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The Politics of Cyberconflict

Author: Athina Karatzogianni
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2006
Review Published: February 2008

 REVIEW 1: Andrew Robinson
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Athina Karatzogianni

In The Politics of Cyberconflict, Athina Karatzogianni's central thesis is that the possibilities offered by internet technologies are used differently by different kinds of social movements, depending on how easily they take to the network form. Socio-political movements such as peace, pro-democracy, anti-capitalist, ecological, and single-issue groups take enthusiastically to the new media, constructing networks of activism which themselves operate rhizomatically. In contrast, ethno-religious movements such as American and Chinese nationalists, political Islamists, and Israeli and Palestinian hackers are trapped within a differential model of identity which precludes the adoption of network forms, and instead end up deploying new technologies in ways compatible with their identity-structure, imitating models of hierarchical political organisation and warfare. They also make use of the new technologies, but are constrained by their ideological structures, and therefore use them in a more instrumental way. As Karatzogianni notes, "The structure of the internet is ideal for network groups ... However, in ethnoreligious cyberconflicts ... this network form is not always evident. This is why there is a dual modality of cyberconflict: one rhizomatic and one hierarchical" (88). The empirical sections of the book use the distinction to categorise a range of different instances of online activity, effectively demonstrating in practice the importance of the distinction.

There are fundamental differences in the way the two groups use the internet. Sociopolitical movements use it as a way of constructing frames, establishing extensive and open-ended networks, mobilising support, and building solidarity. As Karatzogianni notes, "The network forms of these groups, like the structure of the internet itself, can be explained as rhizomatic, netwar or spin" (151). In contrast, ethnoreligious movements use it as a way to construct exclusionary identities through violently othering rival groups. In ethnoreligious conflicts, "the language used by hackers ... relies on an 'us' and 'them' mentality" (171). Media theory provides a broader additional frame in understanding the stakes in internet activism as often being about the social construction of reality through the contestation or fixing of meanings and through differential flows of information. In particular, the internet provides possibilities for social movements to initiate newsworthy events, to bypass censorship, and to challenge the framing of events by the corporate media.

The book is divided into six chapters. Roughly a third is given over to theoretical discussions, which take the form of a syncretic innovation linking together three otherwise disparate approaches -- social movement theory, conflict theory, and media theory -- to form an original framework for examining cyberconflict. This is no simple juxtaposition, however; the author astutely demonstrates the need for all three approaches and the inadequacy of any of them taken apart. The intersection of approaches is exactly what is needed in a new and growing area, making use of existing bodies of research without imposing assumptions derived from different contexts onto the new area. In combining the theories effectively, the author moves beyond most of the existing literature, which frequently reproduces particular pre-existing frameworks. Instead, Karatzogianni constructs a framework adequate to the novelty and complexity of a new area of research, setting a theoretical model that one might even say marks the beginning of cyber-analysis as a distinct discipline. The theory provided here will no doubt become the building-block for future research and theorising.

The remainder of the book consists of a dense series of tightly presented and argued empirical studies, focusing on the three groupings of internet security, sociopolitical cyberconflict, and ethnoreligious cyberconflict. Containing both primary empirical research from the mass and computer-specialist media, and secondary discussion of existing empirical studies across a wide range of related areas (from security studies literature to works on hacker identity and specific social movements), these sections span across a bewildering array of examples and sources demonstrating the wide variety of cyberconflicts and internetted social movements. The theory developed in the earlier chapters provides a framework which gives meaning and purpose to the later discussions, and while the entire work deals with questions of general relevance to studies of cyberconflict, the author is also unafraid to look in detail at social movements and the specific issues arising in particular cases. The broad-sweep approach thus avoids reductiveness and generates an account which is nuanced and extremely rich.

The empirical chapters survey a wide range of internet incidents and social movements which use the internet. Sociopolitical movements discussed here include Indymedia, hacktivism, anti-Republican Party hacking, Chinese dissidentsí use of the internet, and the broader issue of internet censorship; ethnoreligious conflicts include Israeli-Palestinian, Kashmir, Colombia, China-US activities, and a sizeable section on al-Qaeda's use of the internet. Participation in internet activities, the global scope and limits of the internet, and issues of e-democracy are also discussed, as is the use of the internet in conflict resolution in the case of Israel-Palestine. As this list makes clear, no stone is left unturned in finding examples to examine; from the best-known international incidents to information discerned from obscure internet sites, very little is left out of an extremely comprehensive account. The only real limitation is time; the incidents discussed here go up to early 2006, and events in the online world happen so quickly that already major issues appear absent, such as the recent cyberconflict in which Russian hackers effectively shut down Estonia's web presence, and the controversy over attempts to censor American troops' use of blogs, video sharing sites and so on. The author deals with these in more recent articles, however (see Karatzogianni, 2007; 2008).

The final chapter offsets the brevity of the previous discussions with an in-depth case-study of a particularly significant instance of recent cyberconflict, that which occurred in 2003 during the Iraq War. Looking in detail at online protests, organisations, and attacks, Karatzogianni makes a strong case for the distinction between sociopolitical and ethnoreligious movements, even in a case such as this where the two fields clearly intersect. The role of cyber-activism in shaping the ways in which issues were framed and in influencing media coverage are given particular attention. The analysis is all the more impressive for the fact that these were events occurring at around the time the book was presumably written.

Politically, Karatzogianni is very enthusiastic about the potential offered by the internet for new kinds of experiences of social relations, spatiality, and so on. But the theoretical model deployed here avoids the danger often found in such approaches of technological determinism and reductionism. The agency of social movement actors is clearly central to whether and how they take advantage of the new possibilities, and these possibilities do not mean that someone cannot continue to use older forms of social construction, effectively ignoring the internet's innovative form. This realisation that actors use spaces and technologies for their own purposes is an important counterbalance to the utopianism of, for example, Hardt and Negri's (2000; 2006) recent work. At the same time, the recognition of radical possibilities avoids the trap of simply subsuming the new into existing analytical frameworks and reducing the internet to traditional media or social movement models. The potentialities are there, but they are only put to use if there is a desire in social movements to do so.

This is a work which is hard to fault. The sheer breadth and diversity of the issues discussed is frankly stunning. This is a book of many uses -- an important contribution to several related fields of literature, it also serves as a detailed introduction to the various instances of online political activity, and as an original theoretical approach with broader possible uses in the study of social movements and media. The author has surveyed and incorporated a number of distinct literatures touching on the field of cyberconflict, and has incorporated their insights very effectively. When combining theories, there is always a danger of simply making lists of different factors; this risk is avoided here, with the reasons for distinctions clearly presented and the distinctions themselves effectively deployed in empirical case-studies.

A couple of weaknesses should, however, be highlighted. The first is that the broader theoretical implications of the network model of social organisation and the sociopolitical/ethnoreligious distinction are not explored. The discussion echoes Deleuze and Guattari's (1987) analysis of rhizomatic and arborescent assemblages, which is indeed referred to once or twice. But a lot more needs to be done on how these assemblages are formed, the types of desire they express, and the ways in which entire alternative forms of social life are expressed in the different organisational approaches. The proliferation of networked social organisations has radical social implications which are not really explored here. Secondly, this reader remains unconvinced by Karatzogianni's argument that sociopolitical movements need greater organisational integration. While this conclusion makes sense in the framework the author uses, it tends to be offset by the incredible vitality of affinity-based social movements at present, and the ways these seem able to overcome many of the problems of traditional hierarchical organisations, for instance by mobilising distinct groups with wildly varying attachments without creating an integrative hegemonic reduction. In all, however, these are minor problems with an extremely important, path-breaking work.

Deleuze, G and Guattari, F: (1987) A Thousand Plateaus, Athlone Press: London.

Hardt, M and Negri, A: (2000) Empire, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA and London.

Hardt, M and Negri, A: (2006) Multitude, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Karatzogianni, A., "Le temps des cyberguerres," Le Monde, 17 June 2007.

Karatzogianni, A (ed.) "Introduction" and "Exorcising Uncertainty: A dicussion of the Estonian, Lebanese and other cases of Cyberconflict" in Cyberconflict and Global Politics, London: Routledge, forthcoming 2008.

Andrew Robinson:
Andrew Robinson is Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow in the School of Politics, University of Nottingham. He is a member of the Centre for Social and Global Justice and the transnational Transformative Studies Institute. He has written widely on anti-capitalism, social movements, resistance and radical political theory.  <ldxar1@tesco.net>

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