By Invitation

The Y Generation and virtual conflict

It makes sense to consult the young on how best to wage the communications war against radical groups such as ISIS

"Become a King: Defeat your enemies; conquer kingdoms and rule an empire." Such a slogan would be familiar to anyone who plays video games - which I admittedly do - and would have an appeal among many people, particularly those of the so-called Y Generation.

That war games abound on the Internet, and that they appeal to our latent subdued ambitions seem clear enough: After all, there are video games that have become multi-million-dollar earners and are played by millions of people across the globe on a daily basis.

But what is interesting about the times we live in today is how the thin line between objective, material reality and the virtual world of the Internet has become so blurred, and how virtual reality often spills over into the real world. Already there are video games that replicate actual combat situations in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but even more interesting is how the modalities of real-life combat have come to assume forms that are similar to the virtual wars fought by geeks the world over.



This transition from virtual to real conflict has perhaps been best captured by the propaganda outfit of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that has spread across Iraq and other parts of the Arab world. While on the ground level the movement is a militant insurgent movement like any other, it stands out in bold relief in terms of its adroit use of the media and the Internet. On the virtual battle front, ISIS has managed to do what few other movements have been able to accomplish: To spread its message using the latest developments in the global communicative architecture that globalisation has created, and to do so effectively. It has already been noted that ISIS' use of applications like Twitter is more extensive and effective than many other movements of the same ilk, and that it has been able to package its message to a wide audience across borders.

Since many radical movements - religious or secular - target the young and marginalised in their recruitment campaigns and propaganda drives, is it not time to ask the Y Generation its opinion on how to win this virtual war that is being waged across cyberspace? It seems extraordinary that the groups most likely to be targeted by the propaganda of the radicals - the young - have rarely been consulted in the counter-radicalisation process.

A few related observations follow from this: Firstly, it is evident that in today's world, warfare has also become a media phenomenon and that the virtual world has become an extension of the terrestrial battlefield. It is no longer possible to ignore the power of the media, and of modern communication applications like Facebook and Twitter, and how they can provide a strategic edge to radical oppositional movements engaged in asymmetrical conflict.

Secondly, it has been observed that ISIS has benefited from its tech-savvy members and supporters who have not only been able to harness the power of the Internet but also able to transmit its message via means and a lingo familiar to a particular section of society, namely the younger generation of the Internet age.

Thirdly, the fact that movements like ISIS are able to attract the support of estranged and alienated members of European society - who for whatever reason may have decided to opt out of mainstream Western society in a very radical way - means that it is able to send its message to different communities of the world that touch the raw nerves of local communities there.

This was particularly evident in the manner that its propaganda directed at English-speaking Westerners bore traces of an Anglophone sensibility (including humour and sarcasm) that would resonate better with its intended audience back in the West.


Faced with these developments, states have been relatively slow to realise the extent to which technology now informs and determines conflict. This is partly due to the fact that in terms of violence and destruction, what really matters is the battle on the ground; and that the immediate threat that such movements pose lie in their real world offensive capabilities. But there may have been a few other misreadings of the situation that have not helped things either.

For starters, it has been noted by analysts and observers that notwithstanding the use of religious vocabulary and symbolism by groups like ISIS, it is fundamentally a movement that seeks territorial control and to transcend the logic of the post-colonial nation state in the Arab world. ISIS' goal may be virtual but its target is real enough: The modern nation state which it regards as a throwback to the colonial era and an idea that was forced on Arab societies as a result of colonialism. ISIS' struggle is therefore a political one, and in its dream to "conquer territories and build an empire" it has the same appeal that video games have - which is to lend a sense of agency and purpose to the lives of its followers who have become disillusioned with the modern nation state altogether.

If this be the case, then some of the remedies that have been offered may be the result of a misdiagnosis of the problem. We know - from anecdotal evidence and reliable reports - that many of those who have joined the ISIS movement may not even be truly pious in the first place. And yet many governments have sought to contain the threat of this movement by addressing the question in terms of religious rather than political radicalism.

By making religion the primary concern in the fight against extremism, we overlook the political variables that have contributed to people opting out of mainstream society by attaching themselves to violent causes. Many governments have tried to blunt the appeal of ISIS by asking religious elders of the various faith communities to speak out against extremism, and to emphasise the message of peace and love at the heart of all religious traditions.

Yet it could be argued that this phenomenon has less to do with theology and philosophy, and more to do with the waning appeal of modernity and the nation state in regions where the developmental model has failed. Expecting the leaders of religious communities to lecture and counsel the young against militancy and violence misses the point that today's younger generation is more technologically-savvy than they are, can mobilise faster, and understands the full potential of the Internet and social media - technologies which they have been familiar with since birth. (As compared to old fogeys like me who had to learn how to use the Internet and who grew up in a world of black-and-white television).


Granted that radical movements like ISIS are multifaceted and complex, we still need to address the particular aspect of their media capabilities and how they have managed to disseminate their message across the world. The emphasis here is on communication, and how to communicate well with and to a whole generation of globally connected youth who are the children of the Facebook and Twitter era, and who may be more inclined to Game Of Thrones rather than Shakespeare's Henry V.

That can only happen, however, when we begin to consult the Y Generation and understand how a young person today may have a view of the world that is different from that of the older generation. Pious sermons and good intentions may be laudable enough, but no counter-terrorism campaign has ever been won by the use of pamphlets and homilies. ( I habitually throw any pamphlet I am given into the first dustbin I walk past.)

Since many radical movements - religious or secular - target the young and marginalised in their recruitment campaigns and propaganda drives, is it not time to ask the Y Generation its opinion on how to win this virtual war that is being waged across cyberspace? It seems extraordinary that the groups most likely to be targeted by the propaganda of the radicals - the young - have rarely been consulted in the counter-radicalisation process. And it could be argued that it is this sense of neglect that has contributed to the Y Generation's sense of alienation, and which in turn has made it susceptible to the appeal of radical groups who purport to take the young seriously.

If we can accept the premise that one of the key factors that has contributed to the growth of radicalism today is the sense of alienation and worthlessness that many younger people feel, then surely the remedy to that would not be more sage advice from their elders, but rather involving them in the process of dealing with the problem. This means tapping into that vast pool of human resources, where billions of youngsters today understand the workings of the Internet and live lives that already straddle the nebulous boundary between reality and virtual reality. They, above all, would be best able to understand the appeal of virtual media, and may well be able to teach us how to fight a virtual war better than their teachers can. For after all, if the radicals' virtual campaign has been waged by an army of nerds, we may as well admit that it takes a nerd to fight a nerd - rather than us old fogeys who could not even imagine a thing as mundane as a wireless cellphone when we were young.

  • The writer is associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2015, with the headline 'The Y Generation and virtual conflict'. Print Edition | Subscribe