Battle of the Bytes

The online offensive.

NUVO Spring 2016: Battle of the Bytes, Inquiring Minds

The script reads like something Spielberg would have cooked up back in the eighties: a nefarious group of black-hooded malcontents arise from the desert, hell-bent on burning Western civilization to the ground. With the world’s governments wracked by discord and paralysis, it falls to a group of computer geeks and programming nerds to take the bad guys down—one line of code at a time.

Such is the storyline promised by the “cyberwar” declared by hacktivist-cum-vigilante collective Anonymous on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Launched in the wake of the November Paris attacks, the online offensive aims to deprive ISIS of its recruitment and propaganda websites, social media accounts, and other agitprop channels used to both demonstrate and promote the so-called caliphate’s brand of puritanical thuggery.

It’s not the first fight the hackers have picked: previous targets include such groups as the Church of Scientology, the government of Iran, the Westboro Baptist Church, Mexican drug gang Los Zetas, Sony Corporation, and a high school football team in Steubenville, Ohio. Tactics employed include website takeovers, publishing sensitive e-mails and confidential documents, exposing the identities of perceived ringleaders, and generally being a pain in the derrière of government, police, and other institutions of authority.

But war is a cruel mistress, and the action against ISIS has netted mixed results. Anonymous claims to have shut down some 20,000 Twitter accounts identified as ISIS devotees or sympathizers; many of these have turned out to be falsely flagged. Other efforts have included Rickrolling, parodies, overwhelming known ISIS media channels with memes, and publishing photos of dead ISIS fighters in an effort to show the grim reality behind the jihadists’ braggadocio. Effective? Who knows?

In a kind of meta-narrative, there is something post-modern about the conflict—a rag-tag group of cyber-ronins in Guy Fawkes masks taking on an army of zealots in black hoods, duking it out not for plunder but for brand—but what it does for the people living under the jackboot is quite another question. Busting up a website or taking down a Twitter feed is all well and good, but when it comes to dislodging the world’s most savage regime, it will take a more old-fashioned effort—less bytes, more bombs. Likely many more.