Communication Currents

Photo of a fake grenade attached to USB cord

Dropping and Legalizing the “Information Bomb”

October 1, 2016
Freedom of Expression

The relationship between speech and violence has been a continual object of study and attention in philosophy. Traditionally, the two have been characterized as strongly distinct but more recent areas of contemporary rhetorical, social, and media theory have attempted to fuse the two. Today, in this an era of “information warfare,” the notions of war and communication have melded to a significant degree.

In his recent essay, Roger Stahl of the University of Georgia traces the emergence of the “information bomb” metaphor, then broadens the focus to examine public discourse about conventional terrorism, cyberterrorism, journalism, and information leaks. Finally, Stahl takes a closer look at how the 2010 Supreme Court Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project case redefined speech as having the ability to constitute “material support” for terrorism.

Theorizing the I-bomb 

According to Stahl, the metaphor of the “information bomb” starts to take shape in Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Mediain which the author extends the metaphor of atomic fallout to the “media fallout” of broadcasting. McLuhan suggests that future media fallout will need to be contained with a civil defense system of education. But it is cultural theorist Paul Virilio who uses the term “information bomb” explicitly. He quotes Albert Einstein’s apocryphal suggestion in the 1950s that the 20th century awaited the fate of three bombs: atomic, information, and population. Perhaps the most important influence in the academy, he argues, was Michel Foucault’s reformulation of language as relations of force rather than meaning.

Stahl says that speech-weapon metaphors entered the field of U.S. rhetorical studies as theory in the 1980s, but gained public currency in the aftermath of September 11, when the use of the term “war” began to acquire new meaning, “such that it now lays claim to the full spectrum of human endeavors.” The shift in the meaning of “war” can also be detected in the phraseology of the “War on Terror,” which descends from the metaphorical lineage of the “War on Poverty” and the “War on Drugs.” “This genealogy is telling,” writes Stahl, “because at every instance, the metaphor becomes less figural, more concrete, and more warlike, eventually ‘suspending normal political exchange’ and substituting state violence for deliberation.”

Dropping the I-bomb 

The metaphor of the “information bomb” has made its way into the public discourse of the War on Terror. Across military, academic, and government discourse, terrorism is an identifiable technique that enacts violence not for its own sake, but instead to elicit publicity. Another facet of the discussion of the War on Terror suggests that media coverage is the “oxygen” of terrorism—in Margaret Thatcher’s famous words—a metaphor that assumes the job of a terrorist is to transubstantiate a violent act into a message. The media as oxygen metaphor is prevalent, but the assertion that terrorist communication must, by nature, already be violent is even more widespread in public discourse.

The metaphor of the information bomb has strengthened with the advent of the discourse surrounding “cyberterrorism.” The term coined by the Clinton administration in 1998 linked the “twin terrorist threats of cyberattacks and weapons of mass destruction.” Clinton’s narrative of cyberterrorism linked a myriad of unauthorized activities (trading in weapons of mass destruction, hacking, organized crime, drug trafficking, and credit card fraud). This rhetoric resulted in positioning this wide array of activity in a military frame that invoked images of attackers using computers to commit mass violence, explains Stahl.

Security experts, explains Stahl, have not yet seriously applied the label “cyberterrorism” to an actual event or identified it as a concrete strategy being used by terrorist organizations. Nevertheless, the idea of cyberterrorism is prevalent in popular culture. Movies such as Live Free or Die Hard (2007), television shows such as 24 and Homeland, and even video games such as Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (2012) all feature story lines in which cyberterrorists try to breach systems and information to harm the general public. “The rhetorical scaffolding of cyberterrorism thus works to redefine the infosphere as a rightful object of military control in the War on Terror,” writes Stahl.

Another indicator of the progression of this metaphor has been the weaponizing of journalism. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, General Tommy Franks famously referred to journalism as the “fourth front” of the war. The weaponization of journalism also meant that an unprecedented number of journalists would be killed in this war, and citizen journalism was referred to by the military as a new battleground, a position that continues to current conflicts.

The metaphor of the information bomb could also be seen following the 2010 WikiLeaks revelations, which brought on a wave of discourse that fused the frames of cyberterrorism and weaponized journalism. Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin published the following communicative definition of terrorism in her case against Julian Assange on her Facebook account:

Why was [Assange] not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders? Assange is not a journalist any more than the editor of al-Qaedas [sic] new English-language magazine Inspire is a journalist. He is an anti-American operative with blood on his hands.

“Statements like these spun a network of analogies that injected hacking, whistleblowing, journalism, and advocacy into the ideograph of terrorism,” asserts Stahl.

Legalizing the I-bomb 

The weaponized speech rhetoric of weaponized speech eventually evolved into hard legal distinctions regarding the status of particular acts of expression, according to Stahl. The majority decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project makes it clear that this rhetoric has had an effect on the way that the Court interprets speech, specifically around the “War on Terror.” The majority opinion departed significantly from legal precedent that relied on the “incitement of imminent lawless action” as a standard for criminalizing speech. More specifically, it said that certain kinds of speech could be criminalized as forms of “material support” for terrorism.

The decision empowered and emboldened the government to pursue action against less powerful individuals, many of whom were peace and union activists in Chicago and Minneapolis. “Cases like these,” explains Stahl, “display the power of the terrorism frame to erode the distinction between expression and violence.”

About the author (s)

Roger Stahl

University of Georgia

Assistant Professor