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In the first days of the New Year, one intensifying phenomenon of 2014 has already come to light: politically motivated cyber-activism. These actions, reasoned with highly nationalistic discourse, have targeted the social media accounts of Skype and threatened the Winter Olympics, due to be held in Sochi in a few weeks. As an increasing number of self-proclaimed electronic armies are emerging, the growing strength and capability of these actors to influence world events needs to be recognised.
So how have these attacks been demonstrated? In the last few weeks, the pro-Assad Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) has managed to compromise the Twitter and Facebook accounts of Skype, alongside the company blog. One assumption could be that the attack was targeted at the company because of its alleged co-operation with US intelligence officials. Previous to this in 2013, the SEA has attacked and hacked several high profile media outlets such as the New York Times and Reuters, taking down their websites, posting fraudulent content.
Additionally, the Electronic Army of the Caucasus Emirate has threatened Russian authorities and the companies who are organising the Olympic Games with cyber-war, in comparison to earlier attacks which it claimed had been ‘only a joke’, unless preparations for the games ‘on the lands of Circassians’ are suspended. What the threat entails remains to be seen.
Nationalist cyber-activism is not a new phenomenon. A simple Google search reveals news of attacks from all over the world. It has been coupled with ongoing conflicts in the physical world, as much as it appears as a form of protest in its own right. Politically-motivated cyber activities are frequently used as a method to disseminate false information, from the perspective of cyber-activists, about a state or a nation, an ethnic or a political group, or the course of historical events. It can also be seen as a form of retaliation to physical activities or restraining of political space.
Social media provides a platform for voices that struggle to become heard otherwise. The appeal, influence and thus significance of these platforms can hardly be denied. Their impact multiplies when global mass media or automated information systems pick up the stories and disseminate them with speed. This has also been recognised by nationalist activists, either as genuine groups or as proxy-groups coined by state authorities, for example, last year the SEA managed to drop the Dow Jones index by over 140 points just through posting a false message on Associated Press’ Twitter feed which multiplied itself in seconds.
As it is difficult to estimate the full impact of these activities, their effectiveness remains an open question. Yet it can be surely said that cyber-activism continues to raise awareness, annoy its targets and cause financial damage. In addition, its likelihood increases when activists become funded or sheltered by states, large corporations, and criminal or terrorist organisations.
Attempts to influence politics through and in cyberspace will not only continue but also be reinforced and become more sophisticated. Influence will be both for and against existing national regimes. The intertwinement of state and private activities in cyberspace ‒ like the aforementioned emergence of proxy-activist groups ‒ raises important questions concerning responsibility. Who can the international community address liability to in the case of state sponsored, yet denied, nationalist cyber-activism? These kinds of questions can only be addressed through enhanced international cooperation, continuing negotiations and, eventually, proper regulation.