physiognomy of power and influence plays in which many actors are already learning to perform their part.
This growing hostility is not a peripheral problem that is external to the public communication space that had already been highly modified by the emergence of computer networks since the 1980s. Its scale, threshold, actors and depth seem to indicate a qualitative leap with respect to the previous physiognomy. Communications in the public space have thus become a battlefield in a cognitive jungle4 that requires new skills. It involves expanded knowledge and strategic orientation. It presumes a better intelligence of influence and power relations. It requires the ability to analyze general and particular contexts, anticipate possible content perceptions, plan a communication project taking into account risks and opportunities. In terms of public policies, it implies new institutional arrangements and forms of cooperation from the educational to the security dimension. Communicators in emerging countries, where economic and cultural struggles are fierce, intuitively know these resources.
Before the computer revolution (1975) and during the full American hegemony, Lebon, Chomsky, Herman or Bernays, among other thinkers, had contributed to describe the physiognomy of mass manipulation and the factory of collective consent. Today, with a liberal order cracked by an excessively monolithic model of cultural predominance and the struggle of many emerging actors, we are experiencing another type of cognitive dispute, with new forms of information engineering and biopolitical impacts. It is an irregular conflict, waged in network and on multiple terrains, similar in its line to the concept of “hybrid warfare” formulated in the 1990s in the military sphere. It is conceptually difficult to address because it assembles several fields of knowledge and cannot be reduced to a single academic discipline. The exit from East-West bipolarity in 1990 and the profound changes in the geo-political and geo-economic chessboard are key to understanding this shift in the levels of conflict.
Therefore, although this idea of hybrid conflict is frequently referred to both in the North and in the South, it is still far from being apprehended. In general, the fight against information offensives in Western democracies has taken place with delays and segmentation. Likewise, for many of the oppressed who gravitate in contexts of concentrated communications, the responses also tend to be fragmented, and the asymmetric advantages offered by modern communications are not fully understood. In effect, a dominated actor can severely disturb a dominant one if it goes on the offensive or if it defends itself by means of intelligent counter-influence. In this area too, network communication has made the power logic evolve. Reality gives everyday examples of actors who have known how to use these logics to win battles of influence5.
Updating the Communicators’ Roadmap
This scenario is in part a landmark for communicators and free media. On the one hand, it is not, because many free media were born from the very depths of this conflict. Many of them have materialized a project of communicational or counter-information resistance in a given context, trying to leverage the dominated-dominant relationship enabled by contemporary communications. This is how communication resistance and free media were born during the post-1990 neoliberal period in Latin America, as well as the Arab revolutions (2010-2012), the 2008 financial crisis in Europe and the United States, or the North American interventionist cycle in the Middle East (2001), and others, to mention only these important historical stages.
But, on the other hand, it is something new because, as we have mentioned, the grammar of this conflict has already generated its accomplished facts below many perceptual and organizational radars. The wave of internal radicalization and liberticidal measures taken by several governments bears witness of a defensive retreat, even in the United States, where the idea of open society was forged. The agendas of popular or free communicators have put on the table the essential questions of the democratization of communications (infrastructure, code and algorithm, content and governance), the adaptation of regulatory frameworks, the use of new technologies and their new threats, as well as their counter-influence in terms of content and narrative. They have also made the new dangers of the communicators’ exposure visible and rejected the militarization of the information space. But they have rarely been able to pierce the surface of this new landscape of communicational dispute, let alone outline the construction of a conceptual framework capable of internalizing this grammar. Indeed, many other sectors, from business to civil society to policy makers, have underestimated this issue. Both the lack of preparation as well as strategic cultures and ideological inertias have slowed down this effort.
In this scenario, further understanding and acting is key for two reasons. First, there is now a sword of Damocles dangling over freedoms and democracies. It is necessary to defend the foundations of open and plural societies that by definition are more exposed to information and cognitive weapons. The advance of neo-fascisms, reactionary reflexes or other behaviors that go in the direction opposite to the rule of law is a warning in this regard. Second, because free and critical information is a backbone ingredient to keep the social contract and democratic diversity afloat, much more than the criminalization of rival opinions or polarization in opposing camps. Resolving information hostilities by a caesarean section on the content and bearers of antagonistic gazes can be synonymous with endorsing the strategies that seek to achieve social erosion. Ultimately, this scenario requires that communicators and free media mobilize around an active and offensive agenda.
- Information Manipulations in Latin American Corruption Crises? https://www.ege.fr/infoguerre/2018/06/manipulations-informationnelles-crises-portant-corruption-amerique-latine
- Some examples: the current campaign by the political party MAS in Bolivia, undertaken to regain political legitimacy after its collapse in November 2019 through the narrative of a coup d’état (combining disinformation accompanied by some international networks, victimization and judicial harassment of the adversary); the local and international campaign of attrition of the indigenous candidate Yaku Pérez during the presidential election of February 2021 in Ecuador (with the participation of international organizations from the left and the right); the repression and disqualification of political opposition figures in Nicaragua by the government of Daniel Ortega, and others. See also http://www.barril.info/fr/actualites/y-a-t-il-un-complot-judiciaire-contre-la-gauche-en-amerique-latine.
- The term was coined by Christian Harbulot, founder of the French School of Economic Warfare.
- For example, Iran (with the negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), Germany (influence of the European Union), United States (on various issues), Venezuela (status quo on the current political polarization), etc.