Hello there! It has been very long since I posted on this blog! The following is a part of an article I wrote recently about social media and how it is used as a weapon in international relations. The content is fairly academic and may be long (2.6k words) and boring for many. If you are into reading stuff about international relations, soft power, social media, Catalonia or Russia, please do read and let me know what you think about this piece. I am an amateur at academic writing, do not hold this up to graduate student standards, this is one of my first attempts at writing an academic article. Have fun!
Since the advent of the Internet in the late twentieth century, the number of people worldwide with Internet access has grown significantly, especially in developed countries. According to the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS) 2011 report, in 1995, just 0.7% of the world’s population was connected online.1 By 2000, that number had jumped to 6.4%, increasing five-fold over the course of the next decade. By 2010, nearly 30% of the world’s population had internet access, with the rich countries of Europe, USA, South Korea accounting for over 60% of global internet users.2 Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has seen surging number of sign-ups from developing nations such as Turkey, Brazil, India and Indonesia.3 It is clear that the internet and the tools of Web 2.0 have had and is having a great impact on international relations. With the rise of social media and other integrated communication technologies, the idea that the nation is the sole proprietor of information dissemination has been challenged to a great extent. The discipline of international relations has delved into the implications of emerging technologies over the past couple of decades and has built on the works of scholars from the 20th century. There has been evidence in the work of some scholars and in traditional media that social media specifically has been a major tool for political mobilisation across the world.4 This paper will try to understand why the Catalonian independence referendum is a good example of the effect of social media used as a tool to make a mark on the world order.
Before we go into the case study it is important that we look into the effects that social media has had on traditional international relations theory. Over the past two decades, realism and even neo-realism have had a tough time trying to explain the effects social media has had on the increasing influence of soft power. Morgenthau in his “Politics among Nations”, says that the components of national power include its geography, natural resources, military preparedness, population, national character and morale and its quality of diplomacy.5 Despite Hans Morgenthau acknowledging the challenge of transportation and communication technologies, he couldn’t explain technology’s capacity to spread ideas globally and influence state’s power. Kenneth Waltz in his 1995 essay “Realist Thought and Neorealist Theory” argues that units in the international system are distinct yet interconnected.6 Despite acknowledging that units in the system are interconnected, he failed to acknowledge the growing importance of communication technologies on international relations even in 1995 when these technologies were more mature than in Morgenthau’s era. Neorealism also fails to recognise the rise in influence of soft power as a foreign policy tool which is aided by new communication technologies and its reach. John Mearsheimer in his book “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics” from 2001 also ignores soft power in the form of ideas, despite his acknowledgement of latent powers of the state which include socioeconomic powers 7.
Keohane and Nye were pioneers in the late 20th century when it came to opposing neorealism and came up with their own theory called, “Complex Interdependence”. They in their work, “Power and Interdependence in the Information Age”, clearly define soft power as “the ability to achieve goals through attraction rather than coercion.” 8 J.S. Nye says that “Information is power, and modern information technology is spreading information more widely than ever before in history.” 9 What realism and neorealists couldn’t explain was explained by neo liberalists Keohane and Nye when it comes to integrated communication technologies and how it influences international relations. We can apply what is discussed here, to the present context of the Catalonian Independence movement in 2017.
Catalan independence referendum 2017
The Catalan independence movement has been a long fight for independence that emerged after the death of fascist ruler Francisco Franco and after Spain transitioned to democracy. The movement was subdued until the 2010 European debt crisis when the Catalan citizens felt that they were being taxed very high and unfairly treated. After a long legal battle, Spanish constitutional courts in 2010 struck down some of the amendments from a 2006 referendum, mainly the one that would enable Catalonia to declare itself a nation. In October 2017, a new referendum was announced that sought to declare Catalonia an independent nation and secede from Spain. This new referendum was declared illegal and unconstitutional as the Spanish constitution affirmed Spain an indivisible nation and that Catalonia despite being an autonomous region, it is an integral region of Spain. The referendum in 2017 saw backlash from Spain and over 800 people were injured during the closing down of voting stations in various parts of Catalonia 6. What makes this a truly international conflict is the arguable involvement of Russia in the events that preceded the referendum and the events after.
Catalans called upon EU for aid but the EU denied aid and said that if Catalonia was to declare independence, it would require waiting in line to obtain an EU membership, which could take many years, maybe even decades.
In the events of October 1st, social media saw a lot of content being posted most of it related to the independence movement and mainly the protests that succeeded it. There were many videos and photographs that were posted on YouTube and Facebook by pro-independence parties that showed violence, brutality and usage of aggressive tactics by the Spanish Civil Guard. The acts committed by the police were condemned by various countries 7. The exchange of opinions on social media websites mirrored the hostility on the streets and between the two parties. The two parties also differed in the content that they posted online, Catalonia talking about police brutality and Spain saying otherwise. Spanish authorities posted content online that showed a police officer lending a helping hand to a child and her father while they were trying to get away from the protests and violence. Such intense coverage of the events on that day and the narrative behind suffering Catalans forced various agents from around the world to respond to the scenario and take notice.
One of the elements of social media that led to the referendum was the pro-independence content that was being circulated and the use of social media to reach out and escalate the movement. The last time a referendum was held, was in 2006 and the protests in 2010 were a result of the global recession and the constitutional court’s response to the referendum and the European debt crisis, escalating the citizens’ response to the court’s orders. In 2017, there is no ostensible reason behind the referendum and protests and a sudden spike in engagement within the independence movement, both offline and online.
In the weeks preceding the referendum and the movement in 2017, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been using his Twitter account to villainise the Spanish government and support the Catalan Independence movement. Interestingly, Sputnik, one of the most active media agencies when it comes to propagating the same line of thought, comes from Russia and mirrors Assange’s tweets in their reportage. The media outlet published over 220 news articles regarding the movement between September 11 and 27. According to American think-tank, Atlantic Council, the articles contained misleading headlines and a pro-independence bias. As of September 30, 2017, “Catalan” was the third highest trending hashtag among Twitter accounts that are known to be influenced by Russian operations 9. The Atlantic Council reported that many of Assange’s tweets regarding the issue came from automated accounts on Twitter. Mark Kramer of Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies believes that WikiLeaks allegedly managed by Julian Assange has become “a convenient propaganda tool for the Russian government” 9
These online activities can be seen as a tool used to instil doubt about the European Union’s democratic processes in a time when the relations between the EU, NATO and Russia are strained. Atlantic Council’s Ben Nimmo, senior fellow for information defence said, “We’re seeing foreign actors gain more of a voice in elections that are important to their interests, but it’s not just state actors. More and more people are realizing that they can have an influence through social media.” During an interview with Russian state-backed news outlet, Sputnik, Yuri Korchagin, said that Russia is in no way connected with the events of the referendum process and it has no interest being connected to the processes. 10
Russia’s use of soft power to alter the contemporary world order
Russia has been accused of using cyber tools and influencing the media to establish itself once again on top of the contemporary world order. Russia’s alleged involvement in the DNC hack in 2016 and its alleged involvement in the Catalan independence referendum among many other incidents are indicative of how Russia chooses to use its media. Russia as a nation has moved from wielding soviet-style hard power in the form of nuclear weapons, submarines and rockets to the control of media and dissemination of information. “As a former KGB officer and head of the KGB’s successor agency, the FSB, Putin knows the value of information. His concept of the media, however, is a far cry from the First Amendment. For him, it’s a simple transactional equation: Whoever owns the media controls what it says.” 11 This quote from Jill Dougherty’s article on how Vladimir Putin uses shows us how Russia tries to secure a spot in the contemporary world order.
“Kremlin has made it a priority to invest in the media realm, seeing that a stranglehold over the information space was one of the smartest strategies to ensure its role in the Near Abroad. Molding information also includes measures of retaliation, such as cyber attacks (with the most famous cases having targeted Estonia).” 12 Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Russia and its specialised agency Rossotrudnichestvo which work on the foreign policy of the Near Abroad or in other words, the nations in geographical proximity to Russia, use precise terminology in their policies towards them such as “Shared information space” or “compatriots”. The concept of “Russian World” (which is the relation people living outside Russia consider they have with the nation due to similar heritage or culture), is given little emphasis and is used only in overarching statements. In this context, when the ministry uses these particular words, the concept of Russian World is nothing but Russia’s sphere of influence, the nations and their matters that Russia considers it has a say in. This policy of influence is based on memories from a shared past with nations like Estonia and Kazakhstan or military involvement in Afghanistan or is based on media wars.
Soft power in this case when described as “the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment” 13 can lead to the adoption of hard power. The claim to influence and oversee its neighbours will be legitimate if Russia claims that its sovereignty and security is under threat by a non-conducive environment in the Near Abroad. The exercise of the concept “Russian World” threatens the geopolitical orientations of the Near Abroad.
Russia has invested massively in the information space in the form of media outlets such as Russia Today and Russia Beyond the Headlines which are intended for both Russian-speaking as well as the international community. In an event in London, UK’s prime minister Theresa May said in relation to Russia’s alleged meddling in the DNC hack “We know what you are doing, seeking to weaponise information; deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions”14
Despite the dissolution of USSR in 1990, Russia has managed to somehow hold onto its status of a major power in the world in the face of many setbacks by being an active diplomatic part of many negotiating tables around the world.
While it cannot be easily proven, Russia as a foreign actor seems to be interested in creating instability in Europe. While these acts may benefit Russia in the long run, one thing cannot be mistaken and the above quote by Ben Nimmo explains it best. Social media is becoming less of a tool and more of a weapon when it comes to exercising soft power. Dissemination of misinformation in this yet hypothetical situation has been used as a weapon by Russia to advance its interests and strengthen itself in a new world order.
Neoliberalism went to the extent of terming information as power and in this situation, this theory seems to apply best but in the context of securing one’s interests and increasing the magnitude of one’s national power. It must be noted that Russia’s interference in the referendum process cannot be chalked out in detail with absolute conviction.
The period after the end of the cold war has been marked with controversy as to where the state of Russia, considered the successor of the USSR stands in the world order. Although Russia is not as large or as powerful as how USSR once was, it was an apparent heir to the superpower status of USSR. When Russia’s situation with its alleged media and information infractions is considered in the sense of the contemporary world order, it does seem like Russia is taking large strides with the kind of influence it is able to wield with the stronghold it has on the media and the cultural concept of “Russian World”.
References and Bibliography
- “Global Trends 2030 – Citizens in an Interconnected and Polycentric World” European Strategy and Policy Analysis (ESPAS). Paris: Institute for Security Studies European Union, 27 June 2012. http://europa.eu/espas/pdf/espas_report_ii_01_en.pdf
- Ibid p 7.
- See A. Reda, S. Shah, M. Tiwari, A. Lillie, and B. Noble. “Social networking in developing regions” (2012) https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2160686
- T. Becker and C. Slaton. The Future of Teledemocracy, Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000.; Khondker, “Role of the New Media in the Arab Spring”; K. Dalacoura. “The 2011 uprisings in the Arab Middle East: political change and geopolitical implications”, International Affairs, vol. 88, issue 1 (2012), pp 63-79
- H. J. Morgenthau. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, revised by K. W. Thompson and W.D. Clinton, 7th Ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2006, p 122-170
- K. N. Waltz, “Realist Thought and Neorealist Theory”, Journal of International Affairs, vol. 44, Issue 1, (1990), pp 21‐37.
- J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York; London: W.W. Norton, 2001
- Keohane R.O. and Nye J.S. “Power and Interdependence in the Information age” Foreign Affairs, vol. 77 no. 5 (1998), pp 81-94, p85.
- J. S. Nye Jr. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, New York: Public Affairs, 2004, p1.
- Aritz, P. and Joseph, W. (2017, October 1) ‘Yes’ side wins Catalonia independence vote marred by chaos; more than 800 injured Associated Press. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-spain-catalonia-referendum-20171001-story.html
- Jill, D. (2015, April 21) How the Media Became One of Putin’s Most Powerful Weapons Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/04/how-the-media-became-putins-most-powerful-weapon/391062/
- Heiko Pääbo, “War of Memories: Explaining ‘Memorials War’ in Estonia,” Baltic Security & Defense Review 10 (2008): 5-28.
- Joseph Nye, “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616, no.1 (2008): 94.
- Vidya Ram, (2017, November 14) “Russia’s actions a threat to world order, says British PM” http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/world/russias-actions-a-threat-to-world-order-says-british-pm/article9960525.ece
- James, B. (2017, October 22) Spanish minister: police violence videos against Catalonia referendum supporters are ‘fake news’. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/10/22/spanish-minister-says-videos-police-violence-fake-news/
- Sarah, W. (2017, October 2) Why part of Spain is trying to secede — and why the Spanish government cracked down on it. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/world/2017/10/2/16393956/catalonia-catalan-independence-crackdown-vote-referendum
- Natasha, B. (2017, September 30) Julian Assange is rallying behind Catalan separatists – and Russia has taken notice. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.in/Julian-Assange-is-rallying-behind-Catalan-separatists-and-Russia-has-taken-notice/articleshow/60896535.cms
- Mark, S. and Diego, T. (2017, September 29) Catalan referendum stokes fears of Russian influence. Retrieved from https://www.politico.eu/article/russia-catalonia-referendum-fake-news-misinformation/