OPINION | Andre Vlok: How connectivity causes conflict

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The so-called digital revolution has created new types of conflict, writes the author. (Image: wilpunt/Getty Images)
The so-called digital revolution has created new types of conflict, writes the author. (Image: wilpunt/Getty Images)

It is clear globalisation and the so-called digital revolution have created new types of conflict, new in scope, reach and global impact, writes Andre Vlok. 


"We see, therefore, that war is not merely an act of policy, but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means." - Carl von Clausewitz 

We are experiencing a new type of political conflict and violence, caused by people and organisations that use the very technology and connectivity that can, and do, also bring us together on the international stage.

Our inarguable interdependence on this connectivity makes the manipulation and abuse of systems and power a growing, everyday reality.

History is of course, often a simple chronicle of such abuses of power and financial concerns, but the modern connectivity, ironically a technological marvel in itself, has made new levels of conflict and abuse possible, nearly inevitable. 

The rules of such conflict have also changed rapidly, in some instances to become unrecognisable to those used to working from the more traditional conflict studies.

We no longer need such wars to be conducted by countries with great, uniformed armies, as a few individuals or organisations prove capable of effecting these acts. Let's look at a few actual recent examples to illustrate the situation. 

Examples of connectivity enabled conflict 

Here in South Africa, we are gradually learning how small groups of people used technology (together with more old-fashioned human weaknesses) to launch what can legitimately be called attacks on our sovereignty and national best interests.

It would be particularly naïve to think that such attacks have ceased. The Russian invasion of Ukraine showcases several such examples, from a plethora of disinformation attacks from every quarter to sanctions, boycotts and service terminations of the most crucial technology that are experienced as attacks on them by the Russians. 

The recent US elections have a few textbook examples of such connectivity enabled conflicts, including spying, leaks and the ubiquitous disinformation campaigns.

Ask Canada about such attacks on its sovereignty, or the convoy truckers about retaliatory conflicts involving their finances and ability to give effect to their plans.

The facts and rumours swirling around China's Huawei, with the banning of its equipment, or the involvement of troll factories in the Black Lives Matter activities are all examples of these conflicts, either involving the use of technology, or even conflicts about such technology. 

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The Covid-19 pandemic provides its own long list of examples, ranging from the manipulation or abuse of tech-hoarding, availability manipulation, agreements between countries, trademark battles and many more. The golden thread running through these conflicts is technological connectivity, or the absence of it. 

When grouped together and focused on as we are doing here these attacks seem real, and we have little difficulty in seeing them for what they are, but in general, they are simply woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.

As such, most of us have yet to see them as forms of war.

Lucas Kello has come up with the wonderful Orwellian-sounding term "unpeace" to describe this twilight state between peace and war, the state where we are living in. Simply put, the connectivity which is designed to connect us and to bring us tremendous benefits is also being abused to create new and terrifying conflicts. 

The simplest and trackable face of connectivity is of course social media. Here technology that brings us connectedness and valuable information also causes us to enter into bizarre and largely meaningless online conflicts with strangers, this is where we (for the first time in history) get to compare our own lives with the real or curated lives of the rest of the world, here we can get insulted or "cancelled" at any real or perceived offence decided upon by people we have never met.

Studies show how this connectivity often leads to people feeling less in control of their worlds, not more, and this of course has an awful influence on several forms of conflict, including violent forms thereof such as gender-based violence (GBV) as well as racial and homophobic-based conflict. 

Some indirect consequences of these conflicts 

The consequences in the abovementioned examples are of course clear by now. But these new connectivity conflicts have led to several important other consequences.

An understanding of the potentially insidious power of groups and nations over normal citizens has led to a measurable increase in conspiracy theories and paranoia, in an increase of populism in its many hues, and in an increased desire to close of countries from certain trade, migrants and various types of real or perceived interference. Brexit and various eastern European efforts at self-isolation can be directly linked to these developments. 

It is clear then the technology that could be one of mankind's greatest achievements could also polarise us further and destroy us. In this way, as the examples have shown, new forms of conflicts are created, with greater potential for personal and national disaster.

Africa itself, with its current connectivity challenges, can be seen to be particularly vulnerable on several fronts with these connectivity conflicts. 

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No one is really seriously advocating for a return to the horse and plough, and this debate in essence, is not an anti-tech argument. The benefits of connectivity hardly need any explanation, and in any event, that genie is out of the bottle and no one really wants to put it back.

Several recent examples of international events, from the Covid-19 pandemic to the Russian/Ukrainian war show us the dream of globalisation may have run out of energy and much of its original enthusiasm. As countries and groups continue to feel isolated, we may, in fact, see an increase in the extent and subtlety of these attacks. What can society then do to combat these new risks? 

A few ideas to minimise or control connectivity conflicts 

To focus on connectivity as the cause and trigger of these new conflicts is a macro point of view. We can narrow the focus and concentrate our efforts on say, polarisation, inequality, unemployment, corruption and in that manner, deal with a more limited challenge. This can and will proceed, but it loses sight of the larger risks at stake here, and is a generally reactive strategy. 

Mark Leonard, a British political scientist, has proposed a five-step framework of measures whereby nations or groups can minimise or remove the risks of these conflicts. 

Briefly summarised these five steps are:

1. Acknowledge and understand the problem. 

2. Establish healthy boundaries, national and personal limitations and safe zones. Here the work of Jonathan Haidt is of great practical assistance. 

3. Be realistic about what can and what cannot be controlled, and at what level. Legislation and education can be important tools here.

4. Self-care, which would include addressing those that believe they have been excluded by globalisation and its effects, and the disparity between free and less open societies will have to be addressed.

5. Seek real consent. All levels of participation, down to the individual, should have a measure of protection from such conflicts through measures such as democratic control over tech companies, opt-out remedies, legislation and other measures. 

It is clear globalisation and the so-called digital revolution has created new types of conflict, new in scope, reach and global impact.

They are built on the foundations of the age-old human frailties of greed, fear and insecurity, and then use cutting-edge technology and strategies to deliver conflicts that require a large-scale rewriting of the conflict playbook.

Deriving the best advantage from connectivity without losing control of these related conflicts will require much urgent, focused work in the years to come. 

- Andre Vlok is a negotiator, conflict and employment dispute specialist based in Gqeberha. He can be contacted at andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for more information. 

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