Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 39: Cyberwar and Revolution — with Svitlana Matviyenko

Speakers: Rachel Wong, Am Johal, Svitlana Matviyenko, John Walker

[theme music]

Rachel Wong  0:05  
Hello listeners I'm Rachel Wong with Below the Radar, a knowledge mobilization podcast. Below the Radar is created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement, and is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode, we are joined by Svitlana Matviyenko, Assistant Professor of Critical Media Analysis at SFU's School of Communication. She is the CO editor of The Imaginary App and Lacan and The Posthuman. More recently, alongside Nick Dyer-Witheford she published Cyberwar and Revolution: Digital Subterfuge in Global Capitalism through University of Minnesota Press. Together, they are the winners of the 2020 Science, Technology and Art in International Relations, or STAIR, Best Book Award. Our host Am Johal sits down with Svitlana to talk about the processes of cyberwar and digital mobilization.

Am Johal  1:04  
Welcome, Svitlana.

Svitlana Matviyenko  1:05  
Thank you very much. I'm so glad to talk to you.

Am Johal  1:08  
Svitlana, I actually had a chance to read the book several months back, I was like, on the flight back from Kamloops to like various trips I was doing and really got engrossed in the text, and just the timeliness of it as well. And maybe you can just begin by talking about where the project started from, and what drove you to work on this book?

Svitlana Matviyenko  1:28  
Sure. Yeah, the project began several years ago, around 2013, 2014, at that time, Nick Dyer-Witheford and I were very interested in events, interested and troubled by the events that were happening in Ukraine, that was the Maidan protests. So we were following what was happening there, this mobilization of people, which is again, a digital mobilization. And recently, something like this was happening around the world. And Ukraine was a kind of the next country where people mobilized by means of certain social networks, as a digital means, et cetera. And of course, like, the context was very troubling, and later deaths of people. So it was very heavy, complex situation. And we decided to write to think about it, so. So it seemed to us that our area, we are both Communication Studies specialists, but also those who studied political economy of communication. So suddenly, it seemed to us that our field allows us to say something about this digital mobilization and how it kind of is situated within the wide political economic world context. And then, when we started working on this project, and for this, we read a lot of reports, we interviewed a lot of people at first remotely. But then we actually went to Ukraine, and had many conversations with people who were engaged, who were mobilizing other people, people who are ran that websites like Facebook pages that became incredibly popular among Ukrainians in general, and the protesters. So very soon, it became clear to us that this event, not only similar as the mobilizations, but also is a part of a much more complex phenomenon, much more complex situation, and event that has to do with digital militarism on a global scale. And that's how we kind of got the idea of this project, we realized that whatever we are writing, a book or collection, or an article, at that time we didn't know, actually has to transform in the study of this global digital militarism. And Cyberwar was the name that we decided to give it.

Am Johal  3:59  
And oftentimes, when people are writing about cyberwar, they're looking at it from a geopolitical point of view, or there's a kind of literature that's from retired military generals that are talking about this as a new threat. And what I appreciated about reading the book coming from the field of communications, how is your methodology separate from the other types of literature that are around, that reference cyberwar as a kind of threat?

Svitlana Matviyenko  4:26  
That's very good observation, because that was the aim of our project. Indeed, the notion of cyberwar belonged to the military and security specialists. They had a very particular understanding of cyberwar as a kind of literally military threat, of a war of a new dimension, and caliber, and methods, and techniques and technology. But still, they were seeing it as something really related to geopolitics, even if very asymmetrical, and different from how war is usually understood. However, we really wanted to give this notion and also this new event, this new kind of war, a political, economic reading. And not even just that, we also wanted to highlight the importance, the significance of the user, as a part of this very complex event. So basically, we looked at the psychological and even psychoanalytic dimension of user participation in this event, and we thought of users as relays in this very complex war machine, or war assemblage. So basically, that's where it has to do a lot, was epistemology, was epistemological dimension of cyberwar, or digital militarism in general, something that we refer to as like informational propaganda, or fake news, something like this, right? So it's tricked user, but also automated user. So in a sense, a user, kind of exploited in many ways in this event, used for transmission of certain information, when the user response, psychological response, affective response is militarized, and weaponized in order to push, kind of like to entice certain way of participation, whether it's protests or sharing some information, or hating something, or liking something. All of these events, there is a lot of theories and readings today about many aspects of tricking users, and using users for different reasons: political, military, and consumption. And what was interesting to us, how in cyberwar, all the three layers kind of come together. So war is done by means how like advertising is done. And advertising itself becomes more aggressive and militarized, like war. So in the sense, all these things really come together, and that's what is scary. That's what we can call communicative militaries, when communication, as creation of certain contact, as passing and transmission of information, participates on all of the three levels: consumption, military and political.

Am Johal  7:38  
Before I get into the material of the book, clearly, this has a kind of historical basis to it, you know, I can give examples of say, state-driven models, US funding of the National Democratic Institute that supported work in Serbia, or Ukraine, that, you know, predates perhaps like a cyberwar context, but certainly a kind of pushing Western interests on to places around themes of democratization, or counter civil society organizations engaging in a type of politics that's challenging state authority or state power. So I guess in some ways, this doesn't come as a vacuum. But what do you view as the kind of historical precedents that leads into the material that you cover in the in the book?

Svitlana Matviyenko  8:24  
Yeah, the history of what we identify as cyberwar is certainly, it's a long history, right? So it has some institutional politics, it has particular research and sciences like cybernetics, right? So it has war theory and all sorts of institutions and countries and thinkers of war. So it kind of has a very multidimensional theory. But of course, cybernetics is one of them, cybernetics is kind of like the theories that we really wanted to link it to. And that's how we explain this meaning of cyberwar, the emphasis on automation. So in a sense, cyberwar wasn't probably the best name for it at some point we thought so. because it's linked to a number of very similar notions like net war or something else, but then we decided that cyber identifies the processes of automation. And this automation is incredibly important for us, automation and self-regulation, as those key notions in the cybernetic science and how they function within, like, in the context of these very complex events.

Am Johal  9:46  
So if we were to update Clausewitz, we could say that cyberwar is war by other means.

Svitlana Matviyenko  9:51  
Exactly, exactly. That is correct. And of course, I mean, we did mention William Gibson there as well. And that's what's good--

Am Johal  9:59  
To get a little Vancouver shoutout?

Svitlana Matviyenko  10:01  
That's right. That's right. Yeah. But of course, it's interesting. William Gibson often comes in conversation when people speak about cyber war. And that's why again, that's why too many, this term cyberwar maybe sounds a little too gimmicky or sci-fi. But that's how also we can see quite interesting communication between fantasy discourses and military discourses feeding one another. And indeed, so, the notion of cyberworld, or cyberspace, to be precise, was introduced by William Gibson in his work Neuromancer, and even earlier writings in the early 80s. However, it was interesting that several years ago, the US Defense Department added a new domain for war in the military doctrine. So, before, it was air, land, and sea, and so since several years ago, cyberwar is officially named as a war domain. So in the sense, it's no longer any sci-fi or a fantasy, this is actually a space where the war can be led. And it also means that particular strategies, particular developments, are happening within military institutions to think how exactly the war should be led in this space in this cyberspace.

Am Johal  11:32  
Now, with the timeliness of the book, you cover in quite a bit of detail, the Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee in the US during the 2016 election. And you mentioned these kinds of different types of hacks and what their intentions are, and talking about affirmation, negation, distraction, wondering if you can sort of place into context, like how can we read and try to understand that particular hack, and of course, there's many other hacking that goes on, that doesn't raise to the level of visibility that perhaps to some degree, all states are involved in. But that one in particular, obviously continues to this day in terms of affecting American politics, and otherwise in geopolitics to some degree, so.

Svitlana Matviyenko  12:16  
Yes, that case, as well as a number of other cases, are quite interesting in terms of thinking, this new type of war, cyberwar, because it really lends itself to a very simplistic reading, which is usually done under the influence of the whole Cold War discourse. So here, it seems like the things are arranged exactly in the same way, there are two big powers, and they're sort of fighting each other, just the same way as it was happening in the Cold War. So, that's what another kind of thing that we wanted to address in this book, that Cold War, the Cold War is gone. So in a sense, I mean, yes, I actually think that it still participates, even if on some fantasy level, or level of epistemology, so understanding, so stereotypes that also mobilized and weaponized in this whole discourse about current tensions and fights, and et cetera. However, I think it's also very important to step back from something that looks so familiar. And think about a really complex event that does not only includes the two powers, but in fact, includes so many different powers, which are not just state powers. And so that's one of the key features of cyberwar I really wanted to emphasize and develop in this book, we can call it like hybrid, or nonlinear, or asymmetric. And by this, we actually mean that so many different powers involved. It could be a state, it could be a corporation, it could be some insurgency group, cyber insurgency group, and it could be, like, single lone hackers. But also it can't be something completely random, some kind of random leak, random malfunction, random something else. So that's what this kind of framing this kind of thinking we need to have when we encounter something that again, looks so familiar, Cold War, et cetera.

Am Johal  14:31  
You can also distribute and redistribute where the hack is coming from that really, right scrambles what the truth might look like.

Svitlana Matviyenko  14:40  
Exactly, right? So that's why I'm quite disturbed by this whole idea of Russian hackers, and how it is used in media in all sorts of discourses. And I'm not saying that there are no Russian hackers. There are, there are those, all famous troll factories in St. Petersburg. They exist. But, so many other things were kind of identified or interpreted in terms of all this Russian hackers scenario, that I think someone is really using that, right? So someone is using our Cold War imaginaries to cover some other, very complex power relations between many powers.

Am Johal  15:25  
And there's also the sort of, the phenomenon of the truth-teller or the whistleblowers. So you have the Snowdens, the Julian Assanges, that a particular kind of role in the imaginary for some people are truth-tellers, for other people, conspiracy theorists, for other people, traitors, and it kind of goes on and on in a kind of way, and also the extent to which they can be used in some way. 

Svitlana Matviyenko  15:46  

Am Johal  15:46  
And certainly, with Assange...

Svitlana Matviyenko  15:48  
Information is sent or leaked by someone, let's even call it a true-teller, right, but then it's used immediately by multiple agents. And it's used in so many different ways. And that's what we also think, that's what we also identify as cyberwar, the complexity of interpretation, the complexity of action that is mobilized by even a certain leak, certain quote, unquote, "troops," certain information. And it can go in extremely controversial ways, extremely surprising ways.

Am Johal  16:26  
Yeah. In fact, in many ways, these methodologies look not that different than political infighting, or those types of things, where anonymous people come forward to the media to say this and that during internecine leadership debate or this type of thing. And so it is quite--one of the terms that you use in the book are "sockpuppet social media accounts," what do you mean by that?

Svitlana Matviyenko  16:48  
Well, yeah, so I mean, social media, of course, Facebook, Twitter, et cetera, were used in so many ways here. And when we say in this book that people are used as relays, right? So it means that certain discourses that they can produce are basically mobilized in certain way in certain effective ways, in certain epistemological ways, and et cetera. Right. So, people are used to say something, people are forced to say something, people are forced to send certain information and so on.

Am Johal  17:22  
So in some sense, cyberwar is a, like populism, in a way, is a technique rather than an ideology, and it can be employed in various...

Svitlana Matviyenko  17:31  
Yes, it's a very smart social engineering, right, so which is another very much cybernetic kind of idea and term, right? So how people can be forced to do something.

Am Johal  17:45  
Now, there's even contexts where groups that are on the kind of far margins and periphery, the use of social media to amplify what they're doing. So say ISIL or Daesh, using social media in particular ways, and wondering how you read that particular phenomenon, in terms of the sophistication of the uses of that by terrorist organizations?

Svitlana Matviyenko  18:07  
Yes, we looked at several examples, and what is really disturbing about these users of social media, and social engineering by means of social media, or amplification of certain effects of discourse through social media, is that that how certain inventions that in many cases, like certain techniques of communication, of sending certain messages, that are in many cases invented by activists, protesters, et cetera, are being stolen from them by certain powers, right? So in a sense, there is always some kind of set of new techniques, invented by a particular protest, that's what's kind of happen in Maidan, and that's what happened in Egypt, and et cetera. And then immediately, we see, how very soon the state power uses the same techniques in order to target some people, somehow, in order to, again, mobilize them for different purposes, et cetera. And in this sense, it's a kind of like scary, and very disappointing how it's all been appropriated, because these techniques are the particular let's say, technical and social knowledge that we develop as activists, as protesters in order to continue our fight right, for certain important causes. So, and then suddenly, we see how these techniques are being stolen. And what terrorist organizations are doing, state powers are doing, is precisely that.

Am Johal  19:48  
In one part of the book, and I think you're reading through Deleuze and Guattari here, you next state that the war machine dominates, but contains possibilities for nomadic reappropriation of its technologies. What do you mean by that?

Svitlana Matviyenko  20:01  
Yeah, it basically continues what I just mentioned, right? So this circle of reappropriation of techniques, or creating new techniques, or stealing them back, isn't a complex, ongoing relation, the participation in this fight against state, or for the sake of certain causes, et cetera. So, of course, it would have been a super sad picture, if we would say that there is no way out completely, right? So the last chapter of this book, which I must say, was the hardest to write, and the title of the chapter is "What is to be Done." And we pose some questions or thoughts about possibilities to either appropriate certain techniques back, or think about new techniques that could not be appropriated by the state. Or think about the very complex, porous assemblages of cyberwar, and a possibility to find some niches, some spaces in it, where we suddenly can escape either control, or the mechanisms of social engineering, certain power, and carve certain spaces where we can be, even if temporarily, but to think and to disconnect, disconnect from the complex world assemblage. 

Am Johal  21:27  
I want to talk a little bit about the Arab Spring as well, because I was in Egypt back in 2004, and you didn't have to go very far to get into conversations with people who talked about wanting or having the desire to overthrow Mubarak, and it was a part of, you know, everyday conversation, you wouldn't need to go further, it was the economic and social and political frustration with the regime. And you know, end of 2010, Arab Spring starts 2011, and by 2012, Western academics writing about the "Twitter revolutions," and things like that. And to me, it feels that it glosses over the labour, and the political mobilization, the work that really happened over almost a decade, or something like that. But it seems like things sometimes get skipped over, and certainly there's an amplification effect that social media has to preexisting political and social orders and mobilization that are happening, but how do you read how cyberwar fits into these types of entanglement?

Svitlana Matviyenko  22:25  
Here, we can think of cyber again as automation. And also, think about one of the meanings, perhaps the original meaning of a revolution, as rotation, as circulation. And that's where, kind of almost suddenly, we can see how many of these protests or mobilizations were misnamed as revolutions. But in fact, unless you think about this original name of it as a certain circulation, right, rotation, kind of rebooting of power of the same caliber, et cetera.

Am Johal  23:05  
Rebooting to a new strong man.

Svitlana Matviyenko  23:08  
Exactly, right? So to another misrecognized strong man, or misrecognized new leader or misrecognized as potentially good new leader, et cetera. So and that's where also some of the questions that we had in this book, because the book is called Cyberwar and Revolution, so about this complex relation of rebooting certain regimes, and while also mistakenly seeing them as big change. But here, we have the kind of revolution that is not about change, but it's about continuation. So maybe we need to also not forget that revolution also means this, and to think, how to update what should be the theory and practice of revolution today, is that it doesn't fall into this automated regime in service of, you know, power, capital, and so on.

Am Johal  24:06  
And in terms of how you read cyberwar now, how do you think about the possible futures of cyberwar?

Svitlana Matviyenko  24:15  
This couple of years after the book, so I continue working on certain topics related to the book. And I have been working with the notion of communicative capitalism, which is the notion introduced several years, quite a while ago by Jody Dean, also political thinker. Today, it's interesting and important, I think, to reintroduce this notion as communicative militarism in order to raise awareness about how the communication, understood in a very wide way, is being exploited for militarization, for any kind of forms of digital militarization, this is kind of like, my take from all this work. And I'm looking in many different cases, new cases that, in many ways reminds something that we already wrote in the book. But of course, people have new ideas about how to explore it, how to militarize, how to mobilize, how to commodify certain audiences, right? So they work with the phenomenon of echo chambers, and thinking also about possibilities to mobilize and commodify echo chambers, this particular audience, and so on. So, continue working on this and continue to exploring, and thinking about the new dimensions of cyberwar.

Am Johal  25:49  
How has the reception of the book been, what kinds of questions have come your way, since it's been released?

Svitlana Matviyenko  25:56  
Different, we had different responses, very good responses, we got an award, we got several very nice responses in journals and press, et cetera. To speak about like some kind of controversial questions that we usually receive, because I think that's the most interesting. So. there are some people who are offended by the fact that we are calling it a war. Because obviously, in many cases, what we discuss in this book has to do with real-world scenarios. It has to do with like protests, deaths, drone war, and things like that. However, at the same time, it actually has, cyberwar has another dimension, which is this very peaceful dimension. Sometimes I like to say that cyberwar goes through our bedrooms, because it's also about zombification of our machines, it's stealing computer power, and stuff like that. So some people sometimes get offended that that dimension is also identified as war. They say there is no bloodshed, it's maybe a little incorrect, and et cetera. But I think that's precisely the point that we want to make in this book, as we think of a new type of war, a distributed war, right? So it needs, it requires that other hidden areas that are so far away from the battlefield, but can be a source of data, or computer power or something like this, right. So that's why we actually have to think of this complexity, which now includes peace, and war, that peace is also today militarized and exploited for the purpose of some remote kinetic war somewhere on the other side of the globe.

Am Johal  27:54  
Svitlana, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar.

Svitlana Matviyenko  27:58  
Thank you for having me.

Am Johal  27:59  
Once again, the book is Cyberwar and Revolution: Digital Subterfuge in Global Capitalism, from University of Minnesota Press, and I had a chance to read it highly encourage you to go and check it out.

Rachel Wong  28:16  
Thank you again to Svitlana Matviyenko for joining us on this week's episode of Below the Radar. The STAIR Best Book Award is a section of the International Studies Association that seeks to recognize the innovations in research about the intersections between science, technology, art, and international relations. To learn more about the award and the book, we've linked to some resources in the episode description below. On the next episode, we are joined with filmmaker John Walker, a director of many films, including The documentary film Assholes: A Theory.

John Walker 28:50  
I found, this book, Assholes: A Theory, there it was. So I came into my office, said, "This is my next project!" The book is a, kind of a warning about the rising tide, in my words, the "rising tide of assholery." What was important to me about the book was, because it names the behavior, and describes it as a moral type, it allows you to say, "this is unacceptable behavior." So it's empowering in that sense, but I think that if you're not aware that this is bad behavior, not aware of what an asshole is doing and be able to define it, you could take it on yourself thinking, "What's wrong with me, I'm not doing a good job," because you know, you're being yelled at, you're being shouted at, you know, you're not being respected. You're not being treated as a human being. And you think, "What have I done to deserve deserve this kind of behavior?" and the sort of accepting and not realizing it's sense of entitlement, that seems to be a very male, particularly vis a vis women. I mean, we have a culture, a male culture of being, feeling superior to women.

Rachel Wong  29:49  
As always, thank you to the team that puts this podcast together, including myself, Rachel Wong, Paige Smith, Fiorella Pinillos and Kathy Fang. David Steele is the composer of our theme music, and thank you for listening. Tune in next time for a brand new episode of Below the Radar. You can find Below the Radar wherever you listen to your podcasts, including Spotify, SoundCloud, Google Play and Apple podcasts.

Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
February 18, 2020

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