Speed, International Security, and “New War” Coverage in Cyberspace
Mass media representations foster a view that the “War on Terror” is taking place both everywhere and nowhere, presenting Western governments with an opportunity to mobilize public support in new and ubiquitous ways. Starting with Virilio’s critique of technology, speed, and de-territorialization, this article discusses the ways in which mass support is mobilized by the state in conventional pursuit of geopolitical objectives. Drawing on contemporary international relations theory, the authors introduce the concept of “securitization” and discuss how war coverage in cyberspace has been used to securitize international threats, such as “global terrorism,” to justify state intervention, including war. It is concluded that one of the paradoxes of war coverage in cyberspace is that whereas cyber-technologies should democratize the politics of war by liberating access to information about war, the state has coopted information and communication technologies to facilitate new forms of mass mobilization for war itself.
This article considers the ways in which Western states seek to benefit from war coverage in cyberspace in the conduct of contemporary wars and, more broadly, international relations. It has long been recognized that the state has sought to manipulate war coverage in support of its military objectives. War coverage in cyberspace, by democratizing the media and de-centering the process of news coverage, raises important questions about the state’s capacity to manage war coverage. Yet it also offers the state new opportunities for shaping the discourse of war for strategic military ends.
The significance of war coverage in cyberspace in framing the political consideration of contemporary war, and the ways in which the state seeks to benefit from it, is most clearly evident in the ongoing “War on Terror.” Mass media representations of the so-called “War on Terror” present a war taking place on a number of geographic fronts, from the Western “liberation” of Afghanistan and Iraq, to the bombings in Bali, Madrid, New York, and more recently, London. These mass media representations foster a view that the “War on Terror” is taking place both everywhere and nowhere in particular, and in doing so, present Western governments with an opportunity to mobilize public support in new and ubiquitous ways. Yet “terrorists” and independent reporters themselves have also proved most adept at utilizing war coverage in cyberspace to challenge Western states and sap the confidence of formerly complacent Western societies.
Using the theoretical work of Paul Virilio (1987, 1995a, 1995b, 1997, 1999), this article begins by considering how convergent media technologies have facilitated a speeding up of war coverage in cyberspace, creating a disoriented political dynamic that warring protagonists, including the state, are struggling to control. The term convergent media is used to describe both the technical integration of different forms of information and communication technology (ICT) and the confluence of social, political, economic, and cultural factors that accompany that integration on a mass scale.
In terms of technical integration, the emphasis of this discussion is war coverage in cyberspace, but it also includes technology feeding into that medium of coverage, such as satellite, televisual, radio, and mobile telephony. One feature of contemporary convergence is the capacity of these media to enable a diffusion of control over who can make news and an acceleration of the news cycle. Interactive technologies, such as the Internet, mobile technologies, and interactive television, offer new possibilities for engagement in news-making by individuals and laypersons. A corollary of this, however, remains the relative centralization of the primary architecture underpinning this technology—the ultimate control and governance of satellite systems and Internet root servers, for example, remains in the hands of relatively few. Of particular relevance to this discussion is the blurring of information and entertainment that arises from the convergence of ICTs.
Within this context, we first consider the ways in which Western states seek to benefit from war coverage in cyberspace in pursuit of geo-political goals. It is argued that while convergent media technologies potentially allow for the democratization of war through the proliferation of anti-state views and perspectives, the blurring of information and entertainment within contemporary coverage of war also affects a kind of disorientation in its consumers in ways that are exploited by states and other centers of power. This has given rise to the emergence of war as “spectator sport,” which provides a contemporary example of a much older political tradition of state control of the media in support of war goals. Drawing on contemporary international relations theory, we then show how Western states have sought to use war coverage in cyberspace to “securitize” external threats as a basis for interventionist foreign policy. Televised reporting of the “War on Terror” has been used by Western states to place their populations on permanent war footing in pursuit of new militaristic forays in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other “failed states.”
The use of war coverage in cyberspace to securitize threats as a basis for foreign intervention constitutes a traditional strategy on behalf of states; in this sense, there is nothing particularly remarkable about it. We argue that the true significance of war coverage in cyberspace lies in the ways in which such coverage has changed the way war itself is understood in the Western mind. Contemporary wars are increasingly understood as “new wars;” that is, as pathologies of under-development occurring in an anarchic, and seemingly distant Third World. Through grounded depictions of life in Third World countries, convergent media technologies have facilitated a discourse of contemporary war as something “new” and lying beyond traditional state-based conflict, creating a new space in which Western states can pursue traditional militaristic goals. For example, “new war” coverage in cyberspace has provided unprecedented opportunities for Western state intervention in the sovereign affairs of other states (e.g., the invasion of Iraq) in the name of humanitarian objectives.
We conclude by introducing a theoretical “paradox of proximity and distance” to explain how states seek to benefit from new war coverage in cyberspace. According to this paradox, on the one hand, convergent media technologies help create an image of contemporary war as something new and occurring in the distant Third World, necessitating benevolent Western state intervention along humanitarian lines. On the other hand, contemporary war coverage in cyberspace often depicts war as more proximate by bringing war into the living room and generating uncritical support for such “humanitarian” intervention. New war coverage in cyberspace has thus allowed states to deploy discursive strategies that simultaneously distance the state from culpability for aggressive war, while legitimating the necessity and urgency of such intervention.
War as spectator sport
There is a long tradition of the use of mass media by states to support military goals. The construction and manipulation of media images is a key tool in this process. Reportage in 1990 of a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl’s testimony before the United States House of Representatives that invading Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait had killed babies by removing them from hospital incubators proved to be a powerful (but fabricated) mobilizer in the U.S. push to war. Even with the emergence of news coverage in cyberspace, the state continues to use the media to mobilize mass support for war, such as through control of official sources and access to war zones. This is not to devalue the capacity of the technology to empower journalists or laypersons in ways that bypass such control, as we will discuss below. However, convergent media technologies have provided the state with a greater range of visual and linguistic devices through which it is able to make a case for war. What have shifted are the subtlety, diffusion, and integration of entertainment into the way this case is mounted and presented. This is especially evident in the way that war has become a “real-time” spectator sport (McInnes, 2002).
Between August 1990 and February 1991, an audience of unprecedented magnitude gazed at the conflict in Kuwait and Iraq through the medium of global television. The U.S.-led alliance reflected a new global “humanitarian” sensibility—its reply to the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and seizure of oil involved most Western states, in addition to 18 other countries. In the post Cold-War world, former enemies fought side by side in a market-driven conflict sanctified in the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention and the “New World Order.” Much of the war was depicted in simulations that assisted in the minimization of casualties perceived by audiences. The televised images of the war projected by CNN were sterile and centered on the apparently awesome surgical precision of modern technological warfare. The language of death and destruction was shrouded and sanitized by jargon terms such as “collateral damage” and “friendly fire.” The combined effect successfully disguised the comparative losses of a war that was described by a U.S. fighter pilot as “a turkey shoot.”
The construction of these kinds of linguistic and semantic discourses is now a familiar technique strategically employed by states, such as the U.S., across all forms of media, to distance Western spectators from the inhumane, violent, and bloody realities of the battlefield. In recent years, these discourses have expanded in vocabulary to include the evocation of jingoistic phrases such as the “War on Terror” (which evokes the image and notion of an enemy that is omniscient, evasive, and hidden at the same time), “democratization by force,” and “insurgent” (where others might prefer the term “freedom fighter”). Hand in hand with these linguistic techniques is the use of evocative visual imagery, such as the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue during the “liberation” of Baghdad, or the Pentagon’s Most-Wanted-Iraqi “Deck of Death” playing cards that received major coverage on the Web.
Throughout modernity, mass media serviced the military and the media on a worldwide scale in both destroying and mythologizing the real life experiences of individuals, cultures, and nation states. Critical theorist Theodor Adorno remarked that:
The total obliteration of the war by information, propaganda, commentaries, with cameramen in the first tanks and war reporters dying heroic deaths, the mishmash of an enlightened manipulation of public opinion and oblivious activity: All this is another expression for the withering of experience, the vacuum between men and their fate, in which their real fate lies. It is as if the reified, hardened plaster-cast of events takes the place of events themselves. Men are reduced to walk-on parts in a monster documentary film. (1974, p. 55)
As a theatre of televised destruction, coverage of the first Gulf War intensified a contemporary process in which warfare is sold as home entertainment. During this conflict, control of coverage by CNN was visible but discreet. Eclipsing the geographical barriers separating distinct political and cultural entities, the televised coverage of the war represented a significant development in the portrayal of “events that connect the most disparate sites of public action [so they] appear simultaneously as a private drama filled with familiar characters and moving stories,” using media to transgress “borders between public and private spheres both on the home front and on the front line” (Wark, 1994, p. 71).
As a form of mass entertainment, integral to war coverage in cyberspace are familiar narratives of good and evil, heroes and villains. Said (1994) remarks that:
Some of the work done by critical theorists; in particular, Herbert Marcuse’s notion of one-dimensional society, Adorno and Enzensberger’s consciousness industry—has clarified the nature of the mix of repression and tolerance used as instruments of social pacification in Western societies…Yet before the media go abroad…they are effective in representing strange and threatening foreign cultures for the home audience, rare with more success in creating an appetite for hostility and violence against these cultural “Others” than during the Gulf crisis and war of 1990-91. (p. 353)
War coverage seems, on one level, to draw people into the action of events using jingoistic tropes or evocative imagery, such as the “Butcher of Bagdad,” while also using the language of military “neutralization” to dehumanize the war and its consequences. A paradox of proximity is evident here as spectators feel engaged with war while being distanced from its consequences, or their complicity in it (however tacit). In the context of contemporary war, this paradox has another more significant dimension, which will be explored in further detail below.
The information provided by CNN was to educate the public in the consumption of war coverage as a TV product, while its content was intended by the U.S.-dominated alliance to mobilize bias on a global scale against a threat to its oil market. For the audience to remain seated in their living rooms was sufficient for the Western alliance to undertake the task of protecting its commercial interests in Kuwait using brute force beneath a technological veil.
During the Gulf War coverage, powers of all descriptions were “learning the new language of force and terror that is the media” (Wark, 1994, p. 78). Wark observes that during the Gulf War coverage, television no longer existed “in a relation to an audience assumed to be a mass of consumers or a public to be educated. The event turns television into part of a feedback loop connecting the spectator to the action via the vagaries of ‘opinion’ and the pressures of the popular on political elites” (Wark, 1994, p. 71). The mobilization of viewers and media technology by media corporations and states alike were meshed in a loop between war simulations and a simulated consensus by a public believing itself to be “informed.”
Within this loop, the spectator “becomes vague and quixotic” in its relation to the abstract worlds of disembodied visual media (Wark, 1994, p. 71). The virtual gaze of the spectator is no longer a direct perception but instead is “received perception mediated through representation” (Friedberg, 1993, p. 2). According to Haraway (1983), “It is not an exaggeration to say that modern states, multinational corporations, strategic alliances, military power, bureaucracies of the welfare state, satellite systems, political processes, fabrication of our imaginations… depend intimately upon electronics,” which break down the distinction between image and reality, and represent life in digitized codes of ones and zeros. The coverage of the Gulf War illustrates a permeation of the boundaries between material and symbolic reality, “i.e., between production, reproduction, and interpretation in the political struggle for the constitution of daily life” (Haraway, 1983, 1991). Today, war coverage in cyberspace has intensified the impression of a worldwide theatre of war in which conventional demarcations of fact and fiction, real and imagined, and entertainment and education are dissolved and infused by the weight, power, and immediacy of convergent mass media.
In a sense, cyberspace enhances this somewhat illusory function of being “educative” about war. Emotive dramas have accompanied recent reports of Western Alliance activities in the Middle East. From the fabricated drama of U.S. soldier Jessica Lynch, to the heroic travails of embedded journalists such as BBC reporter John Simpson, to the “countdown” to the second Iraq War on U.S. prime time TV and the staged announcement of “Mission Accomplished” by George W. Bush aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in 2003 (CNN.com, 2003), coverage of war in cyberspace has become an integral part of waging war on the home front.
This is not to say that it is only the state that benefits from using the media to shape and manipulate opinion. On the contrary, technological applications of the Internet (such as blogging) enable individuals and groups to shift the loci of power away from state/militaristic discourses. The coverage of war in cyberspace represents, on one level, a more diffuse and decentered mode of information dissemination. This is most visible in the difference between the coverage of the first Iraq incursion and the coverage of the 2003 invasion by the Western Alliance. Where coverage of the 1990-91 incursion was tightly controlled by the U.S. military and disseminated through few media outlets (namely, CNN), the range of sources and access to information about the more recent military occupation of Iraq has multiplied considerably. In the broader “War on Terror,” the sources of information are dispersed and innumerable. This is evident in independent newsgathering, such as Reporters Without Frontiers, bloggers such as Salam Pax (2006), and podcasting by individuals of events such as the London bombings on July 7, 2005. Internet-based technology is consequently viewed as empowering by enabling individuals and groups to engage politics and participate in the coverage of war in new ways.
Globalizing flows of information are typically associated also with the erosion of the nation state and other conventional geopolitical boundaries. Whereas the traditional view of media in war is as a propaganda tool controlled by states in the contemporary context, war coverage through Internet-based technologies is reflexively associated with the democratization of access to and provision of information about war. Examples of this include the podcast images of the 2005 London bombings and the leaked photos of tortured inmates in Abu Ghraib in 2004 and 2006. However, this dimension of war coverage in cyberspace represents but a small component of mass media coverage, whose control is still largely centralized in the hands of relatively few states and corporate interests. Personalizations of the news, such as blogging, may be a distinctive new feature of war coverage. However, blogging represents a minor and self-referential form of media dissemination. It also goes without saying that malevolent interests have benefited from the same modes of technology, such as insurgents (e.g., al-Zarqawi), terrorists (e.g., Osama Bin Laden), and transnational criminals (for discussion, see Castells, 2000).
In this context, the following discussion will focus on what we consider to be the more important dimension of war coverage in cyberspace: The way in which Western states use and benefit from the speed and disorienting features of convergent technology.
Technology, speed, disorientation, and the state
The ways that Western governments represent war to domestic populations and seek to establish the frame of discourse in which war is understood continues to be a central preoccupation of media theorists and commentators. The work of theorist Paul Virilio provides a useful starting point for critiquing the relationship between contemporary technology, politics, and war coverage in cyberspace. His critique highlights how the acceleration and intensification of war coverage in cyberspace produces political effects of disorientation, which, as will be explored below, have been utilized by states to justify new foreign policy directions.
Virilio raises some important questions about the political implications of speed that arise from intensive use of ICTs. Virilio does not present a systematic theory of technology per se (Wark, 1988), but rather a dystopian vision in which cyberspace and instantaneous globalized information flows effect a collapse of territorial distance and compromise state sovereignty (Virilio, 1995a). Arguing that cyberspace is a new form of perspective free of any previous spatial reference, Virilio (1995b) suggests that the sheer speed of information flows arising from mass ICTs impact how people engage with the world around them in profoundly political ways. Virilio evokes the geometric idea of a vector—a line of fixed length and direction but with no fixed position—to convey the notion of a trajectory along which bodies or information, with the potential to traverse a given territory, pass (Wark, 1988). Manuel Castells describes a similar view of the information society, wherein the spaces in which humans interact are increasingly shifting according to the “variable geometry” created by electronic networks, “where the meaning of each locale escapes its history, culture or institutions, to be constantly redefined by an abstract network of information strategies and decisions” (Castells, 1985, pp. 15, 23). By collapsing territorial distance, Virilio argues, ICTs compromise political sovereignty by enabling “a parallel information market” of propaganda and illusion. According to Virilio (1995a, p. 57) “[t]erritorial distance and media proximity make an explosive cocktail” with important political consequences.
Rather than engendering proximity, these information vectors have the potential to transform political relations entirely. In Virilio’s terms, ICTs are transforming social and political relations by facilitating vectors with increasing acceleration in which the boundaries between entertainment, information, communication, and human/computer interaction are eroded and reconstituted by technological change. For Virilio, the speed and intensity of instantaneous information and communication flows promotes an overwhelming loss of orientation that influences political formation. “With acceleration there is no more here and there, only the mental confusion of near and far, present and future, real and unreal—a mix of history, stories, and the hallucinatory utopia of communication technologies” (Virilio, 1995a, p. 35). The convergence of news and entertainment media conjures a seamless integration of communication, entertainment, commerce, and politics, through which the viewer is visually bombarded by a disorienting array of choice between news, fiction, “edutainment,” and “infotainment”—all of which are delivered instantaneously in the “here and now.” As news, “reality television,” fictions, and various levels of human and computer-mediated interaction take place through this electronic portal, the social and political impacts of the proliferation of virtual environments and multiple realities intensify.
Historically, human activity has taken place within local frames, times, regions, and nation states. In the face of instantaneous communication and information flows, however, globalization and convergent mass media are transforming people’s sense of space and distance, inaugurating a global technological time characterized by new cultural forms, social networks, and instantaneity. Traditional political relations within this emergent temporal order are being disorganized by ICTs that “abolish” conventional boundaries of time and space (Virilio, 1987, p. 19). Spatial difference is superseded by temporal difference (Wark, 1988). For Virilio, the new information society is prefigured by a dominant new form of social time. Technological innovations in transportation (such as commercial air travel) and ICTs are altering awareness and perception of distance (Virilio, 1995a).
Virilio argues that the kind of politics to emerge from a reliance on technology amounts to a cathodic democracy, in which there is a shift of representation to the “virtual theatricalization of the real world” (Virilio, 1995a, p. 33). Virilio warns of “de-realization” involving a generalized breakdown of individual and social relationships to time, space, and movement (Wilson, 1994). Technologies promoting instantaneous transmission, such as satellites, may actually restrict mobility by recasting the scale of human environment and human perception of reality itself. The consequence, Virilio argues, is a “catastrophic sense of incarceration now that humanity is literally deprived of horizon” (Virilio, 1997, p. 41). What emerges is a “montage of temporalities which are the product not only of the powers that be but of the technologies that organize time…” (Virilio, cited in Wark, 1988). Elsewhere, Virilio writes that “[w]here the polis once inaugurated a political theater, with the agora and the forum, today there remains nothing but the cathode ray screen, with its shadows and specters of a community in the process of disappearing” (Virilio, 1987, p. 23). Warning of a “loss of orientation in matters political,”Virilio (1999) suggests that this shift has vast implications for the way that we relate to our environments and each other. Recent developments in telecommunications and other technological breakthroughs thus impose simultaneity, immediacy, and ubiquity upon everyone in a way that Virilio likens to an “information bomb…just about to explode” (Oliveira, 1996).
The emergence of a cathodic democracy has implications for the quality of democracy and the relationship between citizens and the state. The speed with which information circulates clouds political relations and desensitizes citizens’ political sensibilities. One interpretation of Virilio’s work would therefore be that this heightened speed and disorientation threatens conventional power bases, including state authority. The erosion of conventional boundaries of time, geopolitics, and the multiplicity of information available to citizens could be seen to challenge not only political subjectivity, but also to undermine the state’s authority and legitimacy. On the other hand, such speed and disorientation potentially obfuscate political reality, providing the state with political cover behind which it can pursue its goals.
Virilio’s perspective, while perhaps extreme, thus provides a useful basis for considering the impact of contemporary war coverage in cyberspace on political relations within Western states. Specifically, it sheds light on the ways in which Western states (and, for that matter, other actors such as terrorists) might seek to exploit this disorientation for political ends. What is of particular interest to this discussion is how the state employs convergent ICTs to mobilize popular support through traditional propaganda, and perhaps more insidiously, to propagate fear as a basis for action. States can benefit from the cumulative effect of speed, de-realization, and other impacts of globalized information flows by creating a permanent state of disorientation predicated on fear, urgency, and omniscience (the “War on Terror” is “everywhere”). Virilio and Lotringer (1997) evoke the idea of “pure war” to describe the ways in which states cultivate ever-present fear of the possibility for absolute destruction, thus providing the basis for perpetual mobilization. A characteristic of pure war psychology, as Borg (2003) points out, “is not the technological capacity for destruction (that is, for example, the existence of nuclear armaments) that imposes the dread characteristic of a pure war psychology but the belief systems that this capacity sets up” (p. 57). Pure war “obliterates the distinction between soldier and citizen. We have all been drafted” (Borg, 2003, p. 58). Virilio and Lotringer (1997) suggest that “[a]ll of us are already civilian soldiers, without knowing it…War happens everywhere, but we no longer have the means of recognizing it” (p. 42).
As the next section argues, Western states have proved most adept at using ICTs—and the disorientation that follows in their wake—to consolidate their political position and maintain their authority. One consequence of the increasing speed and disorientation with which citizens now engage with political “reality” has been their atomization as individualized, virtual citizens. While individuals now enjoy unparalleled opportunities for obtaining diverse information and expressing contrary political opinions through ICTs, their capacity to use this information effectively and constructively (in the sense of directly affecting real political change through decision-making processes) has arguably been weakened. By providing individuals with a false sense of political empowerment, ICTs may in effect provide a political vent in which the polity can let off steam while the state continues to pursue its own agendas. While claiming to enjoy new possibilities for enacting political change, virtual citizens have arguably disengaged from the state and thus become less relevant to it. In the U.S., and around the Western world, this is most evident in the disengagement of citizens from formal party political processes. The virtual Web-based opposition to the Bush regime has generated lots of political friction with little practical political change on Capitol Hill.
War coverage, fear, and international insecurity
Virilio’s conceptual approach to speed and proximity is particularly relevant to international relations and the “War on Terror.” In recent years, we have seen very clear examples of the state using war coverage in cyberspace to mobilize groups and individuals for war, using the standard linguistic/semantic techniques described above. These techniques are enmeshed with a broader strategy of mass media that is far more traditional in nature, and which is used by states to mobilize opinion and support, notably, through what international relations scholars have called the “securitization” of looming international issues.
Security is a foundation concept in international relations. Traditionally understood as security from and between states, through, for example, policies of balance of power and mutually assured destruction, the concept has since the end of the Cold War been progressively expanded to include threats to human security such as environmental, economic, and resource security. An important preoccupation for international relations scholars has been the way in which international challenges have been constructed as “security” threats requiring state action. “Securitization” is a discursive technique whereby policy makers, states, and governments seek to construct a given issue as a security threat to mobilize responsive action (McDonald, 2005). The securitization process aims to change the nature of political reality as a motivating factor in the development of actual policy directions by elites. As McDonald argues, “In creating support for particular security conceptions and practices, actors engage (relatively constantly) in a range of representational strategies that serve to position the group in need of being protected and to contest or marginalize other security discourses and the voices to advance them” (McDonald, 2005, p. 301). By changing the discourse of security, one can change the logic and practice of security policy. Lipschutz (1995) suggests that “[w]inning the right to define security provides not just access to resources but also the authority to articulate new definitions and discourses of security, as well” (p. 8).
As a political technique, securitization can be highly effective in generating new political terrain from which securitizers can benefit, providing the basis for radical departures from prevailing norms of international behavior. For example, by casting its response to the September 11 terrorist attacks as a “War on Terror,” the Bush Administration was able to open up a global front on a war that can arguably never be won, and thus can be used as a justification for U.S. intervention in perpetuity (i.e., pure war):
States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic… Our war on terror is well begun, but it is only begun. This campaign may not be finished on our watch—yet it must be and it will be waged on our watch. (Bush, 2002)
Casting the terrorist threat as a “war” requiring mass mobilization has provided the Bush Administration with a justification for radical action in international relations and domestic affairs. The “need” to attack terrorists at home and abroad led to the invasion of Iraq without Security Council approval and the trampling of previously unassailable human rights conventions, leading most memorably to the notorious incidents of torture in Abu Grahib. This is not to deny the significance of global jihad and international terrorism as a security challenge; rather, it is to illustrate how the securitized framing of the issue has cast the Bush administration on a particular policy trajectory centered on combating terrorists rather than engaging societies.
War coverage in cyberspace has opened up new possibilities for states to engage in the securitization process. The state already enjoys significant discursive power through its capacity to marshal material resources over other actors and its underlying institutional legitimacy. As suggested above, convergent ICTs increase this power and the state’s ability to construct what constitutes “common sense” (McDonald, 2005, p. 300) by multiplying the discursive tools available to governments to construct deliberate and manipulative discourses of mobilization. This is most apparent in the use of images as a propaganda tool. Whereas much of the international relations literature engages with securitization as a semantic issue, reflected in a preoccupation with more traditional print-based media and the censorship of information, war coverage in cyberspace has emphasized the importance of imagery in the construction of fear. For example, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s (2003) famous multimedia presentation to the United Nations Security Council, in which he presented compelling, graphic satellite evidence of Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program, bringing home the power of satellite imagery. Similarly, the use of embedded journalists in the Iraq war provided compelling images of the front-line struggle while obfuscating more cerebral considerations of the geo-politics of the campaign. Governments, having unique control of privileged information and satellite technologies, are thus well placed to manage the discursive process in order to securitize disparate “threats.” This is particularly so in the context of highly complex “new” security threats—terrorism, WMD, cyber-crime—all of which are highly abstract and therefore much more difficult to understand than traditional, state-based threats (reminiscent of the “red menace” of the Soviet Union). Fed into the 24-hour news cycle, the selective release of classified information by the American and British governments in the lead-up to the Iraq war was decisive in building momentum behind the case for war—particularly given the opaque nature of intelligence gathering and the public’s inability to verify such information.
However, it should be recognized that as a political tactic, securitization is a contingent one. Buzan (1991) notes that security is an “essentially contested concept” (p. 7). While securitizers have scope to problematize policy issues in particular ways, this process is also bounded in that it must resonate with and thus not stray too far beyond a particular community’s accepted reality. Governments occupy a powerful position in leading the process but are constrained by a range of domestic and international forces in their capacity to successfully securitize specific issues. These include conceptions of history, culture, and identity, and to some extent, independent access to mass media. Balzacq (2005) notes that securitization “is a nexus of congruent forces” such that “every securitization is a historical process that occurs between an antecedent influential set of events and their impact on interactions” (p. 193). Securitization is an evolving temporal concept in that, over time, governments can build up a particular securitized understanding.
The contingent nature of the securitization process is particularly significant in the case of war coverage in cyberspace. On the one hand, convergent ICTs enable societies to be better informed about the world abroad and thus less susceptible to government manipulation of wartime imagery. This is best reflected in China’s determination to censor the Web by collaborating with Google to prevent internal political unrest (BBC News, 2006). Similarly, the Chinese government has used data stored by Yahoo to silence political protest (CNN.com, 2006). On the other hand, the ready accessibility of convergent media technologies means that the securitized threat or enemy can also mobilize technology to retaliate or indeed open new fronts in contemporary wars. Al-Qaeda’s successful use of the internet as a basis for mobilising Arab opposition to “Western imperialism” in the Middle East, including the deliberate use of visual terrorism (the design of terrorist events as publicity stunts, such as the 2004 video footage showing the beheading of U.S. contractor Nick Berg in Iraq), emphasizes the new organizing powers afforded to “resistance” groups by cyberspace. Most notable here was the Madrid bombings, which led to the downfall of the Aznar government, which was vocally supportive of the war in Iraq in 2003.
Virilio and Lotringer’s (1997) concept of “pure war” is therefore useful in relation to our understanding of the state‘s capacity to securitize “new” security threats, such as terrorism or WMD, by capitalizing on the speed and de-territorializing effects of convergent ICTs. States have an interest in portraying an enemy that is fluid and ill-defined to mobilize fear that war could happen anywhere at once (Taliban, al-Qaeda, Islamic fundamentalism, or whatever “enemy” is appropriate). While securitization is a contested process, war coverage in cyberspace has the potential to make the securitization process more effective for states. Its privileged control of information, including cyber-contingent information such as satellite imagery and secret intelligence, gives the state added power to disorient citizens and build the case for wars based on increasingly vague security threats. Thus, while convergent media technologies have increased the capacity of “enemies” to open up new wars across a cyber-front, they have also reinforced the state’s already privileged capacity to securitize threats as a basis for intervention.
As Castells (2000) observes, the U.S. government’s use of media coverage to justify the Iraq war illustrates this capacity to securitize in the U.S. context. Between the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq war, the U.S. government improved upon the ways in which it manipulated public opinion through improved management of information, moving from control-oriented techniques (e.g., news blackouts), to ones fostering co-optation based on a more positive image of the war (e.g., self-censoring embedded journalists). Castells writes that:
This policy of shaping public opinion in favour of the war was thus particularly effective in the US, where there were few alternative sources of audiovisual information to the mainstream American media that had, by and large, accepted embedded journalism. In Europe, and in the world at large, broadcasting from Al Jazeera, Abu Dhabi Television, and a number of European networks provided a much more diversified source of information. Yet there was an obvious priority given to shaping public opinion about the war in the United States, and, in this case, the Bush administration won the propaganda war, another critical success in preparing the country for the pursuit of a new security policy. (2000, p. 350)
The changing nature of war and ’New war‘ coverage in cyberspace
As the previous sections have shown, war coverage in cyberspace has allowed Western states to securitize a host of “new” transnational threats as a basis for mobilizing populations for war in more effective but nonetheless traditional ways, not the least by reinforcing the “pure war” threat of global terrorism. This suggests that war coverage in cyberspace has underscored a traditional relationship between the Western state and the Western media in the propagation of war. But there are other, more innovative ways in which Virilio’s concepts of speed and de-territorialization can be seen in the profoundly reconstituted relationships between convergent media technologies, war coverage, and the state. Specifically, war coverage in cyberspace has helped to change the very image of contemporary war, and through this, notions of Western state culpability and accountability for its conduct and resolution.
War in international relations has historically been understood as a phenomena conducted between states. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, international relations scholars were struck by the apparent proliferation of localized wars and the demise of the state-based international order and its replacement by a seemingly more anarchical regime. According to some scholars, post-Cold War warfare is distinctive insofar as it occurs outside traditional state-based parameters. “New wars” (Kaldor, 1999), such as those waged in Africa (Liberia and the Congo) and the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, are predominantly ethnically based and intra-state or civil in nature. New wars correlate with processes of state failure and fragmentation. They emerge from social transformations “driven by globalization and liberal economic forces” which give “rise to competition over natural resources and illegal commercial entrepreneurship, private armies, and criminal warlords, often organized according to some form of identity” (Newman, 2004, p. 175). One example of this economic dimension to contemporary war is the relationship between Afghan warlords and their control of the illicit drug trade. From a Western perspective, new wars are distinctive, as they no longer center on imperialistic attempts by powerful states to gain control of foreign territory. (State-based war, such as the conflict in Iraq, has arguably become the exception rather than the rule.) Local protagonists seeking to monopolize control of power and resources within a particular territory fight them. New wars are a consequence of state fragility, rather than a product of state ambition, driven by a dynamic of globalization leading to the breakdown of political, economic, and social processes within developing countries.
Crucially, just as convergent media technologies have facilitated a de-territorialization of international politics, they have also underwritten a de-territorialization of contemporary war, in the sense of contributing to an image in the Western mind of new warfare as a pathology of under-development. New wars emerge in developing countries struggling to come to terms with the challenges of modernity and globalization, and which are consumed by “irrational,” pre-modern tribal conflicts. This image has been reinforced by convergent media technologies that allow for unprecedented “real time” coverage of the human costs of state failure and civil war from distant corners of the globe. Representations of contemporary wars ranging from the conflict in Darfur to the haunting genocide in Rwanda (where the holocaust was graphically filmed on hand-held video cameras), to the return of civil violence in the newly built state of East Timor, portray an inexplicable, tribal, even atavistic image of contemporary violent conflict in which Western states are largely absent as complicit protagonists.
“New war” coverage in cyberspace has arguably had profound implications on the way war is understood in the Western mind. New wars, in which modern states as we know them have partial or no control (as in the case of Somalia which is a collapsed state with no extant state to speak of) over the theatre of war and in which non-state actors such as warlords and mercenaries have become important protagonists, have impacted upon the modalities of war coverage in interesting ways. Where convergent media technologies have provided strong Western states with new discursive opportunities to mobilize the home front, new war coverage, in which war itself is the result of state failure and where the state is consequently absent, provides much less opportunity for state control of the imagery of war or the production of news. In such circumstances, Western opportunities for media agenda setting and gatekeeping become limited. Instead, war coverage is often generated independently at a point in the news process prior to the news production meeting. In the case of Rwanda, the compelling images of the genocide that appeared on the Web shamed a reluctant international community into eventual—but regrettably late—action.
Ostensibly, new war coverage in cyberspace, through Virilio’s dynamic of speed and de-territorialization, points to an undermining of the capacity of Western states to control the terms of debate in which the push to war is made. It represents an important use of global media to decentralize power and shift the loci of influence away from government and military agendas. But in other ways, new war coverage in cyberspace may have crucially underwritten new imperial opportunities for Western states. By contributing to the framing of contemporary war as a pathology of under-development, new war coverage in cyberspace has allowed Western governments to engage with wars in significantly different ways, most notably through humanitarian interventionist warfare and subsequent peace building and state building. Globalized initiatives, such as the 2005 Live-8 music concerts, act to responsibilize this under-development and the conflict arising from it, encouraging the Western public to demand political action from their own states (and the international community), to mitigate conflict and address looming humanitarian disasters. When war is framed as a consequence of poverty, under-development, and ethnic barbarism, Western engagement by necessity centers on humanitarian interventions that are perceived as legitimate and morally necessary.
Compelling images of human suffering on a global scale have thus helped create new vectors within which Western states can act. New war coverage in cyberspace has created powerful political and moral imperatives for Western intervention in the sovereign affairs of Third World states to restore global order. Moreover, Western states themselves have been quick to capitalize on the opportunities provided by new war coverage in cyberspace through the securitization of under-development. Western states now proffer state failure as a major international security challenge, warranting benign intervention to stop failed states from becoming Petri dishes for transnational security risks, terrorism, and organized crime. State building and development in general has been identified as a “form of bio-politics concerned with addressing the putative threats posed to effective states by trans-border migratory flows, shadow economies, illicit networks, and the global insurgent networks of the ineffective states” (Cooper, 2005, p. 471). Recent interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have relied heavily on the securitization of under-development as a justification for ongoing intervention, with increasingly cynical publics asked to stay the course for fear that, if abandoned, both countries will become havens for al- Qaeda and international terrorist networks.
In this context, the securitization of under-development has provided a new basis for the re-territorialization of contemporary war. U.N.-endorsed peace building and state-building initiatives have given Western states unprecedented powers to re-shape state structures in the developing world. The powerful state-building imperative underwritten by new war coverage in cyberspace provides unparalleled opportunities for the re-moulding of developing states along Western lines. State building provides new opportunities for the imposition of neo-liberal governance frameworks on weak or failed states to be democratized and re-integrated into the global economy. In this context, Cooper (2005) notes the emergence of a “liberal peace” aid/development paradigm focused on buttressing weak states by imposing on them democratic, neo-liberal frameworks. Western humanitarian intervention in the wake of natural disasters and contemporary wars is a form of “disaster capitalism” that provides more opportunities for transnational super-profits through outsourced aid budgets (Klein, 2005). Indeed, both the war and reconstruction in Iraq has been largely privatized, providing unprecedented opportunities for transnational private sector profiteering. According to Singer (2005), Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown, and Root won an estimated $13 billion (U.S.) contract to provide supplies for troops and maintenance for equipment in Iraq—a figure Singer notes is two and a half times what the United States paid for the entire Persian Gulf War in 1991, and approximately the same as the U.S. spent on the American Revolutionary War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Spanish-American War combined.
Thus, the powerful image of selfless humanitarian intervention that underpins Western public perceptions of the “new world order” has come to obfuscate the quite traditional, geo-political motives that continue to inform Western state intervention in the sovereign affairs of the developing world. Furthermore, by creating an image of war as a consequence of under-development, which Third World states bring upon themselves, war coverage in cyberspace has downplayed Western culpability for war. This includes the ways in which the global economy itself has been structured by Western states to benefit Western capitalist economies at the expense of developing states, in turn exacerbating Third World under-development leading to new war conflict. Through Western humanitarian intervention and state building, the reality of invasion is submerged both literally in the language of “liberation” evoked by the U.S. in the invasion of Afghanistan, and metaphorically in the (staged) evocation of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Iraq. In this context, President Bush was able to transform the chaos in Iraq into an exercise in freedom and democracy building: “America, our Coalition, and Iraqi leaders are working towards the same goal—a democratic Iraq that can defend itself … that will never again be a safe haven for terrorists … and that will serve as a model for freedom for the Middle East” (Bush, 2005, p. 2). Seen in this light, Western “humanitarian” intervention begins to take on a more sinister, even imperialistic tone. New war, the securitization of under-development, and subsequent demands for Western-led state building assume a more familiar form, where state building has arguably become the twenty-first century’s version of nineteenth century Europe’s rush to empire.
We are not arguing that humanitarian intervention is unwarranted in certain cases. We do, however, argue that the speed and de-territorialized nature of new war coverage in cyberspace has contributed to a changed perception of contemporary war itself. The ensuing imagery of war as a pathology of under-development has in turn created cover for traditional, territorialized forms of state-based geo-politics. In effect, new war coverage in cyberspace has underwritten what may be crudely called a “blame the victim” approach to contemporary war in the developing world. There, wars occur and states fail because developing countries have failed to grasp the opportunities provided by post-colonial independence and globalization. The role of Western states in contributing to processes of state decline and failure is often left out of this story. Ironically, Western states are implored to intervene once more in the affairs of Third World states as peacekeepers and state builders.
This article has considered the implications of war coverage in cyberspace for the role of contemporary Western states as protagonists of war. Proponents of the Internet as an emancipatory tool would argue that the possibilities for independent journalism in cyberspace could undermine and challenge the authority of the state and its capacity to manipulate and mobilize opinion in support of war. However, the authors contend that it also may result in the atomization of citizens, making it easier for the state to divide and rule. It has been argued that convergent media technologies also provide Western states with new opportunities and spaces to manipulate discourses in furtherance of military objectives.
This discussion began with a review of the ways in which war coverage in cyberspace has led to the representation of war viewed by Western publics as something akin to a spectator sport. We described how this has provided a political context amenable to continued state use of war as an international political tool. We then introduced Virilio’s theoretical insights regarding the political impact of speed and de-territorialization arising from intense mass information flows generated by convergent media technologies. Such technologies have reinforced the image of war as spectator sport, creating a contemporary “fog of war” beneath which states can mobilize citizens in pursuit of traditional geo-political goals. War coverage in cyberspace was then linked explicitly with the securitization discourse of international relations. Securitization was illustrated with practical examples of the ways in which war coverage in cyberspace has been used by states to construct transnational security risks as a basis for interventionist foreign policy. While it is tempting to argue that war coverage in cyberspace has had profound implications for the capacity of Western states to use the media in support of war, what is more remarkable are the continuities that exist between pre- and post-cyberspace state media control strategies. War coverage in cyberspace has broadened the techniques available to states to try to shape public opinion, but the process of seeking to control war coverage remains fundamentally the same.
We argue, however, that war coverage in cyberspace has had a significant impact on the capacity of Western states to wage war through other indirect means. Specifically, “new war” coverage in cyberspace has shifted how Western publics understand contemporary war, and the relationship of Western states to its conduct. Coverage of “new wars” in cyberspace has contributed to a misleading representation of contemporary war as a pathology of underdevelopment. Ubiquitous and intense, this depiction of war has a reflexive effect, in which war is seen as an anarchical pathology of underdevelopment to which Western states benevolently respond with “necessary force.” In the process, Western states are absolved of direct culpability for war, while simultaneously benefiting new opportunities for legitimate intervention in the affairs of developing states. New war coverage in cyberspace has underwritten an emergent New World Order in which powerful Western states have a humanitarian obligation to undertake humanitarian wars and post-conflict state building in furtherance of human rights.
New war coverage in cyberspace has thus come to play a crucial but very complex role in underpinning contemporary international relations and the interventionist ambitions of powerful Western states. This role can best be explained through a kind of paradox of proximity and distance, which needs to be understood at two levels. On one level, we have a geographical paradox of distance, in which new war coverage in cyberspace shifts the very notion of war itself as something new and taking place in distant locations beyond prosperous Western borders. Here, Western states benefit from war coverage in cyberspace, which frames war itself as a pathology of under-development for which Western states are not culpable. On another, proximate level, war becomes a spectator sport, offered to the news consuming public as a form of entertainment to be consumed domestically. At this proximate level, a passive sense of engagement is fostered whereby Western citizens become mobilized through a feeling of responsibility for the distant “Other.” Here, new war coverage in cyberspace gives rise to a humanitarian political dynamic on the home front that draws Western citizens into the representation and “action” of a just, humanitarian warfare and demands and mandates Western humanitarian intervention to stop such wars. At this point the discourse of Western intervention shifts from that of imperial aggressor to selfless humanitarian champion and state builder.
New war coverage in cyberspace therefore comes to echo an old process in which states seek to exploit and benefit from the mobilizing capacity of mass media technologies. Contrary to Virilio’s concerns about the de-territorializing effects of ICTs, what is in fact occurring at present is a re-territorialization, in which populations are mobilized for seemingly selfless humanitarian ends. Western state authority is asserted within the complex process of increasing proximity, while at the same time defining new distant boundaries of influence and culpability. Convergent media technology is being coopted as part of a political dynamic that creates an audience more receptive to the securitization of war and underdevelopment. The spectacular presentation of war functions to co-opt audiences at home, while Western states continue to wage (traditional) forms of aggressive war abroad.
The authors would like to thank Emma Rujevic for her feedback. We are also grateful to the anonymous referees for their helpful comments.
About the authors
Lucas Walsh is a research fellow in the Citizenship and Globalisation Research Priority Area at Deakin University. A theme of his recent research has been the theoretical and applied issues arising from the nexus of technology, culture, citizenship, and governance in contemporary society.Address: Faculty of Arts, Deakin University, 221 Burwood Hwy, Burwood, VIC 3125 Australia
Julien Barbara is a research fellow within the Citizenship and Globalisation Research Priority Area at Deakin University. His current research interests include the privatization of war, the role of the private sector in peace building and development, and processes of state failure and state formation.Address: Faculty of Arts, Deakin University, 221 Burwood Hwy, Burwood, VIC 3125 Australia