People Like Us: Rogue Andersonians and Imagined Online Communities

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“…  the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” (Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 2006, 6)

What links far-right extremist Anders Breivik, Koran-burning pastor Terry Jones, Innocence of Muslims producer Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (right) and Fort Hood murderer Nidal Hassan? It sounds like the beginning of a very bad joke, but instead points to a conundrum in managing the impact of the Internet on foreign policy: how to manage citizens who act online against their state’s foreign policy goals with offline effect?

For example, last month’s protests across the Muslim world against the Innocence of Muslims saw Nakoula essentially became a foreign policy actor working outside the control of his state and to the detriment of its foreign policy goals. Although the impact of the Internet on actual offline protest should never be assumed uncritically, the film arguably inspired at least some of the ensuing violence. Importantly, Nakoula acted as a member of a larger religious community he saw as aligned to the vision he produced in the film rather than on behalf of his state. That is, despite the fact that he acted alone, his actions were essentially communal, based on what he saw communal values (Christian, in this case). The problem is that that communal identity wasn’t aligned with either his state or its foreign policy interests.

He isn’t the first or only individual to act in this way with such global consequences, although most would struggle to achieve his level of accidental impact. Terry Jones’ You-Tubed burning of the Koran in Florida, in 2010 directly affected the security of US troops and UN personnel  in Afghanistan in the service of what he saw as broader Christian values. Homegrown AQ-inspired ‘lone wolf’ extremists arguably radicalized online, like Nidal Hassan or Roshonara Choudhry are also acting in the service of a larger global community accessed via the Internet—Al-Awlaki’s ‘borderless loyalty’. Similarly, Anders Breivik was acting in the name of what he saw as a larger white European community when he distributed his manifesto online and used it to justify his actions. Even people who simply consume and share such material online rather than produce it are arguably furthering certain communal goals with a global context. Thus, while neither Hassan nor Breivik inspired protests by producing online content in the same way as Nakoula or Jones, their actions both online and off contribute to larger geopolitical conflicts and tensions, and they act outside the management of their own state, in defiance of its policies.

These examples point to communal identities not bound by states motivating and fuelling online and offline rage. Although such rage feeds into and is stoked by local politics as much as global politics, the role of the Internet and its framing and carriage of global identities is significant. Benedict Anderson’s archetypal characterisation of nationalist communal identities as imagined communities is useful for framing the issue. But using the concept in the current context means drawing communal identities beyond the nation and onto the broader seething mass of identities fostered via online interaction. Just as Anderson argued for the importance of ‘capitalist print’ and a shared language in creating and maintaining nationalist identity, the Internet is by definition a shared media. It fosters a shared ‘language’ of video, and facilitates the sharing of this language amongst geographically dispersed populations.   In this case, however, the community isn’t the state.

Understanding the mechanics of Internet communities offers some conceptual tools for understanding this phenomenon. However, unlike other, well-studied virtual communities like those formed on message boards or via social media networks, the imagined communities discussed above are doused in geopolitics and consciously straddle online and offline boundaries. Nor are they are smart mobs in the sense of coalescing around a single goal: rather, their goals are diffuse and driven by identity, not strategy.

The concept of patriotic hacktivism offers more useful tools for classifying and linking the likes of Jones and Nakoula. Patriotic hacktivism involves citizens of a state acting online to progress a state’s foreign policy goals, not always bidden directly by the state. This can take the form of simple online vandalism or more serious efforts at disabling national systems. The role of the state in sanctioning patriotic hacktivism in pursuit of broader foreign policy goals is difficult to prove, but highly likely, as in the well-known cases of Russian-sanctioned patriotic hacking collectives working against Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008.

However, rogue Andersonians like Nakoula, Breivik or Hasan differ in one important respect from patriotic hackers: their level of skill is far less than that required in actual hacking, however basic. In this they also differ from members of other hacking collectives like Anonymous, for example, who are also arguably acting in the interests of a broader, values based community, but with at least some requisite level of skill. Here, it is it is simple production, dissemination and consumption which are at issue, not skilful, directed attack. For example, recent violence against Muslim minority Rohingya in Myanmar has led to an explosion of online images allegedly showing the violence. Debates about the provenance of photos alleging to show abuses of Muslim minority Rohingya in Myamar suggest that the photos were drawn from different places by different people—some from violence occurring in Thailand and India, for example, up to nine years ago. Shared by millions as an example of the persecution of Muslims, they arguably contributed to protests in Pakistan and Indonesia. The photos were not skillfully doctored, merely misappropriated, labelled out of context and shared. A broader political community around Islam was roused into action based on images which speak to it as an imagined community, feeding into broader communal and geopolitical tensions both regionally and globally.

In this, such acts fall more easily into the category of online expressions of nationalism, where basic imagery and nationalist frenzy whipped up on forums can also spiral out of control of, or acting in against the interest of, the states they wish to serve. For example, the Chinese government has previously responded to online expressions of nationalism which potentially undermined delicate negotiations and/or domestic order. State media agencies dampened  online expressions of anti-Japanese fervour in 2004 – 2005, and are arguably doing so now, as social media potentially exacerbates the tense stand-off between the two nations over the Senkaku islands. As this example and the Innocence of Muslims protests suggest, it is in crisis situations that the effect of online fervour is most intense. The difference between Nakoula and online nationalism is that in the former, the imagined community is not bound by the state, whereas in the latter the imagined community identifies strongly with the state, which may not always share that identification. In both cases, the imagined community slips beyond state control.

So what can states do? Censorship is one option, but controversial and difficult to enforce. Google censored the Innocence of Muslims in Egypt and Libya, and states can always work to limit citizens’ access to material themselves, although this is almost impossible in democracies. But even where censorship is possible, it is at best only a temporary solution. The material lingers, even if it cannot be accessed from the source. The Innocence of Muslims, for example, will circulate long beyond the current ferment. Ultimately, the productive, generative power of individuals acting as the unskilled online activists of imagined communities means that new outbursts cannot necessarily be predicted and are difficult to manage with censorship, especially in a democracy.

Other approaches see states attempting to combat the narrative power of such productions by promulgating their own versions of events online in an intriguing combination of public diplomacy and strategic communication. The UK Home Office’s Research, information and Communications Unit (RICU) and the State Department’s Centre for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCTC) focus largely on anti-AQ-inspired extremism, and both try to counter the narratives of online extremists with their own. The CSCTC, for example, produces videos for a State department youtube channel which give the US version of events, or at least a version in line with US foreign policy goals. Saudi Arabia’s Sakinah campaign, meanwhile, offers religious knowledge supporting the state’s interpretation to those seeking it online. Here, policymakers are addressing their own citizens as potential foreign policy actors—although useful metrics of the effectiveness of such approaches aren’t yet available.

Ultimately, rogue Andersonians can simply be described as a type of online conflict entrepreneur, dependent on outrage for self-definition. However, the role of the Internet in distributing the symbols of their imagined community, their diffuse geopolitical goals and the almost equal role of producers, consumers and disseminators of online material in this context means they should be differentiated from patriotic hackers and online nationalists. They arguably require their own short-term and long-term responses drawing on understandings of narrative, strategic communications and networked influence. State responses appear crisis driven and, as yet, unable to deal with either the short- or long-term impact of such material. Facilitated by the Internet, the ‘deep horizontal comradeship’ Anderson attributes to imagined communities is an emerging challenge, with real offline consequences.


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One Response to People Like Us: Rogue Andersonians and Imagined Online Communities

  1. Pingback: “Pluralisme? Injak Saja!”… Islamic Conservatism in and the Power of Social Media | kelbomime