Sunday, November 18, 2012

Tanks, Rockets, Tweets, and Hacks

As the conflict between Israel and Hamas escalates with rocket attacks aimed at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on the one hand and air strikes on government offices in Gaza on the other, various cyber dimensions of the conflict are becoming increasingly noteworthy. On the Israeli side, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), in an effort to control the conflict's narrative, are using Twitter and Facebook with a level of intensity last seen in the Obama campaign. But reviews of the IDF's social media offensive are mixed at best. Michael Koplow's article for Foreign Policy on the IDF Twitter campaign is titled "How Not to Wage War on the Internet." The ability of visitors to an IDF site to earn badges for viewing pages and sharing them on Facebook or other social media sites has prompted some to question whether Israel is "gamifying" war. (Allison Kaplan Sommer helpfully gathers some of the reaction to Israel's social media campaign in a blog post for Haaretz.)

On the other side (in support of, but not initiated by, Hamas), a campaign of cyber attacks against Israeli websites began on Thursday. The loosely organized Internet group Anonymous initiated its effort to deface or take down both government and private websites in Israel in response to the Israeli government's threat to cut off Internet and other telecommunications links between Gaza and the outside world. The Bank of Jerusalem was forced offline for a while and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website reportedly was compromised. At one point, Anonymous claimed to have taken down over six hundred websites in Israel.

It would be a mistake to try to press these two stories into the same analytical framework just because the Internet and cyberspace are central to both. They bear roughly the same relationship to one another that the use of radio addresses by Roosevelt and Churchill and the development of radar during World War II did. But we can see, nonetheless, that the two stories are important for their own, independent, reasons.

In the case of Israel's efforts to ensure that its narrative about the conflict with Hamas reaches as wide an audience as possible, we can see the application of what media analysts and political campaign strategists have been telling us for years about the movement from old media to new media. Older people--especially males--still sometimes watch network news on TV; if they miss the evening newscasts, they may read about what they missed in the next morning's newspaper (a print edition, of course). Younger people, however, are more likely to get news in small doses throughout the day (and night) via social media and online news outlets. A press conference with reporters and cameras may be the best way to reach the former group while a tweet or a Facebook post (provided it gets retweeted or reposted) will work better for the latter group. (Richard Parker examines some of these differences and breaks down the way the Obama campaign leveraged social media to its benefit here on the New York Times "Campaign Stops" blog.) Thus it seems that perhaps the so-called "CNN effect" was short-lived. Now we get war news (and revolution news and disaster news, etc., etc.) from the people who are involved--not through the lens of a television camera but through the lens of an iPhone or via tweets and Facebook updates. The army (or police force or government ministry) that wants to control the narrative today can't be content with limiting the access of reporters to a conflict zone or a protest site. It must either impose an Internet blackout--and face the wrath of those affected, other governments, and, apparently, a global community of hacktivists--or attempt to keep pace with citizen reporters by offering its own stream of compelling online information. But the information it provides cannot be too compelling. A video of grief-stricken mothers posted by those on the side of the victims looks very different from the same video posted by those who caused the grief in the first place.

Turning to the Anonymous attacks on Israeli websites, these suggest a future in which the strategic calculus involved in going to war (or suppressing protests) must include the possible responses of unseen third parties. After flexing its muscles--successfully, some might suggest--against Scientologists, opponents of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, and now Israel--Anonymous may find it increasingly attractive to weigh in on geopolitical matters. And, given the enormity of cyberspace, there are likely to be other groups developing in other chat rooms around other causes but with the same desire to influence big events in the world. In addition to the loose associations of hacktivists represented by Anonymous, transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) may find ways to use cyber attacks to profit from violent political conflicts while remaining in the shadows. And if states can use cyber attacks to influence the outcome of a rival state's conflict without revealing their involvement, they almost certainly will do so.

If it continues to be more and more difficult for states to control the narrative in conflict and if states continue to face more and more hidden adversaries when they go to war or move to suppress dissent, then the historical advantage that states--and especially the wealthiest and most powerfully armed states--have wielded in the use of force may be eroded to the point where the calculus that leads to armed conflict may be dramatically altered. And that might be a good thing.