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32. Review of Firebrand Waves of Digital Activism 1994–2014 (Karatzogianni 2015)

March 22, 2016

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This is the thirty-second post in the freedom technologists series

Postill, J. in press 2016. Review of Karatzogianni, A. (2015) Firebrand Waves of Digital Activism 1994–2014. Palgrave Macmillan UK. To appear in the journal Information, Communication and Society

John Postill
RMIT University
11 March 2016

This book is an ambitious chronicle of digital activism and cyberconflict worldwide from 1994 to 2014. It argues that digital activism is gradually becoming mainstream, especially following the 2013 Snowden affair, and that cyberconflict will evolve towards ‘high-level information warfare’ targetting critical infrastructure rather than digital contents or network connections (pp. 3-4). The book consists of an Introduction followed by four chapters. The Introduction provides an overview of what the author regards as the four phases of digital activism and cyberconflict we have experienced to date. It starts by defining digital activism as ‘political participation, activities and protests organised in digital networks beyond representative politics’ and cyberconflict as a type of conflict carried out ‘in computer-mediated environments’, including digital activism interactions (p. 1).

Chapter 1 describes the origins and rise of digital activism (1994-2007), dividing each into a separate phase. The first phase, lasting from 1994 to 2001, saw the emergence of networked computers coupled with ethno-religious conflicts with an online dimension in China, Sri Lanka, Kosovo, Palestine and other territories. This was also the period in which Mexico’s Zapatistas (the first ‘hacktivists’) acquired international fame, leading to global justice protests in Seattle in 1999 and the birth of indymedia, a translocal ‘network of skills sharing, free software, and solidarity’ (p. 15). Concurring with Weber, Benkler and others, the author traces the roots of digital activism to the FLOSS (free/libre and open-source software) movement but points out that this was no horizontal utopia as participation was always, and remains, ‘spectacularly stratified’ (p. 12). The second phase (2001-2007) was born with the 9/11 attacks in New York, which ushered in a ‘devastating polarisation in global politics and crackdown on activism in cyberspace’ (p. 15). Both the West and Al Qaeda, argues Karatzogianni, developed a ‘similar social hierarchy logic of network closure’ (p. 15). The subsequent US-led invasion of Iraq was the first ‘internet war’, as well as giving rise to leaderless ‘digital swarms’ opposing the war and new forms of conflict blogging and citizen journalism (pp. 20-22).

The second chapter recounts the diffusion of digital activism, a third phase that ran from 2007 to 2010. This phase opens with the 2007 cyberattacks against Estonia which both the government and NATO blamed on Russia (with the US describing cyberspace as ‘the fifth battle space’) but felt impotent to counter. The author analyses Western media coverage of the attacks. These mythologised Russia as ‘a nation of superhackers’ bent on wreaking havoc (pp. 30-32). The second, longer part of the chapter is devoted to ‘China-related cyberconflicts, dissidents and nationalist hackers’. Karatzogianni shows that the Chinese regime fears an internet that can ‘link up’ (chuanlian) popular grievances across divides of class, region and generation (pp. 44, 55). To thwart the rise of such a mass movement, China has pursued a successful ‘brush fires’ strategy, although with the spread of mobile recording devices repression has become increasingly difficult (p. 57). In a country where over 80,000 protests take place every year, the government funds an army of nearly 300,000 astroturfers in charge of ‘stability maintenance’ (pp. 45-47). Meanwhile both transnational and local or regional networks of digital dissent and protest have grown in recent years, but have so far failed to pose an existential threat to the regime (pp. 47-65).

Chapter 3 chronicles the fourth phase, namely how digital activism ‘invaded’ global mainstream politics in 2010-2014, through the cases of WikiLeaks, the Arab uprisings and the Snowden affair. The turning point was WikiLeaks’ releasing in the summer of 2010 of a video showing US atrocities in Iraq followed by ‘Cablegate’ – the release of over 200,000 US diplomatic cables. WikiLeaks is defined as an outlet shaped by ‘information age ideologies’ and steeped in free/hacker culture and libertarianism that is eager to export online virtues to the offline world (pp. 68-69). Its impact on the academic field was huge but uneven. Thus whilst many international relations scholars stressed the harm inflicted by the WikiLeaks ‘troll’, legal scholars focused on the ambiguities raised by their actions (pp 72-84). Meanwhile media and communications scholars were unsurprised by the leaks and explored their roots in hacker culture (Lovink, Castells) and their embedding in ‘hybrid media systems’ (Chadwick) (pp. 85-89).

Finally, the fourth chapter opens with a review of the main research topics and unresolved debates in the study of digital activism and cyberconflict, including the legitimacy of civil society cyberattacks, the securitisation of the internet, and activists’ growing dependence on commercial platforms (p. 123). It then broaches three ‘problematiques’ surrounding this research area – namely agency, structure and affect (p. 132-9) – ending with four predictions for the near future: an increase in digital terrorism; more criminal and ‘apolitical’ attacks against state, corporate and civic actors; social media mobilisations leading to regime changes; and the rise of new information age movements advocating open, transparent, and accountable governments.

Firebrand Waves of Digital Activism 1994–2014 displays a number of strengths. As its title indicates, it provides this area of scholarship with a much needed diachronic account originating in the author’s doctoral research in the late 1990s and ending in recent events. More often than not, we find ourselves in this field reading and writing about the recent past and near future, but seldom do we reflect on its historical development over the past twenty-plus years. In addition, the book avoids another common problem in the literature: its fixation with North America, Western Europe and the Middle East at the expense of other regions. The ample space devoted to Russia and China is particularly welcome, as is the range of smaller countries and techno-political actors and movements from around the world included in the study. Other strengths worth noting are the analysis of how radically differently WikiLeaks is understood across the social sciences and humanities, of the ‘quasi-totalitarian’ ambitions of liberal democracies in their pursuit of massive data surveillance, or the cogent forecast about the likely emergence of new digital freedom movements in the near future.

Sadly, the book is marred in several fundamental ways. First, there is no unfolding argument – or even a stated attempt at developing one. Instead, it offers the reader a large repository of disparate materials (most of them already published elsewhere) arranged in rough chronological order so as to provide a semblance of order. Second, although the key concepts of ‘digital activism’ and ‘cyberconflict’ are defined in the Introduction, we are never told how they relate to each other, or indeed why the author felt it necessary to include them in the book and treat them almost interchangeably. We can only infer that this allowed her to draw from a larger set of her existing single and co-authored texts, but this should have been properly explained and justified at the outset. There is also the related question of ‘hacktivism’, a term that appears both in the subtitle (‘The rise and spread of hacktivism and cyberconflict’) and in many parts of the book. Again, we are left with an important doubt – in this case about the distinction between ‘digital activism’ and ‘hacktivism’: should we treat these terms as synonyms or rather as close cognates?

There are other serious structural flaws in evidence as well: no proper introductions or conclusions to the chapters or to the book as a whole; the unexplained claim about the clear-cut nature of the various historical phases; odd thematic leaps and non-sequiturs as we make our way from one chapter or section to another; theoretical schemas placed half way through a chapter that are not explicitly linked to the foregoing sections; no evidence of careful proofreading or editorial work (e.g. on page 77 the exact same sentence appears twice), and so on.

In sum, this book can be recommended as a rich source of materials and bibliographic references on the origin and evolution of digital politics around the world, but it does not deliver an original contribution to this area of scholarship. We can only hope that future Palgrave Macmillan instalments in this important area will be more thoroughly evaluated, reworked and checked before publication.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2016 6:10 pm

    Thank you for the great review.
    Curiously, there’re more and more books about technological innovation that somehow fail to talk about anything new or propose a new explanation of the digital phenomena people study

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