// Issue 27: Networked War/Conflict


Issue Edited by Glen Fuller

From representational to operational media in the war of perception

The Australian Government has explicitly framed the treatment of asylum seekers arriving by sea to be a military operation. When he hadn’t yet been removed from power by members of his own party, Prime Minister Tony Abbott compared the operation to being on a war footing (ABC News, 2014a). The government minister responsible at the time, Scott Morrison, tragi-comically responded to questions from journalists by stating that he will not comment on “operational” and “on-water matters”. However, details of “operational matters” have been reported on in the Australian Navy’s internal publications (ABC News, 2014b) and Morrison seemed to enjoy making jokes about his immigration portfolio on the politico-lifestyle program Kitchen Cabinet. Kitchen Cabinet sees host Annabel Crabb interview politicians as they prepare a meal together. Rather than critical commentary provided by a journalistic interview, the goal of Kitchen Cabinet is to ‘personalise’ political discourse (Luthar, 2010). From commentary in the conservative-leaning Australian newspaper:

It turns out [Morrison’s] boisterously blokey and hardly ever stops blushing and smiling, bravely attempting cutely lame jokes, greeting her at the door with flowers and a remark about -politicians and doorknocking.
Later there are many gags about his time as immigration minister (a portfolio his wife dreaded him gaining), and some faint jests about maritime “operational matters” and “on-water issues”. (Blundell 2015)

The treatment of asylum seekers as being part of a war could be metaphorical, but this is not the way it is perceived by many Australians or indeed observers from around the world. An editorial in the New York Times critiques the utter wretchedness of the Australian Government’s “border protection” policy:

The world’s war zones are all but certain to continue to churn out an extraordinary number of refugees and economic migrants in the years ahead. Those people understandably will head to the most prosperous nations, hoping to rebuild their lives. It is inexcusable that some find themselves today in situations that are more hopeless and degrading than the ones that prompted them to flee. (New York Times, 2015)

In his response to the New York Times editorial the current Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, reiterates the slogan-based talking points of his predecessor (Dutton, 2015).

The reason for Australia’s profoundly shameful refugee policy is not economics. It is economically cheaper to house refugees in Australia by an order of magnitude (Seccombe, 2015). Rather, like Stockwell and Muir (2003) suggested about the US strategy in the Second Gulf War, Australia is staging a production for the benefit of its audience “not only to wage war against the [people smugglers] but also to manage the home front”. Rather than audiences, we should probably describe them as “target publics” of the Australian Government’s weaponised policy imperatives. There are two “targeted publics”: asylum seekers working to escape their current miseries by reaching Australia and the minority of Australians who think that stopping boat arrivals is in some way militarily securing Australia’s borders from threats.

First, the suffering of people in offshore camps is used as a perceptual weapon to attack aspirations of those who might wish to escape to Australia. Conservatives and reactionaries from various political parties want potential asylum seekers to believe there is no future for refugees in Australia. This is explicitly framed by Dutton as an attempt to wage a war of perception on the shadowy cabal of international people smugglers:

They will manipulate anything we do: so they’ve got Facebook pages; they send out social media messages; they send out text messages, these people smugglers, and they message that out and they’ve done the same, I suspect in relation to our announcement on Syria and they will do the same in relation to the change in prime minister.
They’ll try and use that to their advantage and we just need to make sure we stare that down. (quoted in Donald, 2015)

Perhaps in “staring them down” Dutton will use the expressionless face he pulled when he was infamously caught making a despicable joke about Australia’s Pacific neighbours losing their island homes due to the environmental catastrophe of rising sea levels (Keany, 2015).

Second, the other militarised “target public” is the Australian people. Nearly every single news report on the Australian Government’s asylum seeker “border protection” policy mentions opinion polling. Most supporters of the current Liberal and National Party Coalition government agree with the pompously militarised conservative policy. The clearest articulation of this position, which equates an asylum seeker with an existential threat, is provided by one of the designers of the current system, Liberal MP Phillip Ruddock: ‘If you’re telling me that people of character concern should be released, terrorist threats would be released into the community, then I want to see you write that story’ (Di Stefano, 2015).

There is a long history to this. An overview of the last five years of polling is presented by Essential Media Communications’ Essential Report “refugees” tag on their website (Essential Media Communications, 2015–2010). All of this merely serves as ammunition for the conservative news-based media industry and conservative bloggers and talkback shock jocks are some of the worst offenders. They work to continually rearticulate the fears and anxieties of their devoted readers and listeners.

A key turning point in the character of refugee discourse in Australia was the increased use of the term “illegal immigrant” (McKay, Thomas and Blood, 2011: 620). The Australian Press Council (2012) was forced to publish updated advisory guidelines for standards of professional practice on the use of ‘asylum seekers’, ‘illegal immigrants’ and entry without a visa. They pointed out as clearly as possible that ‘terms such as “illegal immigrants“ or ”illegals” may constitute a breach of the Council’s Standards of Practice’. These standards are largely ignored by the conservative ‘mainstream’ press.

The ‘target’ of ‘target publics’ in this context is an enactment of skopic power without the “end” of a telos (Weber, 2009: p 6–8); there is no end to the process ‘targeting’ (selecting, enveloping, territorialising) the Australian public with a regime of mediated pre-emption and modulating the affects that accelerate into fear and anxiety. Brian Massumi (2015) describes how ‘pre-emption’ has come to characterise a reconfiguration of powers in our post–9/11 world. Preemption is the operationalisation of problems so they become productive. This operationalisation works to modulate the “battle’s conditions of emergence, prior to its occurrence” (Massumi, 2015: 70).

In order to flush out the no-yet-fully-emerged into a taking-determinate form that enables its threat to be pre-empted, it is necessary not only to perceive potential, but to be pre-empted, it is necessary not only to perceive potential, but to perceive it before the enemy perceives your perceiving it – or even perceives itself on the verge of an event. A perceptual arms race ensues. (Massumi, 2015: 235)

The Australian Government’s asylum seeker “border protection” policy is preemptive in two ways. Asylum seekers are not a problem of global hospitality or even an opportunity for Australia to demonstrate its own hospitality. Asylum seekers travelling to Australia by boat have been “operationalised” (literally, as “Operation Sovereign Borders”) as a weaponised resource. These asylum seekers are a resource for the current government being able to appear as if it is governing. By reducing the problem to one of “arrivals”, rather than say the inhumanity of people suffering, consecutive conservative Australian governments have got away with spending billions upon billions of dollars. There is no outright coercion, pre-emption doesn’t work like that. Asylum seekers are detained and placed into detention camps and used to “preempt” the aspirations of asylum seekers currently in other nations and used to “preempt” the fears of a supporting core constituency of Australian citizens. Our so-called democratic representatives pat themselves on the back for doing a “good job” while many of us look on in shocked horror.

Networked War, Conflict and Crisis

The contributions to this general issue of Fibreculture all explore the relation between contemporary war and conflict and networked technologies, media and communications. Each essay contributes a different response.

Danny Butt examines the intersection of internet governance and neocolonialism. His essay is ultimately hopeful in that he suggests the New International Information Order (NIIO)’s emphasis on decolonialisation, collective ownership and documentation of transnational entities can be used to critically engage with today’s ubiquitous “platforms”. Butt’s raises the uneasy situation of the State with enhanced surveillance powers enabled by platforms using our algorithmic profiles as a resource in the war of perception:

The state’s interest in the expanded representational powers of the profile and the profile’s attachment to specific citizens lies in the ability to not simply neutralise a defective citizen but to represent their non-compliance in the theatre of participatory consumption (through terrorist threats, police entertainment, border control, and such like). The dangerous or non-compliant profile can be made to do profitable representational work for the state, both in stimulating compliance and building political and financial support for the economy of securitisation.

Platforms play an important role in the way social media profiles belonging to platforms “produces the user by establishing constitutive rules of engagement that construct how users should interact”. Butt argues that “the platform determines the model of humanity users are allowed to perform through direct constraint of action”. Following Butt, working to overcome the limitations platform-afforded humanity and the way it relies on algorithmic models of behaviour and action is ultimately now an act of decolonisation.

Robbie Fordyce, Timothy Neale and Tom Apperley approach the platform-based modelling of experience from a different perspective. They critically engage with the Everyday Racism mobile game to analyse the way racism is modelled. They develop a critique of the narrative form of the game that presents the experience of racism at the level of the individual.

Everyday Racism presents racism as a rule-based system. By having challenges based in singular events and individualised responses to these events, it overcodes the individual ability to find solutions, and underrepresents institutional structures that inform racism.

They emphasise that Everyday Racism makes effective use of mobile platforms. Particularly interesting is their engagement with the way Everyday Racism uses the ubiquitous mobile ‘dashboard’ space of the ‘notification’ as a way to frame the experience of everyday racism. They are critical of the operational form of the game as systemic racism presents fundamental challenges for rule-based design of such experiences.

Chris Rodley examines the hypermediated ‘viral agitprop’ that circulated in weaponsised form during the Gaza-Israel conflict of July-August 2014. Rodley argues that various militaries and non-state-actors are ‘utilising social networking platforms to expand their influence’. His specific focus is in the meta-mediated semiotic strategy of using meme-based communicational forms. The use of memes belongs to an aesthetic of ‘meta’ not only because they necessarily require a context-dependent mode of semiotic decoding, but because they signify the meta-context of their own circulation. Rodley engages with the context of this circulation in the form of different ‘publics’ that emerge and develop around different ‘viral agitprop’ communities of practice. He ultimately raises the question of whether the circulation of ‘viral agitprop’ represents a new intersection of military exigencies and media systems as identified in previous iterations by Kittler.

Exploring another intersection of (post-)military exigencies and media systems, Tanya Notley and Camellia Webb-Gannon present a thorough overview of the political and human stakes of ‘remote sensing Earth Observation Satellites’ in ‘human rights contexts including the opportunities, challenges and risks they pose’. They explore the multiple ways to engage with satellite images including the political economy of who has access to images and for what purpose. Their main focus is the value of satellite images for human rights work. Notley and Webb-Gannon do not shy away from the challenging ethical problem of the increased resolution of satellite images. Increased resolution is being useful for documentary and evidentiary reasons while at the same time the required technology is mostly accessible because of commercial-military relationships.

Lastly, Seimeng Lai and Scott Sharpe present the interesting case of tank operators being trained through simulators. They present a case for appreciating the platform-based experiences of tank operators trained through simulation systems in terms of the interplay of affect and habit. An experience of battle is simulated to inculcate the habits required to function in battle. In some ways, Lai and Sharpe’s focus on the pedagogical development of new habits is a complement to Fordyce, Neale and Apperley’s critical engagement with the modelling of the experience of racism. In both cases ‘experience’ is operationalised as a pre-personal process of the co-production of subjectivity through digital technologies. As Lai and Sharpe frame this problematic: ‘Learning is better understood as a process of encountering and reconfiguring the relations of the virtual, rather than the commitment of representations into conscious memory’. The challenge that Fordyce, Neale and Apperley isolate is regarding the structural conditions by which deep-seated social antagonisms are reproduced.

The editors of Fibreculture thank all the reviewers for their time and the authors for their patience for what can be a marathon experience. Fibreculture is committed to scholarship and intellectual work that is premised on open publishing standards and this places different burdens and responsibilities on all who volunteer their time. The enclosure of intellectual work by commercial scholarly publishers is a system designed to reproduce symbolic hierarchies by which disciplinary formations are also discursive formations of power/knowledge. Every contribution to Fibreculture, however time-consuming and seemingly unrewarded, is greatly valued and helps support us in our efforts to develop alternatives.

Glen Fuller

October 2015