Soldiers of the Internet

newsofdevilsThe author Jeremy Duns is probably best known for his internet profile. From his Twitter account he relentlessly scrutinises issues of espionage, truth and national security, holding celebrity journalists and polemicists to account. The results are often fascinating, and it’s possible to lose a good hour catching up on his timeline. A spy novelist by trade, Duns has written a string of excellent Cold War action thrillers, in this ebook, News of Devils, he has turned his attention to the biggest espionage story of the new century: the Snowden revelations.

Reading military memoirs of the 2000s, you get the sense of a cultural shift: the transition from conventional warfare to asymmetric or three block war, where soldiers spend as much time working with communities and trying to win ‘hearts and minds’ as actually fighting physical enemies. This approach has even been called postmodern war. Maybe we are now in the middle of a postmodern Cold War. In a fascinating report for the Institute of Modern Russia, analysts Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss explored how this works in modern practice. Vladimir Putin’s regime rules by information as much as violence. His propaganda channel RT combs the West for cranks, neo-Nazis and fantasists, which it presents as ‘experts’ to lend credibility to staged reports and conspiracy theory directed against democratic countries. The regime has ‘troll farms’ – battalions of internet commenters to spread similar rhetoric:

The documents show instructions provided to the commenters that detail the workload expected of them. On an average working day, the Russians are to post on news articles 50 times. Each blogger is to maintain six Facebook accounts publishing at least three posts a day and discussing the news in groups at least twice a day. By the end of the first month, they are expected to have won 500 subscribers and get at least five posts on each item a day. On Twitter, the bloggers are expected to manage 10 accounts with up to 2,000 followers and tweet 50 times a day.

Moscow journalism teacher Igor Yakovenko says that ‘If previous authoritarian regimes were three parts violence and one part propaganda… this one is virtually all propaganda and relatively little violence. Putin only needs to make a few arrests – and then amplify the message through his total control of television’.

Whatever’s going on here, it’s not journalism, at least in the sense of finding out the truth. You’re not a journalist, you’re a soldier, using information and media to fight for a cause. The reporter Glenn Greenwald damned the idea of objective journalism: ‘this suffocating constraint on how reporters are permitted to express themselves produces a self-neutering form of journalism that becomes as ineffectual as it is boring.’ He went on to say that:

The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers.

We’ve all got our subjective biases, says Greenwald. So what the hell.

Duns’s short book News of Devils investigates the reporting of the Snowden cache. When Snowden contacted Greenwald, the reporter took the authenticity of Snowden and his documents basically on faith. The documents had official-looking acronyms, therefore they had to be real – not a hoax or an intelligence trap. ‘It’s a basic tenet that the larger a claim the more evidence you need to back it, and forged and fabricated intelligence documents are extremely common in the espionage world,’ Duns writes. ‘But [Greenwald]’s scepticism, fact-checking ability and cold eye to the possibilities of unseen issues that all good journalists have as second nature seems to have been entirely lacking here.’ Greenwald’s then colleagues at the Guardian had big concerns about Snowden’s credibility – he wasn’t some coughing, haggard Deep Throat, but a twenty-nine year old systems analyst. (His editor, Janine Gibson, was also concerned that, having been told that the NSA was monitoring various widely used information channels including Skype, Greenwald called her up and told her about this on Skype.)

But Greenwald was a soldier, not a journalist. ‘I approach my journalism as a litigator,’ he said. ‘People say things, you assume they are lying, and dig for documents to prove it.’ Nor did Greenwald care that a leak may put individuals at risk. He claimed that Snowden had told him: ‘Leaking CIA documents can actually harm people, whereas leaking NSA documents can harm systems.’

Duns writes:

Did Snowden really say this and, if so, did Greenwald believe him? The NSA employs intelligence officers, runs agents and assets around the world, and even a codename or hint about an operation might blow someone’s cover and harm living, breathing human beings. Neither does one need to be under cover to be at risk of harm.

What about Snowden himself? What are his motivations? He was a Republican, an aspiring soldier med-exed from basic training. He was also, as George Packer says, ‘a soldier of the internet.’ In a humane and sympathetic profile, Packer expands on this:

He has said that he grew up not just using [the internet] but in it, and that he learned the heroic power of moral action from playing video games. ‘Basically, the internet allowed me to experience freedom and explore my full capacity as a human being,’ Snowden told Greenwald when they met in Hong Kong. ‘I do not want to live in a world where we have no privacy and no freedom, where the unique value of the internet is snuffed out.’ Throughout the past year, Snowden has continually returned to this theme, more often and more passionately than to the idea of constitutional liberties. His utopia is not an actual democratic society, let alone the good life in a three-bedroom bungalow outside Honolulu, but cyberspace. When he saw that his employer, the US government, was invading the free and private place where he had become himself, the effect was of a paradise lost.

Duns has fun with Snowden’s more fantastical statements. Snowden said in a Christmas message on UK TV that ‘A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought.’ The ability to actually monitor people’s thoughts is impossible even for the most sophisticated intelligence network. But we can empathise. Imagine you’re Edward Snowden. You’re a young man, smart and idealistic and disillusioned. You come across something you believe proves state wrongdoing. And you steal this information, hundreds of thousands of documents, more than you can possibly analyse or understand. The rush of it. The buzz of history. You’re setting news agendas. You’re admired and hated worldwide. And then the comedown. Confusion, remorse, the possibility of a hundred years in federal lockup. All you can do is run, and you might never see home again. Snowden is a child of the digital age but Joseph Conrad’s words in his 1917 novel The Shadow Line might have resonated with him:

Only the young have such moments. I don’t mean the very young. No, the very young have, properly speaking, no moments. It is the privilege of early youth to live in advance of its days, in all the continuity of hope, which means no pauses and no introspection… Yes, one goes on and time goes on – till one perceives ahead a shadow line, warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind… This is the period of life in which such moments of which I have spoken are likely to come. What moments? Why, moments of boredom, weariness, of dissatisfaction – rash moments. I mean moments when the still young are inclined to commit rash actions, such as getting married suddenly, or else throwing up a job for no reason.

During the 2000s governments made legislative changes based on terror threats. Anyone who objected was basically told ‘If we don’t pass this law, the terrorists win’. Post-Iraq, and with a more isolationist and distrustful mood, this dog won’t fight. As Duns says:

Where national security state hawks once sold the public the message ‘BE AFRAID – THE TERRORISTS ARE PLANNING TO ATTACK US!’, the Snowden story has repeatedly sold the public a new but equally terrifying narrative: ‘BE AFRAID – YOUR GOVERNMENT IS SPYING ON YOU!’

It’s good to have a healthy scepticism, of authority and the state, and intelligence services, while engaging in reasonable deception, must have democratic oversight. But it’s a big leap from that to state that there’s no real difference between liberal democracies, imperfect and flawed as they are, and totalitarian regimes and movements.

In an age when a lie can be RTd around the world before the truth has got its boots on, it’s great that the digital world also has a place for Jeremy Duns, whose thoughtful and measured essay reminds us that it’s a big world out there that doesn’t always offer us comforting choices.

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