Posts Tagged ‘Jose Angel Gurria’

An Early Example of the Weaponization of the Internet

January 15, 2019

This is the third post in a series of posts on a book by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking titled “Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media.” In early 1994 a force of 4,000 disenfranchised workers and farmers rose up in Mexico’s poor southern state of Chiapas. They called themselves the Zapista National Liberation Army (EZLN). They occupied a few towns and vowed to march on Mexico City. This did not impress the government. Twelve thousand soldiers were deployed, backed by tanks and air strikes, in a swift and merciless offensive. The EZLN quickly retreated to the jungle. The rebellion teetered on the brink of destruction. But twelve days after it began the government declared a sudden halt to combat. This was a real head-scratcher, particularly for students of war.

But there was nothing conventional about this conflict. Members of the EZLN had been talking online. They spread their manifesto to like-minded leftists in other countries, declared solidarity with international labor movements protesting free trade (their revolution had begun the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, established contact with organizations like the Red Cross, and urged every journalist they could find to come and observe the cruelty of the Mexican military firsthand. They turned en masse to the new and largely untested power of the internet.

It worked. Their revolution was joined in solidarity by tens of thousands of liberal activists in more than 130 countries, organizing in 15 different languages. Global pressure to end the small war in Chiapas built quickly on the Mexican government. And it seemed to come from every direction, all at once. Mexico relented.

But this new offensive did not stop after the shooting had ceased. The war became a bloodless political struggle, sustained by the support of a global network of enthusiasts and admirers, most of whom had never heard of Chiapas before the call to action went out. In the years that followed, this network would push and cajole the Mexican government into reforms the local fighters had been unable to obtain on their own. The Mexican foreign minister, Jose Angel Gurria lamented in 1995, “The shots lasted ten days, but ever since the war has been a war of ink, of written word, a war on the internet.”

There were signs everywhere that the internet’s relentless pace of innovation was changing the social and political fabric of the real world. The webcam was invented and the launch of eBay and Amazon; the birth of online dating; even the first internet-abetted scandals and crimes, one of which resulted in a presidential impeachment, stemming from a rumor first reported online. In 1996, Manual Castells, one of the world’s foremost sociologists, made a bold prediction: “The internet’s integration of print, radio, and audiovisual modalities into a single system promise an impact on society comparable to that of the alphabet.”

The authors note that most forward-thinking of these internet visionaries was not an academic. In 1999, musician David Bowie sat for an interview with the BBC. Instead of promoting his albums, he waxed philosophical about technology’s future. He explained that the internet would not just bring people together; it would also tear them apart. When asked by the interviewer about his surety about the internet’s powers, Bowie said that he didn’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. “I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. I think we’re actually on the cusp of something, exhilarating and terrifying…It’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.”