Rebel with a Temporary Cause: The Asymmetrical Access to Distrust, Hipness and Intensity As Resources in Cyber-Conflicts

Friday, 20 July 2018: 11:45
Oral Presentation
Arild BERGH, Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI), Norway
Research indicates that online interactions can be more conflictual and aggressive than face-to-face interactions. This, combined with a sense of exclusion among certain constituencies in mature democracies, can provide an opportunity to harvest angry online exchanges as a form of free, crowdsourced microwork, similar to Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” marketplace. The energy expended in brief, angry online exchanges can thus be funnelled into a broader cyber-campaign against a target.

This paper suggests that the political term “useful idiots”, meaning someone who is not fully aware of the implications of a cause they (temporarily) support, can be used as an analytical lens to examine how negative campaigns in cyberspace, whether voluntary or organised by governments, attract additional support. It will examine the asymmetrical access that parties have to non-tangible resources which may help recruit such supporters. Resources include distrust of authorities, the hipness that comes from rebelling and the equivalent of an endorphin rush that may arise when participating in online attacks on individuals. Being against something is more exciting than defending the current situation; the fact that it may be unsustainable does not matter to those who want to attack the status quo. This also ties in with the attention economy where actions that provide higher-intensity affects while demanding less investment in time will be more successful than actions by nation-states who need to consider more diverse needs.

To examine the implications of this for the defence of the nation state this paper will unpack recent examples of well documented cyber campaigns, such as “gamergate” and the use of so-called fake news in the 2016 US election. A particular focus will be on how those trying to defend nation states can be overwhelmed in cyber campaigns by the sheer number of temporary followers of the attacker, i.e. the useful idiots.