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Political Discourse in the Digital Age: Part II

Written by: Bill Sherman on Wednesday, 17 June 2009, 7:35 AM

We’ve also seen social media be used for violent (and likely criminal) activity both within Iran and outside. For example, there’s a thread on Twitter which calls for people to participate in denial-of-service attacks on Iranian government websites. In many ways, DOS attacks stands somewhere between hooliganism and an act of war.

Think about it. Individuals can launch coordinated cyberattacks on nation-states. An American can open a web-browser and participate in an attack on the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) or the sites of Iran’s Supreme Leader or its president. If the U.S. military conducted these actions, they could legitimately be considered acts of war (or interfering with another nation’s internal affairs).

But, how do we describe a volunteers who decide on their own to become involved? Unlike the Lafayette Escadrille (American aviators who went to war in France prior to America’s involvement in 1917), the people joining today’s DoS attacks do not have to travel to Iran or put themselves at risk. They’re not soldiers or traditional warfighters.

  • If residents of China do not like the policies of the United States, should they launch a DoS attack on key US websites? What if these angered Chinese citizens targeted Bank of America, and Amazon’s websites?
  • If a popular blogger, radio host, or television show host encourages a denial of service attack on their own government or another government–how should the sponsor’s home nation respond?

We’re looking at a form of asymemetric civil-disobediance or guerilla warfare. It’s easy enough that a ten-year-old child can participate in the DoS attack on a foreign nation. The child can open a browser before bedtime and the computer will attack while he/she sleeps.

We’re seeing a potential change within geopolitical discourse between nations. In the past, we looked to leaders to see how a nation would respond to a situation. Now, individuals can act before a leader can even formulate a response to global events. Who will lead and who will follow?

Traditional state-to-state political discourse will long endure (through embassies, treaties, and multi-national bodies). However, we’re looking at a force which wants to drive politics to a peer-to-peer level.

In my writings about social capital, I’ve often said that an individual working in Chicago may have few meaningful connections with co-workers in the same office. Their work may be more connected with folks in London, Atlanta, Singapore, and Dubai. Increasingly, Gen X and Millenials live and work with people around the world. Those bonds, over time, exert a peer-to-peer pressure.

Will it moderate actions between nations or will it provoke more extreme responses? The answer will vary from scenario to scenario. However, the nature of political discourse has clearly changed.

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