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You Are Entering the American Sector
New multipolar internet just dropped
Information is like an unintelligent missile which never finds its target (nor, unfortunately, its anti-missile!), and therefore crashes anywhere or gets lost in space on an unpredictable orbit in which it eternally revolves as junk.
—Jean Baudrillard, “The Gulf War: Is It Really Taking Place?” (1991)
So much for the metaverse. “A New Iron Curtain Is Descending across Russia’s Internet,” proclaimed the Washington Post. “One way or the other,” wrote CNN, “the digital Iron Curtain appears to be dropping.” “Russia’s cleaving off,” the New York Times added, “is a defeat for the once-held Western belief that the internet is a tool for democracy that would lead authoritarian countries to open.”
For a few brief years before the “digital Iron Curtain” descended, the internet spanned the world as a global communications network. Though most Western users stuck to Western platforms and media outlets, many loaded WeChat or even VK on their phones, the more easily to keep in touch with contacts behind China’s “Great Firewall” or to follow events in Russia through Russia’s national platform. At the same time, internet users in Russia could enjoy news and information from the West (though major American platforms complied with China’s content restrictions without much fuss).
The expectation that social media would bolster democracy had already fallen apart during the Trump presidency. Though in 2010 Americans expected their social world to be improved by the internet over the coming ten years, a 2018 Axios poll showed that 57 percent of Americans felt that social media hurt democracy. Yet relics of the old internet remain everywhere: ICANN, the American nonprofit managing the global DNS, still boasts the quaint 1990s motto “One World, One Internet.”
As the digital Iron Curtain descended this week, internet users were effectively shuttled into one part or the other of the new multipolar internet—yet that is not quite how they experienced it. Media consumers in Western countries did not have their attention drawn to the sudden absence of outside sources; instead, they read about the tragedy befalling Russian citizens no longer able to access the major Western platforms and thus only able to consume state media. In reality, both parties to the divide entered new digital worlds. As “netizens” of Russia have found themselves leaving the American Sector of the internet, so we have found ourselves suddenly entering it.
What are the features of the new American Sector?
Infowar as Geopolitics
While analyses of forces on the ground in Ukraine differ, the American Sector internet is united in one confident assertion: that Western information warfare has put Putin at a decisive disadvantage. As if to confirm Western confidence in infowar-as-geopolitics, the online journal The Geopolitics proclaimed on March 6 that “The West Is Winning the Information War.” But they were hardly alone. CNBC, Slate and the Financial Times, to name only a few, each published different articles under the title “Ukraine Is Winning the Information War against Russia.” Not to be outdone, the historian Margaret MacMillan added her conclusion: “the Ukrainians have won the information war hands down.”
The Western infowar has had two main consequences thus far: (1) to bolster the appearance of likely Russian defeat in Ukraine and push corresponding military policy; and (2) to force the hand of Western corporations to withdraw from Russia.
The trouble is that while using information warfare could be a tactic in a larger strategy, nowadays it seems to be substituting for our lack of strategy. Barely two days into the war, social media accounts drove the disinformation story that the European Union would provide planes for Ukrainian use. As Politico reported, the Ukrainian parliament posted a tweet about Europe’s committing seventy planes for Ukrainian use. From there the disinformation achieved memetic status throughout the American Sector internet in mere minutes. More important, this disinformation likely drove political calculations by NATO members that then had to be scrapped.
Had cooler heads not prevailed, the West and Russia could have been on course for a direct military confrontation in a matter of hours. But the incident showed that Western decision-makers were, and are, paying far too much attention to trending stories than to their own analysis of the situation.
By contrast, Putin seems (by Western accounts) not even to be trying at the information warfare game. Although he has turned out the lights on Western media sources, his “socially distanced” meetings with top brass (contrasted with a cozy meeting with all-female staff) have made Western analysts wonder why he seems not to be on his infowar game. After all, this is the Russian leader who deployed RT to stoke tensions in media markets across the world—while attracting curiosity with his own muscular meming.
At the same time, Russia has stuck to a fairly clear set of demands around the future status of Ukraine and Russia’s interests there. While disinformation is a legitimate part of any military plan—and Russia is doubtless spreading disinformation of its own—the Western “infowar” is causing a serious disruption of our own ability to make geopolitical calculations.
It is one thing when propaganda campaigns are undertaken to bolster resolve. But since decision-making processes themselves are now exposed to our own disinformation campaigns, the credibility of our “infowar” is challenged. As the last two weeks have illustrated, the sign of success in our information warfare seems to be measured in retweets as well as further extremes of “cancellations.”
But how long will people trust the American Sector when the disinformation narratives collapse within a matter of hours—often while serious decisions are still being made? While the average consumer of social media might stand agape at the relentless churn of stories, our core allies and decision-makers will quickly grow tired of it.
The Internet Decision Hierarchy
The need for propaganda is a part of every war, and it is natural for propaganda to be aimed at one’s own side, as well. Barely one week into the war, the New York Times summarized Ukraine’s propaganda efforts, chronicling the rise and decline of the (nonexistent) #ghostofkyiv. Speaking to the Times, the director of the Stanford Internet Observatory admitted that social media companies had to “pick a side” and cast a blind eye to propaganda and disinformation coming from the anti-Russian side. Again—so far, so normal for wartime propaganda.
Yet if the West has been so successful at information war while its accounts are largely inaccessible in Russia, who, one wonders, is its “infowar” aimed at? “To spend several days watching news broadcasts on the main state channels, as well as surveying state-controlled newspapers,” writes the New York Times, “is to witness the extent of the Kremlin’s efforts to sanitize its war.” But as the same newspaper notes, Western propaganda has been oriented toward creating an effect of spiraling and often uncontrollable consequences. Though for the time being the Western military command seems to want to avoid a direct war, every other form of war remains fair game.
The trouble is that the line between outward-facing propaganda and decision-making has likewise become blurred. Part of the trouble stems from the fact that U.S. politicians and other decision-makers have now become “very online.” No sooner did the Russian invasion begin than influencer accounts throughout the West adopted a list of ever more shrill and dangerous demands. Senators and representatives glancing down at their phones were met with an unrelenting barrage of . . . Western information warfare.
While much of the escalation in Western responses has come from demands for cancellation, it has also come from placing a too-optimistic spin on the heroism of Ukrainian resistance. Liubov Tsybulska, head of a “Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group” (and possessor of Twitter’s coveted blue check), has been originating a large number of outlandish memes. “In Kyiv,” she tweeted on March 5, “a woman knocked down a Russian drone from a balcony with a jar of cucumbers. How did they expect to occupy this country?”
Since American political trends have been driven by paroxysms of social media outrage, it is no surprise that the set of tools to respond to outrages remains the same. As another New York Times headline put it yesterday: “Putin’s Getting Sanctioned, but Russia’s Getting Canceled.” In the reflexive world of online warfare, escalation is reached through memetic forms of emotional blackmail, each oriented toward raising the likelihood of “cancellation” for those who go along. At first, the abrupt reactions—deplatforming Russian music here, demanding a no-fly zone there—appeared just to be characteristic of the early days of a shocking and clarifying conflict. But as the Times story indicates, the reflexivity of cancel culture is now driving diplomacy—and the persons that we are driving into fits of apoplexy are ourselves.
The Defeat of Corporate Monoculture
For years following the end of the Cold War, it was assumed that the presence of Western corporations in the former Soviet bloc would successfully spread other American values—like respect for freedom and democratic norms. The mass exodus of Western firms from Russia is an admission that their continued presence would not help facilitate transition to democracy in nondemocratic countries. After all, if the ecstasy of using Apple Pay were enough to foster a democratic mindset, Apple should keep it functioning in Russia rather than turning it off.
Of course, the transformation of global corporations into political actors capable of disconnecting any country from the global economy at least helps to clarify what they really are. For years, Western corporations portrayed themselves as the bearers of universal values—captured immortally in Tom Friedman’s “Golden Arches Theory of World Peace.” Now it is obvious that they themselves exercise political power. After removing a sitting U.S. president from their technology platforms in 2021, they can now turn out the lights on “state-run” media or flag “government-affiliated” accounts all while choosing which governmental sources qualify as reliable in their “fact-checking” processes. Meta Platforms Inc., the ominously named conglomerate operating Facebook and Instagram, moved to block RT and Sputnik on its European and UK services while demoting state-run Russian media throughout its network.
As The Geopolitics observed (while praising the infowar as a whole), “Disinformation complicates decision-making and makes the unreasonable appear reasonable. Sweeping sanctions on Russia seems to be one such unreasonable step whitewashed into acceptance by propaganda.” It’s not hard to see why escalating “cancellations” are often counterproductive. As Philip Pilkington pointed out at UnHerd, oil and gas sanctions hurt ourselves more than Russia. So, too, canceling Russian culture only confirms Putin’s claim that the West despises not simply the Russian regime but Russia itself; targeted sanctions on Putin enablers could be more effective.
At Yale University, a business school professor now maintains a proscription list of companies that have failed to shut down their operations in Russia. Calls for sanctions on Russia quickly escalated into demands that essential imports from Russia be blocked, endangering all manner of Western commerce and production. Corporate cancellation culture has quickly become a type of potlatch: “We’ll block Russian news channels!” “Oh yeah, well we’ll stop making deliveries to Russian ports!” “Oh yeah, well we’ll suspend all importation of raw materials from Russia!” The spiraling escalation loses any reference to measurable geopolitical goals.
Politics as Advertisement
One key feature of media-driven politics is the need to raise the stakes of ordinary activity while distracting from or diluting the reality of extraordinary activity. The term war has been at the center of this battle. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the most aggressive politicians and public health authorities had a palpable need to experience their public health measures as a “war.” In the long absence of intense global conflict, it seemed as though the baby boomers needed something to fight for. Yet eleven years ago during U.S.-led attacks on Libya, by contrast, we were told that it was most certainly not a war, but rather “kinetic military action.”
When such blurring of terms occurs in an important area like advertising—a gym membership is “the war on fat!” but a serious pharmaceutical is just “the little blue pill”—it hardly poses a threat to world order. But in the American Sector internet, political trends develop through this kind of framework: a small act of conservation can be . . . your pivotal battle in the war on climate change! All the while, grave political decisions can be put off indefinitely—easily substituted with emotionally charged rhetoric, exacerbated by the tendency of emotional outbursts to drive the actions of our corporate oligarchs.
In the present context, this underlying feature of our media world has distorted the ability of many in the West to calculate the potential consequences of our political and military actions. While Russia is certainly mocking our “kinetic military action” by referring to its war as a “strategic military action,” we seem only able to use the word “war” when referring to things like “information warfare” and (as Bruno Le Maire called it) “total economic and financial war.” In the world of online one-upmanship, everything is permitted short of “actual war”—a scenario in which we may accidentally put ourselves into a state of “actual war.”
For the moment, the American Sector of the internet appears to have some unity. Driven by anglophone meme warfare accounts, the American Sector has put forward a largely consistent message of imminent Russian defeat and the urgent necessity of greater Western military involvement.
Even within the West, however, not all political actors are as equally detached as the American elite. The return of war to the European continent was palpable not only in the cloud but on the ground. To be sure, both Americans and Europeans have experienced new apprehension about the chance of global conflict and new shock at the rise in commodity prices. But in central and eastern Europe, the war’s effects have been immediate, with more than three thousand refugees arriving here in Budapest every day. So, too, Poland forced a clarification of Western intentions by offering to deliver its jets to U.S. air bases in Germany.
In the American Sector internet, however, Silicon Valley corporations can each decide (following the public pressures that their own platforms have facilitated) to “take action” in removing Russia from the global internet. All the major platforms immediately demonetized state-run Russian media and altered their algorithms to de-prioritize results from official Russian media. These events naturally raise the question of whether those corporations will later choose to impose similar punishments on other nations—in Africa, the Americas, the Middle East or even Europe.
While dreams of “global connectivity” have crashed, it remains to be seen whether the American Sector internet can maintain any sort of unity within itself. Thus far, European powers have been more sensitive to their respective geopolitical situations: each of the central European powers reacted in slightly different ways reflecting their different relations with Russia; Germany immediately began rearming, the Scandinavian powers have reevaluated their military stances and France has remained a point man for discussion with Russia while many there recall their past independence from broader NATO commitments.
For the time being, the absorption of Western powers into the “Western-bloc internet” does not pose an immediate internal problem within the American Sector. But any country that might diverge, even in small ways, from American foreign policy has new reasons to reevaluate the independence and resiliency of its technology stack. Russia began planning for its own “sovereign internet” almost four years ago. European nations in particular will have to give thought to their degree of comfort living in the American Sector cloud.
During the Cold War, Checkpoint Charlie symbolized the entrance to the free and unified West. Our entrance into the “American Sector” of the new, multipolar internet will involve the breaking of many illusions that have afflicted the West for the last thirty years—from the neutrality and optimism of the (now dead) global internet to the expectation that liberal capitalism would foster free and open competition to develop the technologies of the future.
The new American Sector looks unified for the moment. But what are the real stories happening within it? In the coming months, Europe will begin to ask itself whether it is happy having its foreign policy moves become a pawn in the information war to which the American Sector plays host. In America, we will have to ask whether the infowar our platforms have facilitated is not rather preventing us from making clear and responsible decisions.
Stripped of its founding illusions, the future of the American Sector internet may be short indeed.