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Speech and communications as war

February 2, 2011

This post from Galrahn at the US Naval Institute’s blog is very interesting in its own right, but this response from NewsHoggers’s Steve Hynd also raises some interesting questions. Galrahn contends that in providing an instrument to distribute anti-regime propaganda to a global scale, Google is aiding in a campaign of subversion against what is currently a major US strategic partner. Galrahn goes so far as to label this action a form of unconventional warfare, because Google is essentially taking a side to implement a political decision in a contest of force.

The notion that spreading information or journalism could be a form of warfare deeply worries Hynd, who believes that defining such activity as warfare both endangers legal protections for journalists and strengthens totalitarian regimes. Unlike the case of Wikileaks, where Manning’s release of classified documents (if not necessarily Assange’s dissemination) clearly constitutes an illegal act, this case is, for the reasons Galrahn points out, much more interesting. No US companies are violating or conducting actions which violating their host nation’s laws, and because these are legitimate entities, they have a larger financial and technological base for such programs. To Hynd, even speaking of journalism this way strengthens the case of totalitarianism, and violates the sacred status of immigration and speech.

I think Hynd exaggerates the danger a blogger poses to free speech. Hosni Mubarak did not need external justification to realize that as far as his interests were concerned, the internet and speech were weapons, and act accordingly. The US and other countries responded harshly to Mubarak’s communications clampdown, and, in rhetoric at least, elevated internet access as a new universal right. Mubarak is in a political struggle for his regime’s survival. When a new regime or constitutional order is at stake, everything does start to look like war. As Juan Donoso Cortes put it:

… don’t tell me you don’t wish to fight; for the moment you tell me that, you are already fighting; nor that you don’t know which side to join, for while you are saying that, you have already joined a side; nor that you wish to remain neutral; for while you are thinking to be so, you are so no longer; nor that you want to be indifferent; for I will laugh at you, because on pronouncing that word you have chosen your party.

Cortes, a liberal turned reactionary writing in the wake of the 1848 revolutions, was referring to the struggle between Catholicism and the ideologies of liberalism and socialism, and he, like the better known Joseph de Maistre, was on the side of an authoritarian version of the former. Yet he captures the idea of a total political struggle eloquently. In electing to treat communications as neutral in an ideological battle, states circumscribe one form of power to enhance the other. Now, we may see this as perfectly legitimate or natural, and thus exclude it from consideration in a discussion of war. This silence might be wise for policymakers, but it’s less useful for those seeking an understanding the complexities of political conflict, particularly when communications technology has given states and other organizations enormous power to influence popular thought. So, while in an ideal world, speech would not be war, and for a just world, we should endeavor not to treat speech as such, we should still recognize the implications of speech as a form of warfare, because many political agents see it that way.

The United States considered speech a weapon in World War I, and it did as well in World War II and the Cold War. Galrahn is not stating anything revolutionary when he talks about communications technology as policy by other means, except perhaps in claiming that it’s still a form of warfare when the elements of society, rather than the state, are waging it. Because the modern legal order generally does not consider war, in the Clausewitzean sense, a protected right even of states, we will endeavor to avoid labeling information operations or coercion/pressure-through-communications war, at least until it is used against our values and interests. We’ve essentially begun to see this with Wikileaks, and I suspect we will see it again. Although liberalism neutralized political speech long ago, in part as a necessity method of constitutional self-preservation, with every perceived existential struggle it retreats into censorship.

The difference with any society which rules through coercion is that this period of perceived existential struggle, of alignment against an enemy, is more permanent (even normal), and the neutrality of speech becomes politically untenable. Sun Tzu famously said it is best to win without fighting. With the advent of communications technology, and now that of non-state organizations such as Google capable of leveraging its tremendous power independently of the government, Galrahn’s post reminds us of this important question: will it be possible to wage a war not just without fighting, but without anyone realizing a war is being fought?

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