Civil War Goes Online


Social media, blogging and mobile connectivity have changed the face of how humans interact, and also how we wage war. UC San Diego political scientist Barbara F. Walter says user-generated content is now driving much of the changes in how civil wars are created, sustained and ended—or not.

The School of Global Policy and Strategy professor recently detailed how the internet has likely helped increase the number of civil wars to one of the highest levels in recorded history. And not only has the number of wars increased, but the nature of those wars is dramatically different.

“We are now in a new phase of civil war where religion and ideology appear to play a predominant role, and where new technology appears to influence behavior in novel and unexplored ways,” Walter says. Furthermore, she classifies these influences into six major factors changing the face of civil war in the future:

  1. Internet communication will benefit individuals far more than political leaders. It has become far easier for citizens to organize and protest, and much harder for those in power to stop them. Not only that, but information about corrupt dictators or autocrats is far easier to access, especially through social media channels like Twitter.
  2. Online campaigns will make it easier for rebel groups to form. Where once “rebel entrepreneurs,” as Walter calls them, were only able to gain support locally, they can now solicit an international audience for both soldiers and financing. Walter explains: The average number of civil war rebel groups in 1950 was eight; in 2010, after the “Web 2.0” revolution, that number rose to 14.
  3. Global reach means global goals for rebel groups. The ability to address the world now allows rebels to frame their objectives in global terms—they will likely ignore borders and remain motivated by a larger, international audience. “A worldwide audience actually encourages rebel groups to be more ambitious in their actions,” Walter says. And the ability to attract the widest support group possible also creates opportunities for geographically distant players to be involved.
  4. The internet will allow civil wars to last longer. For the most part, the ability to raise funds from supporters around the globe will ultimately lead to more armed factions fighting these wars. This financial sustainability prolongs conflict, Walter says: “The easier it is for rebel groups to obtain consistent financing, and the easier it is for outsiders to help finance rebel campaigns, the longer civil wars are likely to be.”
  5. Outbreak of one civil war increases the risk of additional wars. Research shows a “contagion effect” with civil wars. When one begins, it is more likely to start another in a neighboring region, especially when promoted online. Walter explains that, with the internet, ideas are spread more widely and much more rapidly—through information sharing, but also through recruitment.
  6. Global communication creates a local disconnect and more human-rights violations. Because the internet gives way to an international audience, it untethers rebel groups from the local population in their home country, Walter says. Research shows that relying on a local population actually leads to fewer human-rights violations—the internet, therefore, may be freeing rebel groups to engage in more on-the-ground abuse of civilians.

But just as the internet can fuel civil strife, it can also be a factor in stopping it. Says Walter, “I think the greatest hope is for major players to decide on their own that they want to end the wars. As soon as they do that and the money stops, then suddenly the incentives change, and you can have serious negotiations.”