The age of information war could well have started in December. But few of us noticed. Perhaps that’s because we’re so used to clichés like: ‘the internet means that we live in a different world today from the one we used to inhabit.’ Like many clichés, there’s truth in it but, like most clichés, it makes us complacent and unobservant (hence our not noticing) and misses a deeper and more interesting truth. The rise of the internet has changed our world, yes, but it has also meant that many of us are now regular visitors to a foreign country. That foreign country is the internet.
Far from an empty ‘world’, a neutral environment for information, the internet is inhabited. Many of its inhabitants are non-ideological, ignorant and apathetic towards their citizenship, but some of them are socially aware, far from apathetic and fiercely nationalistic. And that nationalism takes the form of an intense hostility towards anyone who threatens their ability to go about their business in their chosen online country or challenges its most cherished principles. The furore around the WikiLeaks website proved that once and for all. But we saw a small, low-key and relatively inconsequential example of it before that, in the form of the ‘cartoon-week meme’ on Facebook.
A ‘meme’ in internet parlance is any idea, picture or phrase that is popularly copied and repeated. The ‘cartoon week meme’ most likely started in Greece and encouraged Facebook users to change their profile pictures to cartoon characters and copy and paste a status update that encouraged others to do the same, with the aim of there being ‘no human face on Facebook for a week’. When someone had the bright idea of adding content into the status text that told people it was a sign of solidarity with the fight against child abuse, the meme exploded into super-popularity. But the people of the internet, those people I told you about before, who spend huge portions of their lives online and see it as their domain – they’re a cynical lot, and any hint of being pressured or coerced, particularly on the net itself, will cause many of them to rebel. Some posted pictures of Homer Simpson throttling his son, Bart. Others started an alternate meme that suggested that the entire ‘cartoon week’ idea had in fact been started by paedophiles so that children online would not be ableto tell the difference between predatory adults and other children. Two memes, two basic weapons in the propaganda-level of an information war, exploited most people’s desire to protect children from abuse as a means of spreading themselves.
Arming the Troops
But the real information battle, the one that defined, for many, the beginning of the info war age, raged around the WikiLeaks website. WikiLeaks is a ‘whistle-blowing’ site, on which people can ‘leak’ secret information that is, they say, in the public interest for everyone to know. Most recently, WikiLeaks released information that suggested British security forces had been complicit in the torture of Iraqis as well as releasing embarrassing diplomatic memos. Around the same time, WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, was charged with rape and sexual assault in Sweden, charges that many commentators thought were the result of governments trying silence Assange and WikiLeaks. All of this merely elicited the usual political debates online, but with little more effect than that.
What woke the sleeping giant was when Amazon, the company which hosted part of WikiLeaks’ website, refused to do so anymore, apparently bowing to government pressure. This effectively shut WikiLeaks down until they could find a new server host. To many ‘internet citizens’, those people I mentioned at the beginning, this seemed like an incursion into their territory. Because if serious internet people have a creed, it is that free flowing information is good and trying to stop it is wrong. WikiLeaks soon found itself in more difficulties, with both Mastercard and Visa refusing to process the donations it relies on to survive. That was the last straw. The natives of that online land were restless and released their version of an angry, powerful mob: Anonymous.
Anonymous is a loosely affiliated group of ‘hacktivists’ – hackers who illegally attack websites, not for personal gain or out of pure malice, but to make a social or political point. They became famous for taking on the famously scary and unaccountable Church of Scientology and are, it has to be said, intimidating. With the scent of blood in their nostrils, the members of Anonymous (who wear Guy Fawkes masks if they are pictured) declared ‘Operation Payback’ and ‘Operation Avenge Assange’. And in a matter of days (in some cases hours) they crashed the websites of Mastercard, Visa, Amazon and a few other sites that had colluded in attempting to silence WikiLeaks, their many thousands of members and supporters posting messages online as to their reason: to protect free speech online.
Going in to Battle
The WikiLeaks war is far from over, but what it reveals is the ‘national’ character of the internet. It is not an extension of Britain, America, or anywhere else. It is very hard to govern from outside. And like many countries we have recently invaded, its inhabitants do not give up easily and are willing to lash out in ostensibly destructive ways. But it is important to see it from their side. Yes, there is good cause to be concerned when any group turns to vigilantism, but any Christian who values free speech, democracy or the human rights WikiLeaks has so far served so well must at least give a little cheer, as I did, when a true mass-movementdecides to oppose the forces of multinational corporate money and imperial government when they stand in the way of truth.
And more relevantly for many churches, if we are venturing into cyberspace to spread our message, if we are attempting to reach the growing throngs of people who choose to do a large proportion of their living online, we need to learn the lessons that missionaries to physical lands learned the hard way: Just being able to make yourself understood is not the same as learning the language. Dressing up in national costume without taking time to learn the local culture and customs is likely to cause offence rather than win hearts and minds. And working as part of an imperial or colonial agenda that seeks to fundamentally alter the structure of the society without paying necessary dues to it may leave a distinctly negative legacy.
If you’re commissioning cyber-missionaries, it’s best to remind them that they’re going into a war-zone, and to train them accordingly. Every modern mission agency knows the value of working alongside local believers – the ones who understand the terrain, the ones who have to live with any mess you make. Wouldbe missionaries to the land of 4Chan, Cult of the Dead Cow and even Anonymous, where potential fails are over 9000 and insider knowledge is FTW, should think of asking those locals’ opinions before blundering in, telling everyone they can haz ceiling cat. A word of warning: If you are not familiar with the majority of those phrases in italics, you’re probably not a local, just a visitor in need of a translator.
Jonathan Langley is a journalist and works for a mission agency. Martin Saunders will definitely be back next month.