As the fighting continues to rage in Gaza, an equally intense struggle is taking place in the information domain between the supporters on both sides of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The weaponization of information is not in itself new—it is a central component of the military theorist Evgeny Messner’s influential Cold War–era conceptualization of war, known as “subversion-war” (myatezhevoyna), and its post–Cold War progeny in the form of Aleksandr Dugin’s “net-centric war” and Igor Panarin’s theory of information warfare. In the same vein, the recent concept of Russian hybrid warfare (gibridnaya voyna), popularized following its use during the 2014 annexation of Crimea, places significant emphasis on the employment of informational tools to achieve strategic outcomes, and information warfare continues to feature extensively in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War.

The Information Threat

It can be said that information warfare is very much an intrinsic part of interstate conflict today with the information domain being perceived as a new arena of war, often mentioned in the same breath as the digital environment. Indeed, there is a synergistic relationship between the two, with new digital technologies such as social media and artificial intelligence enhancing the efficacy and reach of informational tools. Understandably, there is a growing interest among governments to understand the methods by which actors, whether state or nonstate, pursue their interests in the information domain and to find ways to mitigate the threat posed.

Singapore, for example, set up a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods on January 11, 2018 to examine the problem of fake news and to recommend possible solutions, resulting in the passing of a comprehensive piece of legislation on May 8, 2019—the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act—which allows the authorities to formally intervene in the event that false or misleading statements that threaten the public interest are being circulated, thereby arresting the harmful effects of disinformation. Similar laws have likewise been passed in other parts of the world.

However, the phenomena of the widespread pro-Palestinian protests across the globe following Hamas’s October 7 attack, in not a few cases in opposition to their respective governments’ official stances on the incident and Israel’s response, highlights a new perspective on conflict in the information age. The method-centric study of information warfare assumes a top-down order of action—the actor initiates the action, which then utilizes the information domain to achieve an outcome. The protests suggest, however, that there is also a more organic ground-up effect.

The Ground-Up Effect

A simple mapping of the protests around the world paints a very diverse backdrop to the movement, spanning across multiple continents and regions. Putting aside the assumed sympathies shared by groups in countries with a cultural, ethnic, or religious affinity to the Palestinian people, what is most intriguing is exactly the diversity of those who have chosen to identify with the movement. There have notably been protests across the Western and Latin worlds, and in parts of East Asia, all typically considered to be culturally distinct from the Middle East. And while the Palestinian diaspora has undoubtably been involved, a deeper survey of the participants suggests that the protests cut across traditional social barriers such as culture, religion, ethnicity, gender, and age.

Furthermore, despite their ubiquity, the protests as a global phenomenon appear to be spontaneous, with little or minimal coordination between the groups hailing from different countries, or even within the same one. At the same time, the ideas espoused and the symbols embraced across groups bear at the very least a superficial commonality, from the obvious display of Palestinian flags and keffiyeh scarves to the use of the more ambiguous and controversial “from the river to the sea” slogan. How then do we explain the consistent markers, appropriated from their original and more limited scope, that characterize most protest groups? To answer this, one must look to the idea of the information-state—the digitally pumped nation-state of the information age.

Imagined Communities vs. the State

The political scientist Benedict Anderson, in his influential study of nationalism, famously argued that the nation is an imagined political community. It is imagined because it represents a shared fraternity that exists despite the impossibility of all its members having face-to-face contact with each other or understanding every facet of its constitution.

At the same time, the Israeli academic Yael Tamir rightly points out that national identity is also defined by its exclusivity from other groupings, its members bound together by a distinct and shared sense of destiny—an us and them kind of perspective. In the process of its construction, it may appropriate or construct national narratives and symbols, whether accurately or otherwise, as a means of embellishing the resulting belief system. Ultimately, though, the “truth-content” of these beliefs, as both Anderson and Tamir describe, is less important than the extent to which its members embrace them.

It is also worth pointing out that the nation is not the same as a state, the latter being a sovereign political entity whose government exercises control over a spatially defined area, including all the peoples and resources that reside within it. States in turn form the building blocks of today’s international system, their respective existences formally recognized within the framework of the United Nations. Historically, there has been a close relation between the concepts of nation and state as states have tended to form around national identities as such communities sought a form of political expression on the international stage. Naturally, stability is more likely when the territorial boundaries of a state correspond with a population that subscribes to a largely homogeneous national identity—the ideal nation-state.

This is, however, rare, especially with states that boast a strong tradition of immigration. These inevitably are comprised of a multitude of communities, often with competing national identities. Where these disparate groups can coexist within the governing framework of the state, the collective interest is served and harmony is maintained. Unfortunately, intergroup tension and the resulting desire for greater political autonomy has been the source of many conflicts in the postwar era, most starkly demonstrated in the tumultuous breakup of Yugoslavia.

Digital Nation Building

Historically, information has been an important factor in the formation of nations—Anderson credited the birth of modern nationalism to the advent of the printing press, which helped facilitate the organization of communities around national belief systems in a way that would have previously been impossible. Yet, despite the increased reach afforded by the then new modes of communication, nations were still for the most part limited in their extent by the physical constraints imposed by geography. The print media, while groundbreaking, was still not dynamic enough to allow the information revolution to transcend terrestrial boundaries.

Resultingly, states have generally formed across contiguous land areas, the political avatars of these emerging communities that, with perhaps the exception of the colonial era’s globe-spanning maritime empires, were organized along geographical lines as much as they were along national ones. Even in cases of imperial expansion, most colonial satellites continued to foster national identities distinct from the metropole, leading to the waves of independence movements witnessed during the period of postwar decolonization.

The advent of the information age has, however, transformed the information domain’s terrain. Digital platforms have expanded the possibilities for greater connections between distant people groups, allowing for a more fluid transfer and exchange of ideas. This has inherently revolutionized the framework by which nations can be organized. With distance and geography no longer limiting factors, information-based communities can form across noncontiguous spaces. Like how the sea lines of communication were essential to the growth and survival of the colonial maritime empires, these new emerging nations are linked by a web of digital arteries.

Naturally, as new communities coalesce according to the contours of the emerging information landscape, it creates friction with existing national belief systems—again, as Anderson described, nations are themselves imagined communities—leading to new sources of conflict. Thus, conflict in the information domain should not be seen as being solely actor-driven, although this is still an important factor—it is also the product of spontaneous collective action driven by digitally enabled social forces.

The Information Terrain

Addressing threats in the information domain requires more than simply responding to or preventing the actions undertaken by actors—again, these can be states or nonstates, but their role has traditionally been emphasized in conceptualizations of the information domain. A deep appreciation of how the information landscape has evolved is needed to tackle the roots of conflict. New information-based states, or even empires, must be identified to find the sources of tension, specifically the metropoles and the corresponding digital lines of communications that connect these information nodes to their satellites.

The complexity of this lies though in the unique characteristics of the information domain’s terrain. Like the air domain, it is largely ubiquitous, existing wherever there is digital infrastructure. However, while a permanent presence in the air cannot be established due to the immutable law of gravity, it is possible to leave a persistent footprint in the information domain, specifically when there is an uptake of the communicated ideas by the target audience. At the same time, while there is a physical intersection between the air, sea, and land domains—the traditional spaces in which conflicts occur—the information domain stands on its own. Information-states therefore exist simultaneously with their physical counterparts, sometimes overlapping with, but not always corresponding to the same territorial boundaries.

If then, as Anderson argues, the nation is but an imagined community, the competing identities that coalesce within the information domain represent a very real threat to the notion of the state and all that it stands for. When the information-state’s value proposition becomes influential enough to convince a substantial portion of the state’s population to question their national allegiance, the propensity for instability and conflict increases. This is especially true when the premise of the emerging community is married to a clear political direction, such as was the case with ISIS. It is no surprise then that intense conflict in the information domain often precedes war, such as was witnessed in the buildups to Russia’s hybrid war in the 2014 Ukraine crisis and the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Command of the Information Domain

If one were to consider the information domain as terrain, then in Mahanian and Corbettian fashion, security for the state means contesting and gaining superiority in the relevant information spaces, and proactively commanding them. The metropoles of adversarial information-states must be aggressively sought out and torn down, replaced with informational bastions that prop up the state’s own belief system. A failure to do so inherently cedes control of the domain to potential adversaries, allowing them to shape the information battlespace according to their own ambitions.

However, due to the unique characteristics of the information domain’s terrain, conflicts fought there will revolve around symbols and narratives rather than actual firepower. Imagined communities will be at the forefront of conflict in the information age and in this sense the world is already at war, only a war that is being waged across the information domain’s vast untamed landscape.

Ian Li is an associate research fellow with the Military Studies Programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Ted Eytan