A broad literature discusses the role of digital platforms in crisis situations. Over more than ten years we have seen a wide range of cases where social media supported different forms of crisis-related mobilization and increasing scope for participation in response to various types of threats. The notion of generativity (Zittrain, 2006) highlights how crisis situations offer an opportunity for the acceleration of innovation beyond the visible range of functions of specific digital tools. That said, we also see that some factors may potentially restrict generativity and innovation in a crisis, and specifically the role of digital platforms in crisis-related mobilization.
Two recently published open-access articles of mine seek to explore both sides of this coin. An article on The Transformation of Participatory Warfare: The Role of Narratives in Connective Mobilization in the Russia–Ukraine War in the Digital War Journal explores the factors that shape the forms and the scope of digitally mediated mobilization in response to an exogenous threat. It analyses how crisis-related innovation supports social resilience in the face of a crisis. An article on Internet Regulation and Crisis-Related Resilience: From Covid-19 to Existential Risks in the Communication Review explores the factors that may restrict large-scale mobilization in the face of crisis and limit social resilience in terms of the capacity to address crisis situations and existential risk.
2. The transformation of participatory warfare: The role of narratives in connective mobilization in the Russia–Ukraine war
This article explores the role of digital innovation in conflict-related participation in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war, relying on extensive fieldwork conducted in Ukraine. It is an outcome of a research project started in 2017 thanks to the support of the Leverhulme Trust. The article highlights the link between new forms of digitally mediated activity concerning exogenous threats and a set of war-related narratives. The final version of the text was revised to highlight the value of the findings in the context of the Russian invasion that started in February 2022. This revision contributes to our understanding of the roots of the strategic resilience of Ukrainian society in the face of recent Russian aggression.
The article presents a framework that allows us to follow the role of digital platforms in participation in war and to identify the factors that address changes in the scope and forms of participatory warfare. The analysis proposes a model that explains the changing role of digital platforms in the mediation of the user–conflict relationship over time. It suggests that the role of digital technologies in participation in warfare is broad in the case of three existing narrative conditions that seem to be interrelated:
- A threat is constructed as significant, with the risk of non-participation in conflict higher than the risk of participation.
- Institutional actors, specifically the military and the government, are portrayed as having limited or no capacity to address the threat.
- Digital and connective forms of mobilization are considered to be more available and effective than institutional collective forms of mobilization.
This combination of narratives creates the conditions for the proliferation of a broad diversity of forms of participation relying on connective action, while digital tools play a central role in the mediation of relations between users and threats. A narrative construct that relies on these three elements also creates favourable conditions for digital innovation to develop new forms of conflict-related mobilization, and can be considered as a context for the manifestation of the generative potential of digital platforms (Zittrain 2006). This analysis also highlights the fragile balance that obtains between narratives that support mobilization and those that can create a favourable environment for demobilization.
The article argues that the narrative context may be associated with a shift from connective to collective forms of mobilization. It also creates less favourable conditions for the independent participation of users in war. Therefore, it may support the transition of conflict-related connective crowdsourcing either to outsourcing, relying on NGOs, or to insourcing, where external resources have been incorporated into state organizations. The Russian invasion of 2022 also demonstrates how narratives of limited statehood do not necessarily mean that the public negatively assesses state institutions, but simply that they recognize that the state does not have sufficient resources due to the scale of the exogenous threat. Therefore, the full mobilization of a society’s resources is required in order to address the challenge.
3. Internet regulation and crisis-related resilience: From Covid-19 to existential risks
The first article, as described above, explores the conditions for the proliferation of a broad diversity of forms of participation relying on connective action, where digital tools play a central role in the mediation of relations between users and threats. The second article explores the conditions that restrict these forms of participation. Based on an analysis of digital innovation in the context of Covid-19, the latter article explores how Internet regulation limits our capacity to address crisis situations. It analyses the ways in which Internet regulation, including sovereignization, may restrict three critical aspects of addressing existential risk: how the risk is constructed as an object of activity, the scope of resources for addressing the risk, and how these resources can be mobilized.
The article offers a theoretical framework that allows us to consider the impact of Internet regulation on resilience in the face of a crisis. This framework allows a focus on an analysis of the impact of regulation on three elements that constitute a mediational triangle of crisis as an object, the users of digital platforms as subjects, and the role of digital tools as mediators of subject-object (user-crisis) relationships. Resilience cannot be sustained if any elements of the triangle are constrained by regulative policies. A generative system creates not only new meanings, but also mediates new forms of relationship between the subject and the surrounding environment. In other words, generative systems formulate new goals on the level of meaning, and offer new mechanisms for accomplishing these on the level of activity. Accordingly, Internet regulation can be considered as a set of policies that may limit the generative capacity of digital platforms and diminish resilience in the face of future crises.
The role of generativity in the context of a digitally-mediated relationship between users and crisis is addressed through empirical analysis of Internet regulation in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This analysis of the role of digital platforms in Covid-19 response in Russia considers the regulation of objects, of subjects, and of digital mediating tools. It allows us to identify the regulative efforts applied to each element of the triangle, and accordingly to the entire system of crisis-related activity. On the one hand, we see various efforts by the regulator to keep the construction of the crisis under control:
- The regulation of an object can be associated with different forms of mobilization to address this object, and, accordingly, may limit the role of digital platforms in crisis-related mobilization. Moreover, we see the efforts of the state to replace the object by shifting attention from the crisis to other actors.
- The regulation of the subject has relied on a variety of policies, starting with new legal restrictions, tracking apps and state-sponsored media narratives that aim to shift the balance of trust from mistrust of authorities to mistrust of the public, and online initiatives that support digital vigilantism.
- Finally, we see the tension between, on the one hand, independent, decentralized digital tools that offer a flexible structure for user-crisis relationships and enable a high degree of generativity, and, on the other hand, state-sponsored platforms that limit the scope of participation and follow the logic of vertical crowdsourcing.
Overall, this empirical discussion demonstrates how integration of different forms of regulation restricts the generativity capacity of digital platforms to produce new forms of relationship to a crisis, including new forms of resource mobilization. It also weakens horizontal and hyperlocal networks that can potentially create alternative, decentralized systems of crisis-related mobilization beyond state control. The main victim of these regulative efforts is the resilience of society in the face of future crises, its capacity to offer rapid innovation, and new forms of user-crisis relationships depending on the nature of the threat and relying on existing and new digital tools.
The change in the role of digital platforms in crisis response in Russia offers an empirical illustration of the potential impact of Internet regulation on future crisis response. A range of regulatory measures, including traditional censorship, regulation of disinformation as defined by the state, indirect support for digital vigilantism, facilitation of disconnection within horizontal structures, and participatory forms of regulation through an orchestration of mobilization, can be seen as an effort to control subject-object relationships in the context of a crisis. Such control relies on a combination of using digital platforms to define the risk, attributing responsibility (either to external forces or to the public), and offering a structure of activity systems that are fully integrated into the state crisis response framework. These regulative policies limit not only crisis response, but also post-crisis transformation, which then fails to offer a resulting new level of resilience.
Consideration of the factors that have an impact on the scope and the forms of participation in addressing a crisis situation may contribute to an understanding of the development of social resilience in the context of an increasing number of threats. At the same time, it is essential to explore the factors that may limit the impact of digital innovation on crisis-related resilience. The impact of regulation on the role of crisis-related innovation is important not only in authoritarian political environments. The limitation of political freedoms in specific countries and the degree of global catastrophic risk are potentially interrelated, since concealing risks and limiting response locally may often lead to a rapid global spread of the crisis.
At the same time, we may also see that the efforts of authoritarian states to rely on regulation as a key element of their crisis management policies may lead to opposite outcomes. Taken together, the two articles presented above suggest that Internet regulation in Russia is not only an authoritarian policy that has supported the capacity of the Russian government to keep the Covid-19 crisis under control, but also one of the major factors that contributed to the failure of Russian strategic plans in the Russia-Ukraine war. The Russian offensive relied mainly on a vertical institutional mode of resource mobilization in an environment with weak horizontal structures and restricted generativity, while the Ukrainian socio-political system had a high degree of generativity. The Ukrainian system enabled an accelerated process of digital innovation that supported the development of new forms of conflict-related activities and a new scope for participation which played an important role in standing against Russian aggression, particularly during the first phase of the war in February-March 2022.
- Asmolov, G. (2022) Internet regulation and crisis-related resilience: From Covid-19 to existential risks. The Communication Review. https://doi.org/10.1080/10714421.2022.2129124
- Asmolov, G. (2022) The transformation of participatory warfare: The role of narratives in connective mobilization in the Russia–Ukraine war. Digital War. https://doi.org/10.1057/s42984-022-00054-5