The armies of the shadow or digital warfare 3.0

Published on 02/05/2023

For several years now, martial metaphors have been infecting political and economic language - weren't we "at war with Covid-19"? - before the war in Ukraine brutally ripped us away from the realm of metaphor.

An opinion piece translated from Cyberleaders, a magazine launched as part of the FIC

The advantage, however, of war-related metaphors is that they allow us to take charge of a story: a history of power that radiographs the dynamics and power relations at work in our society. This history now has a particularly strong force and relevance within cyberspace, which has been assaulted and shaped by a succession of digital armies since its inception.

It is believed that Web3 constitutes the new phase, the new battalion, of this digital war, which is salutary in several respects, to take back power from the digital titans. To understand what is at stake and thus stimulate the anticipatory capacity of leaders and entrepreneurs, it is necessary to take a quick dive into the secrets of this history of power, which is also a history of activism and crowd catechism, reviewing the three great acts of this digital war.

Web1 or the connection of documents

With Web1 and the appearance of websites and hyperlinks, what is built is the power to mediate ideas. For activists, this immediately transforms into the power to influence public opinion by creating their own media.

It is the era, in action, of encyclopedism à la Flaubert, of a collaborative impulse invested by all those who have a cause to defend, thus disintermediating traditional media authorities. The digital war is then an informational war.

Web2 or the connection of people

The arrival of social networks inaugurates Web2, which builds on the dynamic established by Web1. How? By marking the transition from information connection to people connection; from the power of influence to the power of denunciation; from pure activism to emotional mobilization of digital crowds.

We have mentioned Flaubert for Web1; Web2 corresponds to the Shakespearean era of activism: the goal is to "make noise and fury". This is evidenced by the multiplication of specific hashtags to crystallize the protest around a 2.0 slogan. Metrics (number of shares, number of petition signatures, etc.) become information in themselves: the media now only need to relay the buzz of the day. The dynamic is even more structural: the goal is to amplify the volumes of mobilization through at least two modalities.

The first is the radicalization of the discourse, which can take on the overt contours of nuisance and malice: this is the role of the troll, who has become a hater.

Digital crowds become real armies, thirsty for the blood of tormented reputations. The former resistant and political activist Stéphane Hessel published an essay in 2010 entitled Indignez-vous!: Web2 had already perfectly understood it, in its own way... The equation is simple: more emotion always means more indignation, hence more sharing.

The second modality of amplification is astroturfing, or the simulation of mobilization, using fake profiles fueled by artificial intelligence devoted to counterfeiting conversations, buying clicks and likes in the "troll farm," or relaying rumors and various scandals.

What about action?

Influencing, mobilizing digital armies, and being outraged are one thing; taking action is another. This is the challenge that Web1 and Web2 had not yet solved: it remained to concretely structure the crowd, to centralize information while that same crowd is by nature decentralized, and thus to embody what Clay Shirky calls The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.

What are the tools available for this next step, a supplemental and undoubtedly essential layer from the perspective of activists, of the power associated with action?

First, an interesting phenomenon can be observed: a form of traditional craftsmanship in the organization of activism, with a return to "cold" content. This is the case of the "Resources" section of the Extinction Rebellion website, which offers swarming kits, i.e. action organization kits, based on plans to meet, pre-filled agendas, lists of roles according to the size of the mobilization, or checklists of everything that needs to be prepared before, during, and after the action.

The "non-violent civil disobedience" movement was inspired by the peaceful protests in Hong Kong in 2019, a true model of phygital inventiveness for organizing crowds. Another type of cold content is popular among activists: Google Docs. The Black Lives Matter movement has fully embraced it, turning it into a preferred tool, along with social networks, for activism within the African American community. Always public, easily accessible, and collaborative, without any control or moderation, these Google Docs are a goldmine of information for activists.

In June 2020, a month after the death of George Floyd, several dozen Docs were created, where anyone could find multiple resources: lists of books on racism, lists of solidarity funds, pre-written letters to send to their representative to defend the cause... Here we can see the underground synergies at work between Web1 and Web2 mechanisms.

Another tool necessary for taking action is fundraising. Their purposes are multiple: compensating victims; paying for their health or legal expenses; creating mobilization campaigns; funding on-the-ground mobilization. We remember in 2020 the 300,000 euros raised on French platforms Tipeee and Ulule to allow the film Hold-up to exist, and by the way, to pile up its conspiracy theories about the measures taken in response to the pandemic (lockdowns, vaccines...). Or the highly controversial Leetchi fund created in support of Christophe Dettinger, suspected of assaulting two gendarmes.

A new strong trend is accelerating within the communities of cyber fighters: the use of money, a weapon in its own right in the service of activism, which sheds light on the nature of the ongoing digital war: a war that is both informational, certainly, but also more than ever economic. In France, activist funds are developing, following the strategy of American or British funds. An aggressive and public strategy that undoubtedly constitutes an economic threat to large companies, by managing to bring down CEOs, stop mergers or quickly crash a company's stock. One example? In 2019: the French fund CIAM publicly contests the conditions of the merger offer sent to Renault by the Fiat Chrysler group. A new modality of the digital war, therefore, but the logic remains the same: to disintermediate experts, whether they are media, scientific, or financial.

And the momentum can come from the crowds themselves, as evidenced by the striking case of Gamestop's activist gamers. In 2020, thanks to their mobilization on the Reddit forum, they became neo-shareholders to save the American group's stock from institutional investors engaged in a bearish strategy. An example among others of the current paradigm shift in the history of power within cyberspace: the return of this power to the people's hands. This is where Web3 comes in.

Web3 or the connection of values

Web3 is a tool for Web3 is a tool for decentralized financialization of activism. It brings new, fundamental uses to understand the digital war at work, notably the power of reward. Here, it is the bankers and all those who decide what has value or not, such as auctioneers or chartered accountants, who are disintermediated and evacuated.

This new paradigm has its ideological translation, as claimed by many Web3 advocates: Fix the money, fix the world. Here, the community only makes sense and exists through fundraising. The latter precedes the cause to defend, not the other way around. A fundraising of several hundred thousand euros, made possible by the purchase of tokens, NFTs, and other crypto-assets, without intermediaries, through a blockchain.

This is the case with the Shiba Army, which presents itself as "an experiment in spontaneous and decentralized community" and manages a full-fledged cryptocurrency project. This was also the case with the Constitution DAO, a group of crypto-investors who almost succeeded in the first attempt at a group crypto-purchase: that of a copy of the US Constitution auctioned by Sotheby's.

These new types of digital monetary armies, promoters of a more horizontal society, back this financial power with a well-established governance. This allows for long-term mobilization and a connection to the mobilized crowd, thanks to a reward system - tokenization - and the power that the digital asset itself possesses, that of certifying presence at an event and becoming a true exchange channel.

All these developments lead us to assert that we are at a turning point in the digital war and the associated power struggle, with all the security implications that this entails for our society. In a world searching for meaning, companies and all those who represent the common good would certainly benefit from joining the third act of this war by adopting Web3, as close as possible to the new digital generation, always eager to go further.

Far from the confinement in the metaverse and pure virtuality imposed by the GAFAM, this conversion to Web3 would enable us to win the battle of influence and neutralize the digital armies that have been arming themselves for over twenty years. It would activate, sustainably, through the digitalization of value and the economy of incentive, the social, financial, and human capital inherent in communities of all sizes, to provide solutions to the major challenges facing humanity.

Winning the digital war will undoubtedly involve betting on the regained sovereignty of the citizen-consumer.

JIN Paris
General Manager Group
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