Are social media users now legitimate targets?

Artist: Aaron Wood

There are lots of interesting dimensions in Israel and Hamas’ recent social media war. But one of the more pertinent ethical questions arising from this case is whether engaging with or contributing to a militarised social media space constitutes an act of war. If that’s the case, this might mean that those using social media in support of military operations are now legitimate targets.

According to the Geneva Convention, legitimate military targets

 … are limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.

Whether social media is making an effective contribution or not remains to be seen. However, by creating and perpetuating a narrative that influences public opinion, social media is contributing to a defined military operation and has become integral to the information and communication space. As a legitimate part of the conflict, social media (and its users) becomes a valid military objective.

Under the same Geneva Convention Protocol, civilians are protected from military attack ‘unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities’. So if social media operators or users engage in the conflict by uploading, downloading, sharing, or otherwise adding to content in any way, they then become actors contributing to hostilities. In doing so, civilian social media users lose their protected status and can become legitimate targets.

But a legitimate target isn’t necessarily a combatant. In the same way that military industry workers in Sudan or military-aged males in Yemen can be framed as legitimate targets, social media users might be targeted for their use of online platforms in a militarised space.

We’re now entering the murky waters of the civilian/combatant divide. And the complex way in which war is waged today means we find militants hiding in plain sight disguised as innocent civilians. The use of technology in warfare is further shifting the civilian/combatant divide online. My colleague Clint Arizmendi and I have recently discussed the issue of unsanctioned non-state cyber actors (UNCAs) and the role they might play in future conflict. Social media users should consider the same. If a country can declare war over Twitter, who’s to say that Twitter users can’t fight in the information space of that war? Moreover, who’s to say they shouldn’t reasonably expect to become legitimate targets themselves?

Chloe Diggins is a research & analysis officer at the Australian Army’s Land Warfare Studies Centre. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect those of the Australian Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Image courtesy of artist Aaron Wood, Justonescarf Design.

Whether social media is making an effective contribution or not remains to be seen. However, by creating and perpetuating a narrative that influences public opinion, social media is contributing to a defined military operation and has become integral to the information and communication space. As a legitimate part of the conflict, social media (and its users) becomes a valid military objective.

Under the same Geneva Convention Protocol, civilians are protected from military attack ‘unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities’. So if social media operators or users engage in the conflict by uploading, downloading, sharing, or otherwise adding to content in any way, they then become actors contributing to hostilities. In doing so, civilian social media users lose their protected status and can become legitimate targets.

But a legitimate target isn’t necessarily a combatant. In the same way that military industry workers in Sudan or military-aged males in Yemen can be framed as legitimate targets, social media users might be targeted for their use of online platforms in a militarised space.

We’re now entering the murky waters of the civilian/combatant divide. And the complex way in which war is waged today means we find militants hiding in plain sight disguised as innocent civilians. The use of technology in warfare is further shifting the civilian/combatant divide online. My colleague Clint Arizmendi and I have recently discussed the issue of unsanctioned non-state cyber actors (UNCAs) and the role they might play in future conflict. Social media users should consider the same. If a country can declare war over Twitter, who’s to say that Twitter users can’t fight in the information space of that war? Moreover, who’s to say they shouldn’t reasonably expect to become legitimate targets themselves?

Chloe Diggins is a research & analysis officer at the Australian Army’s Land Warfare Studies Centre. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect those of the Australian Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Image courtesy of artist Aaron Wood, Justonescarf Design.

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