This is a paper I co-authored with two collaborators, one of which is a PhD student of mine, titled Encrypted Jihad: Investigating the Role of Telegram App in Lone Wolf Attacks in the West, and published in the Journal of Strategic Security. We examine the role played by Telegram, one of the most popular social media apps offering end-to-end encrypted communications, in the command and control [C2] operations of distributed terrorist organizations. Specifically, I was interested in illustrating how encrypted platforms such as Telegram can be used as part of a complex stigmergic communications strategy relying on memetic impact both within the distributed network and outside of it. In brief, Telegram acts as a standalone communication platform where core C2 vectors are encrypted and obfuscated from counter-terrorism efforts, while all other communication is built for maximum memetic potential, relying on stigmergic impact among otherwise unconnected nodes acting as lone wolves.
flaneur musings by teodor mitew
This is a paper I co-wrote with a PhD student of mine, titled Black-boxing the Black Flag: Anonymous Sharing Platforms and ISIS Content Distribution Tactics, currently in peer review. We analyse ISIS’ use of anonymous sharing portals in its content distribution operations as part of a broader information warfare strategy focused on withstanding degrading attacks by popular social media portals. What is interesting about this paper is that we use a key notion from actor network theory – the black box – to conceptualise the role of anonymous sharing portals in the propaganda operations of distributed terrorist networks.
Nothing helps us to better understand any given historical moment than skipping 30+ years into the past and exploring the imaginaries of the future people had back then. Our medieval ancestors inhabited a world where the future existed as part of a sacralized cyclical time, on which the three Abrahamic religions superimposed the myth of the final revelation. The result was a synthetic vision of time, at once cyclical as personified in the festive rituals of the pre-Abrahamic solar calendar of equinox precessions, and millenarian as personified by the concept of a linear and foreordained end to the cycle. The future contained a repetition of rituals leading to an apocalypse.
The protestant revolution in Europe, and the displacement of the theist principle with that of Reason, shattered both of these futures. Now the future became infinite progress. The French revolution and the Napoleonic wars stabilized this future as the dominant paradigm of the West. The only question now became that of determining where infinite progress leads us to. This is the context in which Nietzsche declared that God is dead, a statement still vastly misunderstood, arguing that the void in the future of progress has to be filled by the Ubermensch.
Of course, the entire edifice of progress and reason was smashed to pieces in the Great War, with entire generations of Western men, reared on the myth of progress and triumph of reason, fertilizing with their blood the fields of Europe. Blood and soil was all that was left of the future now. Not surprisingly, that was the future picked up by the National-Socialists and Fascists, leading into the Second Great War, which accomplished the seemingly impossible by burning the future entirely into the hellish fire of the Bomb. After that, no future was left in the West, only an infinite one-dimensional now of endless consumption. The future was supplanted by two terms – more and now – which encapsulate everything the West has stood for ever since.
In the 1950s and 60s, the Soviet Union decided in a brief moment of collective hallucination to imagine a different future, in the stars. The Soviets even sent a multitude of emissaries into that future, first animals, then Gagarin and Tereshkova. However, the euphoria subsided, a generation woke up from the hallucination, and the future came crashing down, symbolized by the falling of the Mir space station and the collapse of the union. More and now triumphed here too.
In the 1960s and 70s China was undergoing its own collective hallucination moment, but unlike the Soviets, the hun wei bin were not imagining a future in the stars, but in progress purified from all past. Like all hallucinations, that one ended with a hangover, and an entire generation discovered that when the past is gone there is no meaningful future either. It is in that context that Deng Xiao Ping introduced a brand new future for China – that of progress towards more and now. It is at that precise moment, in 1981, when Jean Michel Jarre arrived in China to perform the first concert ever by a Western musician in that country. The choice of Jarre was not accidental. Here was a futurist par excellance, representing the country to first embrace progress as its default myth. Jarre’s music was hyper-futuristic, a glorious embrace of synth-induced progress, with no visible baggage of the past. Just what China needed at that moment. The documentary-like album released by Jarre in the aftermath is an amazing illustration of the arrival and implantation of a new myth of the future into the minds of an eager audience.
These are some loosely organized observations about the nature of network topologies in the wild.
In terms of both agency and information, all entities, be they singular [person], plural [clan/tribe/small company], or meta-plural [nation/empire/global corporation] are essentially stacks of various network topologies. To understand how the entities operate in space these topologies can be simplified to a set of basic characteristics. When networks are mapped and discussed, it is usually at this 2-dimensional level. However, in addition to operating in space, all entities have to perform themselves in time.
This performative aspect of networks is harder to grasp, as it involves a continuously looping process of encountering other networks and adapting to them. In the process of performative adaptation all networks experience dynamic changes to their topologies, which in turn challenge their internal coherence. This process is fractal, in that at any one moment there is a vast multiplicity of networks interacting with each other across the entire surface of their periphery [important qualification here – fully distributed networks are all periphery]. There are several important aspects to this process, which for simplicity’s sake can be reduced to an interaction of two networks and classified as follows:
1] the topology of the network we are observing [A];
2] the topology of network B, that A is in the process of encountering;
3] the nature of the encounter: positive [dynamic collaboration], negative [dynamic war], zero sum [dynamic equilibrium].
All encounters are dynamic, and can collapse into each other at any moment. All encounters are also expressed in terms of entropy – they increase or decrease it within the network. Centralized networks cannot manage entropy very well and are extremely fragile to it.
Positive encounters are self explanatory, in that they allow networks to operate in a quasi-symbiotic relationship strengthening each network. These encounters are dynamically negentropic for both networks, in that they enable both networks to increase coherence and reduce entropy.
Negative encounters can be offensive or defensive, whereby one or both [or multiple] networks attempt to undermine and/or disrupt the internal coherency of the other network/s. These encounters are by definition entropic for at least one of the networks involved [often for all], in that they dramatically increase entropy in at least one of the combatants. They can however be negentropic for some of the participants. For example, WW2 was arguably negentropic for the US and highly entropic for European states.
Zero sum encounters are interesting, in that they represent a dynamic cancelling out of networks. There is neither cooperation nor war, but a state of co-presence without an exchange of entropy in a dynamic time-space range. I believe this is a rare type of encounters, because the absence of entropy exchange can appear only if 1] there is no exchange of information or agency, or 2] the amount of agency/information exchanged is identical from both sides. Needless to say, this process cannot be easily stabilized over a long time period and either morphs into one of the other two states or the networks stop encountering each other.
This is a YouTube playlist of my lectures in BCM206 Future Networks, covering the story of information networks from the invention of the telegraph to the internet of things. The lecture series begins with the invention of the telegraph and the first great wiring on the planet. I tie this with the historical context of the US Civil War, the expansion of European colonial power, the work of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, followed by the work of Tesla, Bell, and Turing. I close with the second world war, which acts as a terminus and marker for the paradigm shift from telegraph to computer. Each of the weekly topics is big enough to deserve its own lecture series, therefore by necessity I have to cover a lot, and focus on key tropes emergent from the new networked society paradigm – i.e. separation of information from matter, the global brain, the knowledge society, the electronic frontier – and examine their role in our complex cyberpunk present.
Here are the slides to the paper co-authored with Travis Wall, presented at IAMCR 2017 in Cartagena, Colombia.
Swarm networks and the design process of a distributed meme warfare campaign
This is a draft of a paper titled Swarm networks and the design process of a distributed meme warfare campaign, which I co-authored with my PhD student Travis Wall, to be presented at the IAMCR 2017 conference in Cartagena, Colombia, July 16-20, 2017.
This paper aims to develop a systemic perspective of the mechanics of generation of targeted memes forming a meme warfare campaign, by analyzing the swarm-like topology of 4chan’s /pol/ forum, and the logistics of the swarm’s rapid prototyping, coordination, production, and dissemination of content. The paper uses as its case study the #DraftOurDaughters campaign, which is documented in its entirety from inception to completion. The main focus of the argument is in developing a coherent and systemic perspective on the logistics of distributed memetic production in online spaces potentiating swarm-like behavior in their user-base. We examine this process in its entirety, from the logistics of swarm formation to the rapid prototyping of ideas leveraging short feedback loops, and the collaborative creation of semantically targeted media. Anonymous online spaces such as 4chan are identified as environments fostering a powerful feedback loop of distributed ideation, content production and dissemination. Through examining these phenomena, the paper also provides perspective on the manifestation of collaborative design practice in online participatory media spaces.
Late last year I was in Hong Kong to establish our school’s media program at the City University College, and while there I gave an interview to The Standard, which is Hong Kong’s widest circulation English daily newspaper. Here is a reprint of the piece by Kelis Wong.
At first glance, communication studies and drones seem like an unlikely pairing. If the study of how human produces, processes and exchanges information is a subject in the social sciences, then learning how to operate a flying robot will be a matter of engineering.
But think about the purpose of a drone. Apart from the sheer pleasure of controlling an aerial vehicle, a commercial drone performs the function of gathering visual information in the form of pictures and videos for other people to consume.
That’s why Teodor Mitew, senior lecturer in digital media and communication at the University of Wollongong in Australia, kickstarted last year in his classes a technology exploration project called PlayMake Sessions.
“Any technology which allows digitalization, which allows the translation of materials into digital is an object of study for us,” said Mitew.
Every week, Mitew presents to a group of media and communication majors a trolley filled with quadcopters, mini cube action cameras, virtual reality headsets, gesture control devices, computer circuit boards and 3D printers.
One goal of the sessions is to encourage undergraduate students to play with the gadgets, and come up with a novel use for them in their digital lives.
A project, which originated from these sessions, created a digital archive of the university library, translating still images into virtual reality.
In another student project, some first year students started an open page on Facebook, called UOW Admirers, which posts love notes sent in anonymously. One year on, the page is still active, and has become a well-known matchmaking site on campus.
“The process of random experimentation without a goal is very important,” said Mitew. “That’s how students discover the affordance of a medium. So it’s not about me telling them do this and that, it’s about me telling them take the drone and see what happens.”
In the new school year, the University of Wollongong has introduced Mitew’s exploration project to a group of students enrolled in a top-up degree program taught at the community college of the City University of Hong Kong.
The students who take Mitew’s class are asked to engage in classroom activities which some people might find unconventional. A part of the course requires the students to get active on Reddit, Twitter, YouTube and WordPress.
The students also have to write short essays in an exercise which Mitew calls digital artefact. Here are things that the students have to hand in every week: one blog post, three tweets and three online comments.
“You can also make podcasts and memes. I love memes,” said Mitew in his first lecture.
Under the guise of juvenile fun, Mitew explained that his students are acquiring the cognitive skill sets which prepare them for a paradigm shift toward an information economy in which everyone can produce their own digital content from anywhere.
The paradigm shift will affect aspiring media professionals as they will face great career challenges in the proliferation stage of digitization.
“If you are in the legacy media industry, be it news, book publishing, or music and film, this is a terrible challenge because digitization entirely destroys your business model. You cannot charge for your content like you used to do,” said Mitew.
“Look at the content produced today in newspapers, then look at the online content produced by so-called amateurs. A lot of that stuff online are more professionally done, aesthetically more pleasing, and of much better quality.”
“This dichotomy will only increase in size as the pressure on legacy media increases, and as more and more people join the internet to the realization of everyone being a content producer.”
But producing interesting content is a big challenge. Some students will struggle with the task as they are confined by the reality, their educational experiences and the environment, said Mitew.
So, creating materials that others will find amusing is the ultimate goal. Writing on a deadline, writing different copies, making do on the go, and self- directed learning are also the abilities that Mitew expects his students to master.
And by making, aggregating and curating content in the online public sphere, students demonstrate their competencies in these aspects.
“I don’t teach technology. It’s more important to teach students how not to be afraid of technology,” said Mitew.
“We try to prepare our students for a radically different reality, giving them the opportunity to work on a self chosen project in public.”
These are the slides for what was perhaps my favorite lecture so far in BCM112. The lecture has three distinct parts, presented by myself and my PhD students Doug Simkin and Travis Wall. I opened by building on the previous lecture which focused on the dynamics of networked participation, and expanded on the shift from passive consumption to produsage. The modalities of this shift are elegantly illustrated by the event-frame-story structure I developed to formalize the process of news production [it applies to any content production]. The event stage is where the original footage appears – it often is user generated, raw, messy, and with indeterminate context. The frame stage provides the filter for interpreting the raw data. The story stage is what is produced after the frame has done its work. In the legacy media paradigm the event and frame stages are closed to everyone except the authority figures responsible for story production – governments, institutions, journalists, academics, intellectuals, corporate content producers. This generates an environment where authority is dominant, and authenticity is whatever authority decides – the audience is passive and in a state of pure consumption. In the distributed media paradigm the entire process is open and can be entered by anyone at any point – event, frame, or story. This generates an environment where multiple event versions, frames, and stories compete for produser attention on an equal footing.
These dynamics have profound effects on information as a tool for persuasion and frame shifting, or in other words – propaganda. In legacy media propaganda is a function of the dynamics of the paradigm: high cost of entry, high cost of failure, minimum experimentation, inherent quality filter, limited competition, cartelization with limited variation, and an inevitable stagnation.
In distributed media propaganda is memes. Here too propaganda is a function of the dynamics of the paradigm, but those are characterized by collective intelligence as the default form of participation in distributed networks. In this configuration users act as a self-coordinating swarm towards an emergent aggregate goal. The swarm has an orders of magnitude faster production time than the legacy media. This results in orders of magnitude faster feedback loops and information dissemination.
The next part of the lecture, delivered by Doug Simkin, focused on a case study of the /SG/ threads on 4chan’s /pol/ board as an illustration of an emergent distributed swarm in action. This is an excellent case study as it focuses on real-world change produced with astonishing speed in a fully distributed manner.
The final part of the lecture, delivered by Travis Wall, focused on a case study of the #draftourdaughters memetic warfare campaign, which occurred on 4chan’s /pol/ board in the days preceding the 2016 US presidential election. This case study is a potent illustration of the ability of networked swarms to leverage fast feedback loops, rapid prototyping, error discovery, and distributed coordination in highly scalable content production.