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In this age of populism, it’s not ‘Cyber’ that’s being Balkanised – it’s people

The Balkans, already facing charges of bringing the world the First World War and the term ‘ethnic cleansing’, are now being blamed with a new offence: ‘Cyber-Balkanisation’.

lead This image, featuring Yugolavian President Slobodan Milosevic, internal security chief Radomir Markovic, and military leaders Colonel General Dragolub Ojdanic, Lieutenant Colonel General Pavkovic, was shown at a Ministry of Defence press briefing in London, March 29, 1999. PA/Press Associaition. All rights reserved.The term itself is dubious. But it’s currently used by learned cyber-experts all over the world, who are usually getting at something fairly simple: the internet, supposed to be a unitary global platform bringing people together, is being split along very non-cyber and real national borders.

The evidence is real enough: economic opportunism and aggressive spy agencies around the world are demanding that big tech store the internet’s preferred currency – data – in their national jurisdictions, and modify it to suit their domestic regulations. It’s the internet, but with national characteristics: China and Russia have both recently passed strong data localisation laws.

However, the real Cyber-Balkanisation isn’t happening to ‘Cyber’ – ‘Cyber’ isn’t an actual thing – it’s happening to people, through the internet.

People-Balkanisation-Facilitated-Through-The-Internet might not be as snappy, but it’s very real. And it is much more dangerous. The much snappier terms used to explain our current world are a part of it: fake news, populism, ethno-nationalism, and echo chambers.

What happened to the Balkans in the 90s is now playing out internationally. An underlying driver in Yugoslavia, the effect of a transition away from socialism on people’s lives, is comparable to the effect being inflicted by the new digital economy.

Yugoslavia comes apart by the seams

The economy in Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1980s – people who once had money and economic certainty found themselves living through a series of crises and complete instability, facing severe levels of unemployment, foreign debt, and inflation. The feeling of uncertainty and regression is familiar to people in Britain’s industrial cities or the US rust belt, people who are the principal losers of not only the 2008 global collapse but of the new internet-greased economy.

In Yugoslavia, politicians were quick to spot the potential: a series of macho dictators emerged promising salvation through a return to historical national greatness. One of them, a fraudster with ridiculous hair, Radovan Karadzic, and his accomplice Milosevic promised a Greater Serbia. They wanted to make Serbia great again, but mostly they wanted power.

And they knew how to get it. They would turn Yugoslavia’s national motto, Brotherhood and Unity, into one of the most bitter ironies of the modern age. The division they stoked was mutually-enforcing: to their counterparts, Croatians became fascist Ustaše, Muslims mujahideen, and Serbs genocidal Chetniks. Once leaders established the threat, they ruthlessly propagated it through the state controlled media. Milosevic weaponised Serbian TV, beaming nightly reports of Serbs under ethnic attack into people’s living rooms.

Croatia’s leadership followed the script. It was fake news beamed directly into people’s echo chamber.

The obvious solution these dictators proposed was ethno-nationalism: the idea that the state should be extended to ensure that all of your fellow ethnics lived in the same country, for their protection and everyone’s glory.

Religion, military greatness, and historical injustices mixed to engineer a national mythology based on the threat of the other. And in order to counter that threat, you had to support the strongman who is willing to stand up for it. The path that leads people to rape, pillage, and organised murder was set.

Fear of the Other

It is a tried and tested source of power and today, the internet is the principal means of delivering it. People’s own echo chambers and the data on which the internet runs and amasses is used to deliver these mythologies with the most accurate targeting system ever invented.

One group is told that hordes of scrounging, raping, terrorising foreigners are to blame for all the faults in their life. Another is told that crusaders armed with drones are responsible for the slaughter of their fellow believers.

Other groups are targeted with the same myths within their national contexts: in Kenya last year, a Texan-based rival to Cambridge Analytica using data to target ads, said that once elected, presidential candidate Raila Odinga would remove ‘whole tribes’; in Hungary, voters are told George Soros and immigrants are a threat to their ethnic purity and prosperity and that lists of Jews should be made; in the US, it’s Mexicans and a so-called Muslim database; across the world, articles, memes and videos are targeted at and shared with people as political weapons. We share the same world but not the same internet.

The proposed solution is again ethno-nationalist and religious. End all immigration, build walls, send them home, join the caliphate, vote for the candidate that will defend your tribe. Their message is mutually-enforcing, giving everyone a sense of belonging, and the likes of Trump, Tommy Robinson, and ISIS exactly what they want – power. The people weaponising data nowadays are different from those in the Balkans, but they’re very familiar.

No borders?

The internet was indeed designed to transcend old national borders. This means that you no longer need to rely on a state TV station to deliver fake news, it can be targeted directly to those you want it to reach. While in Yugoslavia entire villages and countries may have been living in these echo chambers, it’s now possible for people simply living in the same house. This is People-Balkanisation-Facilitated-Through-The-Internet.

So what can be done? Well, in the 90s, NATO ended up bombing Serbian TV, but the internet was designed specifically to withstand a nuclear attack. And it doesn’t make sense to censor the internet, you don’t blame ‘television’ just because you disagree with what someone says on it.

Calls for state regulation are always dangerous: imagine the new breed of dictator with control over the greatest tool for information ever invented by humankind. Calls for a government-free utopia only leave people at the mercy of corporate power. That power and its influence is as always the principal problem – and on the internet those who have the data have the power.

Privacy, anti-trust and data protection laws

To check that power, it means having checks on access to and use of data. This means, for example, making sure that state organs don’t have access to mass surveillance, that data is not concentrated in the private sector into a few platforms, and that there exists legislation protecting how it is used.

It means ensuring that spy agencies don’t have persistent access to everyone’s communications, that firms like Cambridge Analytica aren’t allowed to weaponise data in elections, and that people have control over how their data is brokered by firms they’ve never even heard of.

While privacy, anti-trust, and data protection laws might not sound like a revolutionary plan for peace in our time, they’re currently the best defence we’ve got.

About the author

Edin Omanovic is Head of the State Surveillance Programme at Privacy International. He was previously a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and holds an MA (Hons) in Politics from the University of Glasgow. 

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