The Danger of e-Warriors
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The Danger of e-Warriors

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Reading the comments on The Diplomat and other high-profile international relations websites, you could be forgiven for thinking that we’re already at war – China and the United States would seem to have locked horns, while India and Pakistan, and Israel and Iran, are already exchanging rounds.

This got me thinking: Are the bilious remarks, bitter acrimony and xenophobic hatred that litter the bottom of articles the relatively harmless rants of a motley crew of ultra-nationalists, a handful of off-duty soldiers, government information warfare experts and nerds taking a break from Call of Duty? If that were all there is to it, there’d be no reason to worry.

Sadly, the commenting wars raise a profound and troubling question about the evolution of world affairs: Could the hatred sown by geopolitical e-warriors today adversely influence tomorrow?

I’ll give you two examples of the unfortunately typical discourse on how to deal with the challenges of U.S.-China relations in the 21st century. In one corner, we have the stereotypical hawk: “The US & China are already at war…America needs to wake up. Take this out of the hands of diplomats and give it to the Pentagon & the Seventh Fleet.” And in the other is the textbook pro-Beijing propagandist wielding dehumanising rhetoric: “China needs to defend against predatory imperialist USA and its lackey war criminal Japan, and imperialist wannabe India, Australia and Vietnam…they are wolves in sheep skin, devils in human faces but the hearts of a beast.” Riveting, isn’t it?

Many critics, perhaps the silent majority, might reasonably argue that the best response to marginal e-warriors is to ignore their mind-numbing debates. But there are three problems with simply ignoring festering comment boxes of hatred. First, ignoring them won’t stop the contagion. Second, doing so precludes engagement by pointing out flaws, biases and intellectual fallacies in the e-warriors’ reasoning. Third, simply ignoring xenophobic and hateful messages scribbled on city walls, or furiously typed in comment boxes, is only ignoring the symptom of a larger problem. This is dangerous, insofar as it ignores how grassroots hatred could increase the likelihood of future wars.

E-warriors rely on half-baked, ahistorical untruths. Not only is much of it unintelligent nonsense, but it’s actually dangerous unintelligent nonsense. Scholars and concerned netizens can and should fill the intellectual void by speaking out against such false argumentation. Those who bay for the blood of U.S. “imperialists” and their allied “lackeys,” or who look forward to the final showdown with China, aren’t just expressing political opinions and xenophobic fears. They are actively stoking the fires of hatred, animosity and distrust.

Since the days of Thucydides, scholars of war have long concluded that the very belief in the inevitability of war, throughout the ages, has itself been a recurring cause of war. Whether we like it or not, e-warriors have a potentially disproportionate and negative impact in shaping U.S.-China perceptions by playing on the fears of their publics. The silent majority should speak out against the minority of hate-mongers who claim to exercise their online freedom of speech by inciting violence. We are the 99 percent.

Daryl Morini is deputy editor of e-International Relations and a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, specialising in preventive diplomacy.

Comments
40
JohnX
February 2, 2012 at 00:21

I posted this on another page in diplomat when I couldn’t find anyone to express an interest on an idea, its not the first time that its been difficult.

It seems that many of the Chinese commentators have an opinion about everything, sometimes quite rabid ones until the topic isn’t controversial.

If the Chinese commentators really care about how China is understood then maybe instead of jumping on the band wagon of righteous indignation they could use some soft power and explain thier country better in posts that aren’t controversial.

Some posts get frothing at the mouths commentators. Others you can hear a pin drop, but are just as relevant or even more so as it allows the commentators to express thier personal opinions without feeling on the defensive.

The fact that has been noted time and time again is that it doesn’t happen is the one issue that does make me question whether they get paid ‘to come on and defend China’ rather than post because they are interested in fostering understanding.

You can not blame the Western Commentators who make statements out of ignorance if the learning opportunities that exist and do not create controversy are ignored by many pro Chinese Commentators. This is one lesson that many seem to not understand or ignore.

Soft power is creating understanding of issues that are not controversial, it is a building of relationships and knowledge so that even the differences can be smoothed over or at least nullifed by respect for the others opinions. It is not the removal of the finger from the weapons trigger as a sign of power, its never needing to see the weapon in the first place.

Expressing your own personal opinions about Chinese issues that are not controversial is not a bad thing, if Chinese commentators are unable to do that as they dont have personal opinions only State directed ones then this is an issue that I find most exceedingly interesting.

Papa John
January 30, 2012 at 04:24

What do you expect what people should say about CCP and 50centers, huh?

Papa John
January 29, 2012 at 03:52

I don’t believe you are here to speak for other Asians. You should speak for yourself, a Chinese from mainland for sure.

Reason
January 29, 2012 at 03:04

If you know anything about SEO, then you will know that these comment sections are essential to maximize your website

The Diplomat would be crazy to turn them off, no matter how fractious the arguments become

Gautam
January 28, 2012 at 11:40

What I don’t really understand is why on-line journals like this one have a comments section at all. What purpose is it serving except for entertainment of the readers and getting more traffic to the site. I must confess that I enjoy the give and take between the Chinese on one hand and the Americans and Indians on the other, even though it is often quite ignorant. Its worth noting that another on-line journal that I read (atimes.com) did not, until very recently, have a comments section and its absence did not make it less interesting.

EAM
January 28, 2012 at 10:20

Daryl, congratulations on your article. This is a subject that deserves a lot more attention. Yes, feral poorly informed bloggers can be pretty scary – and if you took what they say at face value, one would just despair. I am not sure though how you read some of their rantings. Are they simply out to create a stir and entertain – or are their wild attacks on others the loudspeakers amplifying the “secret whisperings” of the souls of their countries – to use Jung’s description of Hitler. I suspect that it is a bit of both.

Secondly, what impact do they have on their own countries – and on the countries they target? I am not aware of any research that looks at this – and indeed whether it is even possible to assess the impact of these folks. (As a “what if”, I wonder what difference it would have made if during the Cold War and in the 1930s, a similar facility was available for ordinary people to vent like this – and the impact it would have had).

I have always believed that diplomacy is too important to leave to diplomats and that it is something that business, universities, and any organisation that has the facility to make people to people contacts should do. The internet in theory should make this easier but I have to admit that if you spend enough time reading blogs, my supposition may be questionable.

On a more positive note, one should not assume that blogs are truly representative of opinion in the countries bloggers come from. Generally, in my experience, they are not – and may be weighted towards fringe or extreme opinions – but that is an impression only.

In the end, I lean towards the view (reluctantly) that is better to let the blogs be however much one dislikes the lunatic opinions than appear on them – rather than restrain or prevent bloggers (for example by forcing them to disclose their identities). That way, when people vent, they might obtain an avenue for release rather than through a more harmful outlet – and also by being at the receiving end from their equals and opposites, “benefit” from the experience. Their rants may also help people with more considered views to get a handle on the arguments of the crazies and deal with them – and yes, this needs to be done forcefully and strongly. And if someone is truly dangerous, the folks I know in the security area tell me that it is actually quite easy to track down a blogger’s identity in most countries.

Some random thoughts anyway!

Praveen
January 28, 2012 at 04:44

If these authors are so intelligent, why do they put nonsense (viewpoint) on the blog sometimes with aim of denouncing another country….

It is even dangerous if hatred comes from the so called intelligent, well informed people…

everyone is free to believe and express what he wants….

Pete. Longfellow
January 27, 2012 at 22:59

Amen brother. The uninformed and unintelligent babble on many sites is both disturbing and concerning.

ari
January 27, 2012 at 13:29

Watcher sounds like he is suffering from Stockholm’s syndrome; A bleeding heart to unprovoked aggressors. Based on his misleading standpoint, it would seem that the Allies who counter-attacked Hitler’s Nazi Germany, are the bad guys. According to him, victims should keep quiet and passive and take the beating, smear, slander and libels and not respond in any way to defend themselves.

He is either part of the problem or he is a sockpuppet trying to disguise himself as some ridiculous non align neutral peace seeking peacenik. Get real, man. The world does not work according the way you preach or propagandize. Don’t assume that orientals and Asians are fools who will swallow all the nonsense you espouse. Maybe when you personally experience what the Chinese, N Koreans, Russians and iranians are experiencing from all these hate propaganda fanned by Washington, you will not be talking the way you are talking.

Passerby
January 27, 2012 at 10:56

@Octavian

“…This is all fact..”

Whose fact is it? yours or mine? Now this is the fact and I invite any and everyone to just review the comments made so far on this article, you can see for yourselves who has fired the first shot here attacking the Chinese? Just look.

Octavian
January 27, 2012 at 07:39

While Chinese nationalist regularly denounce the actions of other nations, most of all the US, it is advent that what they seek is the power and influence the US has in the world. The modern Chinese nationalist wants a China to be the dominate hegemonic state, they want to strike back for actions committed 4 generations ago by the Japanese, and they want to suppress the right of freedom of speech throughout the world. This is all fact.

Octavian
January 27, 2012 at 07:35

The Chinese nationalist bloggers don’t adequately defend the actions of China as much as they blindly denounce reports from Western media outlets. If the average Chinese blogger added information or refuted claims made with accurate information or examples it might be another story. But the simple truth is that Chinese bloggers are reactionaries, who tend not to think critically about the arguments being put forth. It is typical xenophobia seen in all parts of the world, but most prevalent in China.

Kristal
January 27, 2012 at 03:01

Now this is where it gets complicated. The problem is that the Chinese bloggers refuse to believe anything that’s said to them. They always want to play the victim card by claiming that all their worries & problems are a result of someone working in Langley/Pentagon/Oval Office or some other South Asian nation. There must be a rational or psychological reason to explain why you cyber warriors think that ALL your problems have to be from external factors & not internal??? The restricted/filtered nature of information flow in your country, the popularity of state-controlled medias, with even the likes of popular international sites like Facebook & Twitter have been replaced with Chinese copies. So the Chinese only see what they’re ”allowed” to see. Therefore you get ”cultural shock” when you see the degree of divergence in the views of international commentators. That’s sedation on a massive scale.!

The problem is that every Diplomat reader here would note how ”offensive” in language, some of your compatriots are. While they reply with hatred & rage to western commentators, they mock & insult those from smaller nations of the Indian ocean or S.China sea. I find that as a sticking point. Many would agree with me on that & they need not necessarily comment here to prove that.

Dr. Rice
January 26, 2012 at 21:11

Death to all forms of sectarianism! We are human first and any other alignment second!

John Chan
January 26, 2012 at 20:41

@Kristal,
Chinese bloggers are here to protest when China is portrayed unfairly, to rebuke lies told about China, to correct distorted facts fabricated for China and to clear smear painted on China.

Your comment is the typical example that Chinese bloggers work hard to rectify.

Daryl Morini
January 26, 2012 at 11:47

Thank you kindly, Leonard R., for taking the time to respond with a lengthy and very well-referenced comment. I should also add, as a caveat, that I am not yet a Professor, let alone a Doctor, only a humble PhD candidate. So in terms of expertise, it is still very much a work in progress. I am aware of the critiques of preventive diplomacy, including those which you present, and I will do my best to answer them one by one.

Before I start, though, allow me to apologise publicly for qualifying you as stereotypical; that probably wasn’t a very good conversation starter. I should not have framed it as a point about you personally, but about your arguments. What I meant, and I hope you will take my word for it, is that your views, which you also agree are on the hawkish side of the foreign policy hawk-dove spectrum, are one example of a much broader school of thought, especially prominent in some U.S. (although not exclusively American) intellectual and policy circles, which see the rise of China as an almost uniformly threatening phenomenon. This was my interpretation of your comment I cited above, and I retract the use of the word “stereotypical”; I should have used a more neutral word like “typical” or “representative”. I genuinely hope we can get that out of the way and start tabula rasa, on a clean slate.

You correctly observed that I did not explicitly cite Thucydides. I don’t like to over-use this as an excuse, but the very restricted blog format prevented me from doing so. The quote I had in mind is one of Thucydides’ most popular observations, widely seen by historians as the basis of his general theoretical remarks on war, that:

“What made the war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.”

(In p. 48 of the 1972 Penguin Book version of the History of the Peloponnesian War).

The point I draw from this observation, which was made to endure “for all time”, and which has been backed up by such scholars as Joseph Nye and historian Donald Kagan, is the following – the advent of war between Sparta and Athens was far from inevitably ordained by the rise of Athenian power alone. The second important variable in explaining the outbreak of the war was “the fear which this caused in Sparta”. In other words, Sparta’s perception of the inevitability of war made, naturally enough, war almost inevitable.

“That is why the belief that war is inevitable is so corrosive in international politics,” as Nye wrote of the Peloponnesian War. “When you believe war is inevitable, you are very close to the last move.”

Donald Kagan similarly argues that the Peloponnesian War “was not caused by impersonal forces, unless anger, fear, undue optimism, stubbornness, jealousy, bad judgement and lack of foresight are impersonal forces.”

Moreover, Thucydides documents the painstaking diplomatic efforts and initiatives, some very advanced for their time, to prevent the outbreak of war. Of course, they failed. But the point I am defending is that they were not bound, ordained or pre-destined to fail; antagonistic states and enemies have successfully prevented the resort to the use of force many a time throughout history. Books usually aren’t written to acknowledge or celebrate that fact, but it does happen. The most recent example I would use is the fact that, contrary to the expectations and predictions of a generation of foreign policy hawks on both sides of the Iron Curtain, the hyper-militarised Cold War never came to direct conventional war between the US and the USSR, through a mixture of deterrence and, yes, diplomatic engagement and even accommodation. I grant your point about U.S.-China war (and also U.S.-Soviet aerial skirmishes) during the Korean war, and no doubt other proxy conflicts. But the fact stands – and I too, as an empiricist, cherish facts – that the U.S. and the USSR did not annihilate each other as they could have on many occasions, including of course in 1962, but also in 1948, 1961, 1979, 1983 and other turning points of the Cold War. How did they (and other antagonistic states) avoid the worst-case scenario, and what are the lessons to be drawn for U.S.-China relations? That is the essence of my inquiry.

Secondly, what did I mean by “half-baked, ahistorical untruths…unintelligent nonsense…”? Again, my specific critique was clipped out of the version of the article you see above. But what I refer to as an ahistorical untruth, as I have suggested with reference to Thucydides, is the belief in the inevitability of war – in fact, the belief in historical inevitability full stop (see Isaiah Berlin, ‘Historical Inevitability’, 1959). This is the ultimate ahistorical argument, because it completely ignores the important role of contingency, individual agency and chance through history. It is an untruth because, philosophically, there is no consensus around the deterministic position in the free will-determinism debate, and many philosophers find a happy mid-point somewhere between both. And it is unintelligent nonsense, as I put it rather unacademically, because the very belief in the inevitability of war, as I pointed out above, has historically actively contributed to causing that very war it purported to predict.

Here, however, I see that we are on the same page: “I’m not saying war is inevitable between the PRC and the US,” you wrote. Hence, I am not calling your point unintelligent or nonsense, far from it. In fact, I wholeheartedly agree with a lot of the alarming points you raise about the worrying state of U.S.-China tensions. Yes, things are looking very rough out there, particularly in the South China sea; yes, there are maritime tensions and incidents at sea, more than the media often know or acknowledge; yes, some serious scholarship (power transition theory) suggests that, four times out of five or so, a rising power will usually spark a war with the hegemonic power, usually around the time when it begins over-taking the latter, and the relatively declining power overreacts. On all counts, I would agree. I don’t see much in this trend to be over-optimistic about, and I certainly don’t think we should be naïve and complacent. I agree with your premises, and partly with your diagnosis, but certainly not with your conclusion and recommendation.

You conclude that “the US and the PRC are already at war. They have been for a long time.” That depends on how we define war. I consider (inter-state) war to consist of direct, large-scale hostilities; in other words, kinetics. The hassling and tussling we are seeing develop – at an alarming pace, I should add – between the PRC and the U.S. is not war; it is typical strategic competition between great powers. The Soviets and the U.S. engaged in this kind of brinkmanship all the time during the Cold War, and Russia and NATO occasionally still have to deal with such limited security incidents, which are probably used to probe defences, capabilities and resolve. But that is not war. I grant all of the grievances you point to in your list of facts; but I also know that a Chinese hawk may have a diametrically-opposed interpretation of those same incidents, especially the 2001 aircraft incident. Whatever one’s opinion of those incidents, I don’t think that either side’s grievances justifies open calls for war.

This is where we really part ways. I respectfully but fundamentally disagree with your policy recommendation, following your premises: “Take this out of the hands of diplomats and give it to the Pentagon & the Seventh Fleet.” That is a call for war – a real shooting war. That, I cannot agree with.

This connects back to my original point, after this long digression: the belief in the inevitability of war plays a major role in causing it; it is the epitome of a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that is why the comment wars are so disturbing and, in my mind, dangerous. Because the hawkish views of both China and the U.S., to continue with this example, rebound off each other in classic Cold War mirror imaging; this makes it easier and more attractive for leaders and policy-makers to demonise the other, to earn political points with a ‘rally around the flag’ effect. Finally, from the very moment that a powerful decision-maker in either country – be it a Hu Jintao or an Obama, a Jiang Zemin or a Hillary Clinton – concludes that, no matter what they may try to do to prevent it, war is fundamentally inevitable, and ‘better a favourable war now than an unfavourable one later’ (the reasoning of the German General Staff before the First World War), that is the moment when you can say that war has become a whole lot more likely, but never inevitable – leaders always have other options, and the history of nations is not hard-wired into their collective DNA or through the hand of some omnipotent, impersonal force. It is always a choice; and choices are made by people, who can be influenced, cajoled, pressured, persuaded, dissuaded, deterred and, in some cases, prevented.

Thanks again for this exchange, and for that interesting Thucydides quote on scholars and warriors. In parting, rest assured that this whole thesis does not rest on a lofty, romantic and academic notion of peace. For preventive diplomacy to succeed, it must define its goals with a healthy dose of moderation and clear-eyed realism: preventing the resort to the use of force. This is an almost wholly negative notion of peace, as you will appreciate, focusing on the absence of war. Of course it is a tall order in any event, and some coercive tools of statecraft, such as deterrence, are likely going to contribute to the preservation of peace. But the point is that war is not inevitable; throughout history, and with great difficulty, prudent and forward-looking statecraft,active diplomacy, and good will and self-restraint on both sides, wars have been prevented. This is why grassroots rhetoric, from both sides of the Pacific, calling for and encouraging the resort to the use of force is not a nuisance to simply ignore; it is a dangerous trend to tackle and address.

Watcher
January 26, 2012 at 10:57

Here we go again!
At least it serves as a reminder of what the author was talking about.
I think a good place to start is if all can accept that there is mutual distrust and that there valid are reasons on BOTH sides for this mistrust. One musnt take the most extreme view on either side as representative of that side.
As for yangzi I often deeply disagree with your view’s, but I think that you (maybe with the exception of the SCS issue :) )make reasonable arguments and give good rebuttals. Some posters (not only on the CCP side) seem to make pure rants that undermines their issue more than supports it.

Let’s keep discussing all these interesting issues, but not wishing eachother any harm. The most important as that issues are resolved peacefully. WW1 and WW2 shows the cost of it’s failure. We don’t want to go there.

And Leonard R. – NO we are not at war! I agree with many of your views, but your conclutions are too extreme. There is mutual mistrust and at times tense relations. These incidents are not war, but they do illustrate that there is a lot of work required on this bilateral relationship (and – God forbid – it could go wrong if we are not careful on both sides).

Reason
January 26, 2012 at 09:27

@John C

Who is going to pay for an editor to do that? – most media barely make money anyway.

Forums and comments are a good thing and are here to stay. Overall, they make writers and contributors better

ari
January 26, 2012 at 06:41

Washington, via its Pentagon and CIA sockpuppets are unilaterally behind all the diatribes of racial hatreds on the internet, especially against the Chinese. It is a one way street aggression. One cannot but conclude Washington is a bl**dy war monger, getting ready to set up another kinetic war. Their sockpuppets’ comments affects every Chinese. It is only natural rebuttals are made to mitigate the damage being done by Washington’s sockpuppets and its propagandistic e-zines and blogs. The moment these attacks end, rest assure rebuttals will end. Kindly do not tar the victims along with the aggressors.

John C
January 26, 2012 at 05:26

After spending nearly 40 years working as a journalist it seemd to me that the solution to this problem is to end the new practice of commenting on articles. Why not return to the old “Letters to the Editors” format where someone, an educated person, and editor, a gate keeper of the media, actually reads and edits comments and runs only those comments that make sense and have some merit? The NYT uses both formats, if I am not mistaken.

We did that for years in newspapers. Having the ability to write a publishable comment on a story used to take skill and thought. It’s quite an honor if the eds at NYT, WSJ, or Road & Track, thought your letter was worth printing. Now, comments “litter the end of every online article.” (good line!)

Some are scary. If a person yelled some of these threats on a crowded subway, he or she could be arrested. Online, the issuer isn’t even identified. The comment is a disembodied voice of hatred or stupidity. The writer posts it as his own mark of hatred or stupidity in the same way a “graffeti artist” defaces the wall of a public building.

Maybe editors have to fight “e-Warriors” the way cities have fought against graffiti artists. As NYC did years ago, make it a crime to sell a can of spray paint to anyone under the age of 18.

If you don’t want e-Warriors comment on your webpage, don’t allow people to comment on your webpage. You are giving them the space. Turn it off.

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