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Tracking the portrayal of Russians during cyberconflict incidents

The following is an excerpt from:

War, Conflict and Commemoration in the Age of Digital Reproduction

The special issue of Digital Icons at http://www.digitalicons.org/

Blame it on the Russians: Tracking the portrayal of Russians during cyberconflict incidents

From Athina Karatzogianni, http://www.digitalicons.org/issue04/athina-karatzogianni/ :

"This article tracks the portrayal of Russian hackers in relation to various cyber conflicts and cyber crime incidents. It employs cyber conflict theory (Karatzogianni 2006; 2009a; 2009b; 2010) to engage with various aspects of cyber conflicts implicating Russian hackers, such as the cyber conflicts involving Estonia and Georgia. Further, its purpose is to identify and analyze the continuities in the coverage of Russian hackers, and links made in the global media between intelligence, cyber espionage, cyber crime and patriotic hacking, which eventually and inevitably also implicated Russian hackers and Russia in the Climategate hack.

The article is not written in defence of Russians or the Russian government. The intention here is to simply demonstrate that although Russians are involved in cyber crime and cyber conflict incidents – as are other nationals by participating in cyber crime gangs, ad hoc patriotic assemblages, or even hacking dissident media organisations to reinforce the government line – they are also portrayed by the majority of the global media as the perpetrators of everything under the sun (unless the crimes are attributed to China or Chinese hackers).The paper demonstrates that the Russians were accused relentlessly of the Climategate hack under a new Cold War rhetoric spurred on by Russia’s energy interests and motivations. In contrast to the overwhelming blame that Russian hackers are made to bear, there are other possible competing explanations: involvement of oppositional bloggers and scientists invested in the Climategate debate, or computer security failure at East Anglia University’s network.


The first element of my analysis in this article is mapping the real events and the environment of cyber conflict. The Estonian and Georgian cyber conflicts are of the ethnonational type, revealing also cultural struggles, due to Russia’s alleged continuing intervenion in the political life of these countries. The hacker groups involved in these conflicts and their systems of belief and organisation aspire to hierarchical apparatuses (nation, ethnicity, identification with parties and leaders). The Climategate hack case, on the other hand, has sociopolitical and economic aspects, as it is an issue that is global in nature in terms of content.

However, the Climategate case also points to ethnic and national issues in the coverage, as geopolitical narratives involved the main protagonists in the Climategate debate and the actual groups blamed for the hack. In mapping the environment of cyber conflict, the relationships between military and security, politicians and media, and geopolitical dimensions need to be addressed.


In the process of building my argument, I surveyed approximately 130 articles collected between 2007 and 2010. The articles were sampled by using the keyword ‘Russian hackers’, while also snowballing to include other items that followed the initial searches. The articles discussed here include sources from mainstream media (online versions of newspapers, magazines and TV outlets, such as The Guardian, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The New Scientist, The Independent, Le Monde, BBC, AFP, Reuters); country- and incident- specific media and blogs (such as the Georgian Times, Russia Today and climate sceptic blogs); and IT business, security, and military sites and blogs commenting on cyber security and on technical aspects of the cyber conflicts discussed (such as National Defence Magazine, Wired Magazine, Asian Computers, PC World, Villeneuve’s blog). An effort was made to include an equal number of articles out of these three types of sources.


My analysis is also based on my previous research, where I integrated elements of social movement, conflict and media theories into a single analytical framework of ‘cyber conflict’, in order to explain the empirical evidence of various cyber conflicts. Elements of social movement theory were adopted to discuss sociopolitical cyber conflicts; conflict theory was used to address ethnoreligious cyber conflicts; and media theory was deployed as a component for both, deriving a single integrated analytical framework for understanding cyber conflicts. This framework has been applied when analysing ethnoreligious and ethnonational cyber conflicts (i.e. Israeli-Palestinian, pro-Islamic-anti-Islamic conflicts related to the Iraq war, Indian-Pakistani and American-Chinese) and sociopolitical cyber conflicts (such as anti-globalisation, anti-war movements, dissidents in authoritarian regimes and Internet censorship in different countries (Karatzogianni 2006). Lastly, I have used framework analysis of content, similar to Juyan Zhang and Shahira Fahmy’s (2010) approach in their comparative analysis of American and Russian press coverage of political movements in Ukraine, Belarus and Uzbekistan. The authors chose the sourcing, causality and moral judgment frames to apply to their empirical evidence. This type of frame analysis is taken into account when looking at discourses and analysing the Internet as a medium.


The first section of this article is an overview of cyber attacks; the second discusses the global media coverage of Russian cyber crime; the third explains the connection of cyber crime and politically-motivated cyber attacks in the post-Soviet cyber space; the fourth section looks at cyber security and geopolitics discussions; the last section dwells on the new Cold War rhetoric and the framing of Russians as responsible for the Climategate hack. Although the global media often portrays individuals and groups of Eastern European or post- Soviet origin as a uniform category, the main focus here is on the media portrayal of Russia and the Russians.

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