Home Pushing Paradigms Passionate Allies / Dangerous Challengers: The Effect of Networks on Nation States

I’m currently working on a book about the effect of the network on global political power dynamics, and one of my big questions is how networks affect nation states.

In the past few years networks have had dramatic effects on nation states, both positive and negative. As always, these effects are complex and contradictory. Networks can threaten the power of states, but they can also support them. Likewise, these effects can be both constructive and destructive to civic “happiness” (in the utilitarian sense) in that networks can be mechanisms of greater civic accountability and civic well-being or of civic chaos and victimization.

The matrix below shows the range of effects that networked actors can have on the institutions nation states, along with some examples:

Figure 1: How Networks Affect Nation States

Constructive and Destructive Challenges to the State

I am a cyber-optimist, so when I think of the effects of networks on nation states, I first think of the progressive and hopeful examples, like the use of social media during the Arab Spring (?). In this example, loosely networked actors used social media like Twitter to broadcast elite anti-regime narratives. This mechanism of international agenda-setting made it difficult for other heads of state to oppose the movement publicly, giving the activists a conducive international environment in which to push for regime change. Activists also used social media to mobilize the actual street protests which forced the Tunisian and Egyptians dictators from power.

In this example we see networked technology being used to challenge state power at the highest level by challenging the legitimacy of state institutions and the authority of rulers. We can say that its overall effect was positive since the political orders emerging in Egypt and (moreso) Tunisia are likely to be more democratic and concerned with public welfare than those that preceded them.

On the other extreme (Quadrant 3) there is the use of digital technology, particularly the encrypted Blackberry Messenger (BBM) service, to facilitate rioting in London (?). Though not an effort at regime change, this was also a significant challenge to the British state as the state was unable to prevent or halt the riots until they have burned themselves out. Here it is hard to argue that the state or even the networked actors themselves (the rioters) benefited for the action, which can safely be categorized as destructive.

This is the darker vision of the clash of networks and states: networked non-state actors who wish harm to both the state and the civilian population (terrorists, cyber-criminal, vandals), use networked technology to mount their attacks. Because of the ease and low cost of launching a virtual attack it is both harder for state entities like law enforcement to track and apprehend these agents and easier for these agents to group and attack. It’s a medium that makes banditry easier to carry out and harder to stop.

Yet even these optimistic and pessimistic visions fail to capture the full complexity of the effect of networks on states. Some examples have both constructive and destructive effects, or their value is assessed very differently by different actors. One example of this phenomenon is Cablegate, Wikileaks’ massive leak of US diplomatic cables (?) in 2010. To some it was a constructive, if radical, effort at forced mass transparency upon the world’s most powerful state. To others it threatened the legitimate diplomatic work of the US and the benefits, in terms of new information of public value, did not offset the damage done to US credibility and to the reputation of individual diplomats.

Constructive and Destructive Support of the State

Networks don’t always challenge the state. Sometimes networked actors support state power by furthering the goals of the state, thus helping to maintain the status quo (Quadrant 2). The most dramatic examples of this kind of behavior are patriotic hackers. For example, in 2008 Chinese hackers attacked the email system of Save Darfur Coalition (?) because the organization was criticizing Chinese government support of the murderous Sudanese regime. Though it appears that sometimes the government hires hackers to do its dirty work, many times these hackers are acting independently of the government, due to intrinsic feelings of patriotism. This was also the case for the Syrian Electronic Army, which states on its website that they are “not an ‘official entity’ but rather a group of young people who love Syria and want to serve the country by ‘attacking back those who have attacked Syria.”

Yet even these patriotic hackers have a contradictory effect on state power when they attack other states. The most dramatic example of this phenomenon is the 2007 cyberattack on Estonian public and private institutions by pro-Russia hackers to protest the relocation of a Soviet-era statue in the Estonian capital, Talinn (?). The websites of the Estonian parliament, banks, ministries, newspapers and broadcasters were hit with denial of service attacks and though Estonian officials charged the Kremlin with ordering the attack neither Estonian nor international officials were able to prove the connection. Though the attack likely strengthened the perception of Russia’s (bullying) strength in the region, it showed the weakness of the Estonian state to protect its online infrastructure. In this way, the networked hackers both supported and challenged state power by taking sides in a conflict between states.

This is not to say that network support of states only enhances unjust power. In democratic countries, when the state is perceived as legitimate and is willing to cooperate, networked actors can help the state be more efficient. Sites like FixMyStreet crowdsource maintenance requests, making it easier for local governments to maintain public infrastructure in the UK (?). In 2008 the MyBarackObama (MyBO) social platform was created by the campaign to help Obama supporters self-organize around campaign goals (?). Though the platform empowered volunteers to get involved, those volunteers were engaged in a formal institution, the election, and were thus attempting to change the nation’s politics in a manner fully sanctioned by the state.

Networks Work Through Soft Power… So Must States

One common trend we have seen in these interactions is that network actors act of their own volition, not out of compulsion. When they see the state as legitimate they can support it passionately and productively. When they see the state as illegitimate they can effectively undermine its authority.

States that wish to bring networked actors to their side must use soft power, the ability to shape behaviors using perception of common interest, legitimacy, and attraction. Hard power tactics like threats, violence, and payments, have far less effect as networked actors can easily disappear back into the network or act outside of the jurisdictions of the countries they target (this goes for both activists and criminals).

While we associate authoritarian states more with hard power than soft power, they can use both, as the examples of the patriotic hackers in Syria, Russia, and China makes clear. Though some hackers may be paid for their work, they are also influenced by a desire to be illicit warriors of the state. They hack for their countries because it is cool. In the networked world, states that use hard power will see diminishing returns and soft power – the perception of legitimacy at home and abroad – will become ever more important to achieving state goals.

5 replies to this post
  1. Hey Mary, thanks for the post, didn’t know you were writing a book! Exciting!

    Two minor points: any chance we can move behind the cyber-optimist vs pessimist dichotomy? I just don’t think that nomenclature is helpful. Second point, might be worth to deconstruct what you mean by “the state”; would perhaps recommend looking into the state/democracy literature to understand what aspects/elements of the state is being impacted; so basically, disaggregate the state; power is not monolothic etc.

    Thanks again!

    • Patrick – good comment. By state I mean the government and its agents. The state is indeed not monolithic (neither are networked actors) and it is true that these acts by networks do probably benefit certain parts of the state while harming others and vice-versa. I hadn’t gotten to that level of granularity yet.

      In terms of “cyber-optimist,” I use the term to denote my own bias, not to express a state of the world. I think this is a key distinction. I am not stating that the Internet has uniquely positive effects on politics (as the post makes clear), but rather than I am personally drawn to those examples and trends that denote progress and need to balance that perception with a greater degree of skepticism because the true state of the world is a mix of both positive and negative outcomes.

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