Intelligence and surveillance powers that once belonged only to militaries and state spooks are now available to anyone with a high-speed internet connection.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
Live long enough and you may hear future historians recall the war between 4chan and an art collective called LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner.
They'll tell the story of how anonymous, interconnected imageboard users gathered clues from public video footage, like passing aircraft and the position of stars, to geolocate the roving, anti-Trump art project He Will Not Divide Us, put on by actor Shia LaBeouf and his collaborators. Records will show that the people on the group's trail—pro-Trump activists, impish saboteurs, and budding neo-Nazis—didn't need high-end spy gear. Instead, they found their mark by collecting and processing public information through decentralized and supposedly leaderless networks. It might one day look, in retrospect, like a form of social automation: continuously updating intelligence assessments converted into real-world effect by volunteer foot "soldiers" acting without orders.
Or maybe the saga will be remembered as a trial run of sorts, when tactics later used in domestic guerilla warfare first appeared as sinister pranks. Whatever happens next, the genie is out of the bottle, and intelligence and surveillance capabilities that once belonged only to militaries and state spooks are now available to anyone with a high-speed internet connection.
Military theorist and futurist John Robb, who wrote the influential 2008 book Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization, developed the concept of "open-source insurgency" to describe emerging forms of conflict. You can see a version of it at work in the current season of political upheaval and clashes in American cities. Of course, it's violence in the streets that captures most of the attention, especially after a car plowed into a crowd amid the neo-Nazi spectacle in Charlottesville, killing counter-protester Heather Heyer and injuring many more. But in the background, much of the fighting is being done online. Memes, trolls, bans, doxes, sock puppets, and targeted disruption campaigns like the one used against LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner are being deployed in a cycle of attacks and counterattacks that, much like traditional military intelligence and information operations, set conditions for the next round of physical confrontation.
The foundation of open-source insurgency is what Robb calls "superempowerment": "an increase in the ability of individuals and small groups to accomplish tasks/work through the combination of rapid improvements in technological tools and access to global networks." That increase, Robb argues, "has enabled small groups to radically increase their productivity in conflict."
It's a concept that helps make sense of the seemingly outsized cultural clout of the alt-right, a movement built on beliefs that fail to attract more than fringe support in national surveys.
"History doesn't repeat, it rhymes," Robb said in an interview, echoing an adage attributed to Mark Twain.
What distinguishes the current political conflict from past episodes of fascists, communists, and anarchists clashing in the streets of Western cities, according to Robb, "is the whole social networking thing."
"They exercise power in this new environment through online disruption," he added. "You keep everything chaotic, you don't know what's up and down, who to trust and who not to trust, and what news is right or wrong. In that environment, they can exercise some level of control."
There are other names like "hybrid warfare" and "fourth-generation warfare" to describe the evolving nature of political and military conflict. The idea is that war has moved beyond the battlefield into an all-encompassing struggle in economics, politics, and culture, along with old-school physical confrontation. In this new kind of warfare, where the allegiance of civilian populations is crucial, control over narrative and messaging is often more important than killing the enemy or holding a particular piece of ground.
The fact that much of this applies to what's going on in America now doesn't mean a civil war has already begun. But it suggests that after a long period of relative quiet in the West, when war and peace appeared to be distant, unbridgeable states, they have begun bleeding back into each other.
A signature tactic in the new conflict, honed on sites like 4chan and 8chan, is forensic analysis of digital imagery and geospatial data—fields specialized enough to have their own acronyms, IMINT and GEOINT, in military jargon. Sometimes this work is carried out by distributed networks without any clear leaders or permanent organization. But there are more formalized approaches as well. The Atlantic Council–affiliated Bellingcat mixes investigative journalism with open-source forensic analysis to do things like geolocate ISIS training camps. Groups on 4Chan and Anonymous have also repeatedly waded into foreign wars, notably in Ukraine and Syria, where they have typically taken different sides, with 4chan showing a strong pro-Assad and pro-Russia bias.
The tactics involved aren't exactly neutral—they favor actors skilled at processing and manipulating high volumes of information—but they are promiscuous. What works against an anti-Trump art installation can be used by ISIS, antifa, or the alt-right, or turned against any of these groups. Similar systems can even be implemented to coordinate volunteers in highly effective disaster relief efforts.
Probably the most famous recent example of this method in action involves Eric Clanton, the former college professor charged with assaulting three people with a metal bike-lock during a Berkeley free speech rally in April. Clanton appears to have been first identified as the alleged assailant on 4Chan, despite his face being completely covered in the only footage of the attacks. 4Chan users identified him by isolating unique non-facial visual characteristics and then going frame by frame through imagery from the event, hunting for matches.
This method has spread as political violence picked up. A Twitter account associated with 4Chan's alt-right-infested/pol/board is now promoting the process in detail, in an apparent attempt to attract new volunteers to scale the tactic up:
In Charlottesville, antifa protesters used many of the same techniques to identify and publicize information about alt-right attendees. The process also led to misidentifications and accusations against innocent people, something right-wing internet activists have repeatedly done in the past. The rush to judgement and lack of restraint follows a different pattern set in 2013, when a crowdsourced investigation conducted in part on Reddit falsely accused innocent people of involvement in the Boston Marathon bombing—a mistake also made on the front page by the semi-pros of the New York Post.
After the violence had abated in Virginia this month, a twitter account called @yesyoureracist posted information about people ostensibly identified at the "Unite the Right" rally, eventually gathering 408,000 followers and setting up a Patreon to support its efforts. In turn, 8Chan has reportedly begun targeting Logan Smith, who runs the account, allegedly threatening his family.
Peter W. Singer is a strategist and military theorist with the Brookings Institution and New America Foundation who writes about the future of warfare. He has examined this kind of conflict for years, and offered some perspective on outing people at protests, doxes, and other methods of 21st-century combat. "Octavian did it to Mark Antony," Singer said, referencing a contest for power in Rome's Second Triumvirate that included the public release of a stolen will.
In the current landscape, Singer sees plenty of continuity with classic intelligence techniques, along with some clever innovations.
"There's sock puppeting, someone trying to appear as if they're someone else," Singer told me. "And then a riff on that is trying to appear as if you're a supporter but with the goal of trying to undermine that group, doing something embarrassing or provocative and steering them toward a bad end. That was a classic Cold War move. You see this now with groups registering as if they're all part of the violent left."
There has been a recent surge of fake antifa social media accounts and forgeries of supposed antifa documents, promoted by major right-wing figures like Rush Limbaugh. Many of these accounts operate between parody and partisan sabotage operations. They take actual positions held by antifa's anarchist wing, like the embrace of political violence and opposition to liberal ideals of free expression, and exaggerate these already divisive qualities to make the group appear even more radical and threatening. Some fake antifa accounts seem designed to sow suspicion among prospective supporters. But many have the cartoonish quality of early anti-communist propaganda—too implausible to sway anyone on the fence, but great for riling up the home team against the bad guys.
In response, antifa-affiliated outlets have doxxed people behind the fake sites, releasing names and other personal details.
We seem to be entering a new phase of bottom-up cyberwar. Robb originally described open-source insurgency as "a large collection of small... superempowered groups [working] together to take on much larger foes (usually hierarchies)." What's going on these days looks even messier than that. Instead of smaller sub-state groups forming strategic alliances to fight the government or private power brokers, affinity groups organized around ideology and ethnic identity are battling one another.
Old intelligence practices and spy vs. spy tools are evolving and being adapted. There are dossiers and black lists, agents and double agents, "good trolls" spying on Trump supporters and fake antifa accounts, disinformation and counter-intelligence campaigns carried out on message boards and chat rooms like Discord and sometimes in full view on social media. Practices have clearly evolved in these new digital network, but old problems remain. Infiltration is perhaps the most obvious: In a world of spies, how do you know who to trust?
More than anything else, it was the election of Donald Trump that turned information-warfare into a familiar concept among average Americans. Reports of Russian "troll farms" and "meme armies" drove interest in the subject, though it's not yet clear what consequences all that new attention will bring.
In Singer's estimation, the most important question now is how these widely available tools will actually be used.
"What are the goals here? Is it to mobilize? Is it to intimidate? Is it to inspire violence?" he asked. "Breaking that down is really important, and that's the challenge private companies are now dealing with, because they're being asked both by governments and by their customers—the public—to do more to police the spaces to make what are at the end of the day political decisions."
Looming in the background behind all of this is the disruption of centralized state power. Even as the US government remains an 800-pound hegemon, it has faltered at enforcing order in digital spaces and arbitrating disputes that arise over its use. That doesn't mean, however, that the internet is ungoverned. Into the vacuum rise new, undemocratic power verticals, centered on the tech titans in Silicon Valley.
The recent case of network and security company Cloudflare booting a prominent neo-Nazi site in the wake of Charlottesville illustrated the point. (And, as Cloudflare's CEO himself acknowledged, it showed the dangers in leaving these decisions up to the prerogatives of private businesses.)
This new civil conflict in America is still in its early stages, and far from an existential crisis. But what we are witnessing is an incipient, low-level version of the sort of violent multipolar insurgency that has torn apart other countries.
"What's frustrating," Singer said, "is seeing the sort of people and tactics you were used to seeing in war being used in the United States."
"These groups," he added, "the tactics that they use, the types of battles that they fight are not an anomaly, they're the new normal. Not just in the United States but across the world."
You've probably heard Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz's famous adage, "War is the continuation of politics by other means." Clearly he was on to something. But Andrew Breitbart, svengali of the new right-wing media that spawned former White House adviser Steve Bannon, also had a point in his own oft-repeated line, "Politics is downstream from culture." The lines between culture, news, politics, war, and entertainment have blurred, and are now streaming in every direction through the internet's cracked screen.
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