Rise of Cyber Nationalism and Narrative Formulation in the Digital Age

Ms Rida Bilal

The digital age has eliminated physical barriers, and digitisation has become an important component of communication. Due to significant technological advancements, governments are now utilising the internet and digital technologies to promote patriotic and nationalist ideals. This method reaches a larger target audience compared to traditional approaches. Cyber refers to the digital realm, including the internet and social media, while nationalism relates to the belief in the importance of one’s nation and the promotion of its interests and values. In the context of cyber nationalism, the internet and social media are used to promote nationalist ideologies and mobilise supporters. The relationship between cyber and nationalism is interdependent and complex.

There are several approaches to cyber nationalism, such as online activism, cyber warfare, cyber sub-nationalism, information warfare, digital borders and censorship, and digital sovereignty. The most pragmatic approach adopted by both Western and non-Western countries is primarily based on the development of a great firewall to restrict the freedom of the press. In this regard, two non-Western countries, China and Russia, and two Western countries, the US and France, are taken as case studies to explain how opposing regimes have utilised the concept of cyber nationalism. It is important to note that both Western and non-Western countries, on the one hand, utilise certain algorithms and technical and scientific means to counter anti-state narratives and, on the other hand, make use of lawfare to control media.

In the case of China, earlier, the opinion leaders tended to be more liberal-minded than nationalistic. Lately, one can see an upward trajectory in cyber nationalism as the government adopted a strict censorship system for controlling information on social media. On the one hand, all major media groups in China are state-owned, and on the other hand, websites such as Wikipedia, YouTube, Twitter and certain Google services are either blocked or restricted as they are considered potentially dangerous by the government. To restrict the flow of narratives, even journalists of major international publications have faced threats during the conduct of their professional duty. That is why “Reporters Without Borders” (RSF) – the watchdog group of journalism ranked China 179 out of 180 countries in the worldwide index of “press freedom” in 2023. The central elements of Chinese censorship are the “Golden Shield Project” and “Deep Packet Inspection Technology”. They act as a great firewall for filtering and blocking access to specific websites based on keywords.

The story regarding freedom of information in Russia is not different from China. According to RSF, it ranks 164 out of 180 in 2023. As per the estimates, there are “106 million social media users,” forming “73.3% of the total population” in 2023. Hence, social media has emerged as a platform for public debate, propaganda and the spread of disinformation. In the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, many Western media outlets have been banned in the country. The authorities have banned the Meta platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, except for WhatsApp messaging service, to restrict the flow of extremist narratives. It has also become difficult for people to upload new material on Twitter and TikTok after passing a law criminalising “false information.” To further restrict foreign social networks, the government has also introduced the “Sovereign Internet Law” to ensure that the “Runet” – Russian internet – can function independently of the global internet.

The US claims to be the flag bearer of a liberal democratic order promoting individual freedom and heavily relies on the internet. However, RSF ranks it 45 out of 180 in 2023, depicting the press freedom on the ground. It is ranked number 1 among 10 countries that face critical cyber breaches. Social media platforms are used by individuals in the US to successfully plan and finance narratives and to mobilise the masses by sharing fake news and promoting hate speech. The US National Cyber Security Policy provides a framework to promote cyber nationalism and counters the rising cyber threats. The government-sponsored cyber operations, protectionist policies, and economic nationalism are cases in point for promoting cyber nationalism. The US conducted cyber operations such as Olympic Games and Stuxnet to attain digital sovereignty. Moreover, cyberspaces like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Google have been regularly scrutinised under Congressional hearings to control propaganda, disinformation and biased political allegations toward political opponents.

Within Western countries, France is one of the largest media markets in Europe, where the concepts of democracy and freedom of the press are critical. However, this freedom has been questioned in France since 2015. In response to the terrorist attacks, France has adopted controversial provisions to restrict the freedom of expression through social and digital media. According to RSF, France is ranked 24th in its ranking of freedom of the press in 2023. The situation is upsetting since it does not resemble the democratic principles which France claims to embody. In 2020, a controversial law was passed by the French Parliament to remove certain content termed as “illegal” from social media within 24 hours; otherwise, it would result in a fine of up to €1.25 million if tech platforms fail to follow the regulations. It has been argued that the law has granted the government unprecedented power to censor online activities.

After evaluating the situation in Western and non-Western countries, it is pertinent to connect the concept of cyber nationalism with the domestic environment. According to RSF, Pakistan ranks 150 out of 180 countries in 2023. In Pakistan, social media platforms have witnessed a sharp surge in their usage. According to the survey of March 2022, Twitter usage saw an increase from about “7.97% in February 2022 to 20.56% in March 2022”. It is estimated that about “36% of the total 220 million population is connected to the internet and about 70 million retain an online presence on social media as of January 2022.” This increase in users has provided space to the political parties as well as individuals to express their politicised agenda of nationalism which has resultantly contributed to the emergence of cyber sub-nationalism in the country. Undoubtedly, the advent of digital and social media has empowered individuals by giving them a voice. However, it has also permitted elements to spread fake news, misinformation, and harmful content due to the absence of strict monitoring, social media laws and ineffective regulations. Fake news on social media through “bot accounts” has targeted state institutions to spread one-sided propaganda. Consequently, it has polarised society into politically aligned ‘echo chambers’, thereby posing a threat to the comprehensive national security of Pakistan.

The wave of cyber nationalism has already engulfed Western and non-Western countries, but for Pakistan, the concept is an evolving phenomenon. So, it is better to adopt effective policy measures that do not instigate xenophobia, isolationism and extremism at the earliest. Pakistan requires a comprehensive approach to deal with societal, technological and political aspects of cyber nationalism. Investment in education and awareness campaigns to empower people to critically evaluate online information is the plausible way forward. Moreover, responsible online behaviour and stronger community guidelines should be promoted through collaborating with social media platforms. Ignoring this aspect means severe repercussions for the public, who are already shrouded with misinformation, disinformation and fake news, which has snatched their ability to think.

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