Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Article in The Atlantic Revisits Our Cyberwar and Netwar Writings

[#9 in a chronological series meant to update this blog with write-ups I failed to post during 2021-2022.]


Also in February (February 2022 was full of surprises), The Atlantic magazine announced that “The Threat of Cyberwar Has Finally Arrived” with an article by Ian Bogost, “‘Netwar’ Could Be Even Worse Than Cyberwar: A risk first described almost 30 years ago is now mature,” The Atlantic, Feb 26, 2022, online at:


Here’s a longish excerpt:


“Cyberwar sounds bad—and it is. Broadly, it names the global threat of combat mixed with computer stuff. But further explanations of its risks tend to devolve into disconcerting shopping lists of vulnerabilities: our power grids, water-treatment plants, communications networks, and banks, any of which could be subject to shadowy, invisible incursions from half a world away. This murky and expansive threat can even be expanded further, until it’s covering everything, including espionage, disinformation, and attacks on computer infrastructure. Cyberwar is coming! If you’re going to worry about it—and you should probably worry about it—then what, exactly, should you be worried about?


“In all other matters, cyber-anything has long since fallen out of use; it’s now a shibboleth for those who have failed to stay abreast of online culture. (Remember how it sounded when Donald Trump went off about “the cyber” on TV?) Back in 1993, when the word cyberwar, as it’s used today, was coined, the prefix had more currency. That year, the Rand Corporation published a pamphlet called Cyberwar Is Coming!, by the international-politics analysts John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt. Their premise was simple: The information revolution would alter the nature of armed conflict, and new language would be needed to describe it.


“To clarify the future risks, they laid out two scenarios, each of which would get its own moniker: There was cyberwar, and also netwar. The latter—with its dated reference to the “net”—feels even more anachronistic than “the cyber,” but the idea is surprisingly contemporary. For Arquilla and Ronfeldt, netwar is a social and commercial phenomenon. It involves conflicts waged via networked modes of communication, and is closest to what people call “disinformation” today. When one group attempts to disrupt the knowledge another group has about its own members and social context, by means of messages transmitted via networked communication technologies, that’s netwar.


“At the time, Arquilla and Ronfeldt imagined netwar mostly as a state-based activity, and one that could unfold over any communications network. (It did not have to involve the internet.) The United States engaged in netwar with Cuba, for example, via Radio Televisi√≥n Marti, a Miami-based broadcaster funded by the U.S. federal government to transmit in Spanish to Cuba. State-run newspapers could also prosecute a netwar, along with surveillance systems that intercept or prohibit certain telephonic or electronic messages.


“But Rand also imagined another kind of netwar, one fought between “rival non-state actors, with governments maneuvering on the sidelines to prevent collateral damage to national interests and perhaps to support one side or another.” Arquilla and Ronfeldt called this type of netwar “the most speculative,” but it’s one we can see quite clearly now.…”


Since that is our three-decades-old paper he is writing about, I was delighted.  However, as I remarked on my Facebook page at the time (and meant to reiterate here), the author apparently misunderstood or erred on a few points:


A delight to see our old work on cyberwar and netwar featured in a new article in The Atlantic magazine.  But while the author (previously unknown to me) gets some things right, he also gets some points not quite right, two in particular:


— I never “imagined netwar mostly as a state-based activity.” Cyberwar yes, but not netwar. In fact, since we originally treated cyberwar as a primarily a military concept, I suggested we needed a separate term/concept that would be mainly about social conflict. Indeed, our study on the Zapatista movement as a case of social netwar was mostly about the activities of social activist NGOs operating as networks.


— Netwar is not mainly about disinformation. The article over-conflates at one point. Netwar is mainly about using organizational networks of all kinds, but mainly social, to fight against adversaries, be they organized into networks or hierarchies. Yes, social-netwar actors function best if they are using advanced information and communications technologies that are likewise networked. But these netwar actors also need narrative strategies that fit well with network designs, for social netwar tends in the end to be about whose story wins, not whose ammo wins. If the netwar-waging networks are quite loose, then its varied actors may need to see that their varied stories are harmonized, perhaps into a networked meta-narrative.


In any case, I’m delighted to see our old work re-circulated. Also, see my first comment below about current examples.


My follow-on comment still holds true (but could sure use editing):


… many right-wing activists here in the U.S. are currently waging social netwars of various, as in the truck convoys. Some left-wing activists too, but seemingly less so in my view.


I’d also note that, over time, I’ve learned that Russian strategists have blamed the demise of the Soviet Union and weakening of Russia not primarily on the West’s military power but on the netwar-like social movements expressed through Solidarity, the Arab Spring, and the Color Revolutions. The counter-strategy they have evolved, termed “gibridnaya voina,” is typical translated as “hybrid war” but its non-military aspects would better be translated as “social netwar” in my view.


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