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Global influence has been steadily diffused among hacker groups, terrorist organizations, and private companies. Power means being able to make others do what they otherwise would not. Following decades of intensive globalization and in response to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, power has been drawn away from nation-states and towards non-state actors. This has changed the power dynamics between states, particularly amid a perceived decline of the US and resurgence of China - and what power has not been diffused among non-state actors is being consolidated. The general democratization of technology has reduced barriers to influencing global affairs; non-state actors (or state-sponsored actors) such as terrorist or hacker groups can use relatively cheap technology to disrupt much larger armed forces and entire nation-states. For example, in 2018 the shadowy “Free Alawites Movement” claimed responsibility for an attack in which 13 low-cost drones targeted Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base in Syria and reportedly destroyed a $300 million missile system. Technology has granted individuals substantial influence through cyberattacks that can cripple companies and critical infrastructure. An attack on the Colonial Pipeline in the US by the group “Darkside” led to widespread petrol shortages, and elicited a $5 million ransom payment. Private companies are also gaining geopolitical importance. The role they play in accelerating the spread of disinformation has put pressure on technology companies to help combat it. Facebook, for example, played a part in the turbulent 2020 US presidential election and its aftermath, including the storming of the Capitol. Companies’ economic might alone can be enough to put them at the centre of geopolitical disputes; only a handful of countries have a GDP larger than Apple’s market value. The Chinese tech giant Huawei is at the forefront of global 5G network rollouts, which has stirred geopolitical tensions with the US and the European Union. States can benefit from exploiting widely-used technologies to bolster their own power and influence; Russian interference in US presidential elections is well documented, and serves as a prime example of how unleashing hacktivists, bots, and online trolls can impact geopolitical realities. Meanwhile US social media companies have played a part in neutralizing misinformation from the Kremlin about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and China has utilized digital technologies to bolster domestic surveillance while also spawning some of the largest tech companies in the world.

Diffusion of Power

KEY TRENDS

International Security