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BusinessDay: Tipping point — social media, misinformation and civil wars

Instead of cultivating an enlightened global society, there has been a rise in misinformation and deepening divisions.


By Johan Steyn, 30 August 2023


The dawn of the information age heralded an era of unparalleled access to knowledge. With the advent of the internet, the world watched as boundaries dissolved, and vast libraries of information became available at our fingertips. It was to be the great equaliser, breaking down barriers of ignorance and sowing seeds of global unity. The digital revolution promised not just an informational renaissance but a cultural one, fostering understanding and acceptance among diverse peoples.


Yet, as the pixels settle, we find ourselves in a perplexing paradox. Instead of cultivating an enlightened, interconnected global society, we have seen a rise in echo chambers, misinformation, and deepening divisions. The very tool meant to emancipate us from ignorance ended up binding us in new chains of misconception and bias.


Social media platforms have reshaped the way societies communicate, receive information, and perceive the world. While these platforms offer unprecedented opportunities for global connectivity and knowledge dissemination, they also play a darker role as conduits of misinformation, potentially acting as catalysts for violence and even civil wars. As these algorithms prioritise sensational, emotive, or controversial content, misleading or outright false narratives can rapidly gain traction.


Political scientist Barbara Walter cast a spotlight on the looming potential of civil unrest in the US. Her book How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them, offers a stark warning to a nation grappling with deep political divisions. Walter’s work on a CIA task force evaluating global civil unrest trends drew uncanny parallels to the US’ current political landscape. One might wonder how the world’s leading democracy could find itself on a similar trajectory as nations plagued with political instability.


The author highlights the influence of internet penetration on political and social dynamics. For instance, as access to the internet increased in Sub-Saharan Africa from 2015, this digital expansion correlated with a rise in conflict levels.


Open insurgency

In a disconcerting article in the Washington Post, They Are Preparing for War: An Expert on Civil Wars Discusses Where Political Extremists Are Taking This Country, Walters refers to a publicly available CIA manual that delineates the three typical stages of insurgencies. The initial stage, pre-insurgency, involves groups starting to rally around a particular grievance. The perception, largely fuelled by misinformation, that democratic processes are failing or are “rigged” has spurred groups to consider alternatives to voice their discontent. This is followed by the incipient conflict stage, during which these groups start building a military component, often in the form of a militia. They begin to acquire weapons and undergo training.


The manual underscores the main risk during this phase: the unawareness of governments and citizens about these developing situations. When an incident occurs, it is frequently seen as an isolated event, with the broader implications often missed. This lack of recognition enables the movement to grow until it transitions into the third phase: an open insurgency. Once a pattern of regular attacks sets in, the situation becomes glaringly evident and harder to dismiss.

Walter’s insights should serve as a wake-up call to policymakers and citizens. The threats of digital misinformation and its potent dissemination via social media cannot be underestimated. As nations navigate their political future, recognising and countering these false narratives becomes imperative. It is not just about safeguarding democracy but ensuring that the fabric of society remains intact.

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