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Nationalism as a McLuhanite Message in the Online Sphere
Running Head: Cyber Nationalism
College of Journalism & Communications
University of Florida
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Nationalism as a McLuhanite Message in the Online Sphere
Forty years ago, Canadian social scientist Marshall McLuhan first
declared that "the medium is the message." What kind of message has
the online medium brought to the cyber world and to the real world?
Is there any room or time left for the continual existence of
nationalism? Moreover, what nationalists can do and have been doing
in utilizing the online technology to promote their causes? Relevant
literature and cases were reviewed and analyzed in answering these questions.
Nationalism as a McLuhanite Message in the Online Sphere
Like a mothball, which goes from solid to gas directly, I expect the
nation-state to evaporate without first going into a gooey,
inoperative mess, before some global cyberstate commands the political ether.
Nicholas Negroponte, 1995 p. 238
Marshall McLuhan was not the first techno-determinist in history,
but he surely was the most famous spokesperson for communication
technology evolution in the twentieth century. As early as in 1964,
he envisioned, rather shockingly at that time, that the new
telecommunication media and electronic technologies would amplify and
extend the social and political functions of individuals as well as
societies "in a sudden implosion." As the consequence of this
electrical extension of man, McLuhan declared, "the globe is no more
than a village" (1964/1997, p. 3). Forty years later, McLuhan's
"global village" metaphor bears more meaning in its descriptive
accuracy than in its imaginative creativity.
Unlike most other pioneer mass communication scholars who were
rooted in sociology (such as Charles Cooley, and Paul Lazasfeld), or
psychology (such as Carl Hovland, Harold Lasswell, and Kurt Lewin),
McLuhan was a Canadian professor of English Literature. This academic
background underscored his reference archive and his trademark
writing style. He orchestrated his interpretation of modern mass
media through those intuitive analogies instead of sequential
arguments. For example, he likened, rather metaphorically, telegraph
to "the social hormone," radio to "the tribal drum," and television
to "the timid giant." However, the most famous and the most
influential of McLuhan's analogous creation was the title of the
first chapter in his Understanding Media: "the medium is the message"
(McLuhan, 1964/1997, p. 7). In his analysis, the design and pattern
of the medium would impose more impacts on the societal psychic and
social structure than the contents carried by the medium. As McLuhan
stated, "the effects of technology do not occur at the level of
opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of
perception steadily and without any resistance" (1964/1997, p. 18).
For example, the printing technology developed in the sixteenth
century Europe led to the bourgeoning of nationalism, industrialism,
individualism, and education reform in Western Europe. According to
McLuhan, those social consequences were not the direct results of
what had been printed in the books. Instead,
Psychically, the printed book, an extension of the visual faculty,
intensified perspective and the fixed point of view…The linearity
precision and uniformity of the arrangement of movable types are
inseparable from these great cultural forms and innovations of
Renaissance experience…For print presented an image of repeatable
precision that inspired totally new forms of extending social energies.
1964/1997, p. 172.
Nationalistic feeling was only possible when people could visually
see their native language and cultural identity in the printed,
standardized, and persistent form. In this sense, what was printed in
the book was secondary to the printing technology in shaping people's
mentality. The medium, therefore, is not the messenger, but the message.
It is rather exaggerating to attribute the emergence of nationalism,
individualism, and capitalism to the form of the medium rather than
to the contents of the medium. However, McLuhan did tap a very
significant aspect in mass communication research – the long-term
social and psychological impact of communication technology. The
printed books in the sixteenth century not only restored people's
memory of the ancient wisdom, but also molded the senses of
uniformity, homogeneity, repeatability, and detachment into peoples'
minds. Similarly, the television technology in the mid-twentieth
century not only brought the fierce battles fought in the Vietnam
jungles into people's bedrooms, but also reshaped their nerve
systems, and their understandings of space, time, and themselves.
Following this logic, Nicholas Negroponte, one of the few WWW (World
Wide Web) founding fathers in MIT Media Lab, speculated that the
"old-fashioned" physical nation-states would eventually evaporate
under the reign of the cyber-technology. He proclaimed, ten years
ago, that "the role of the nation-state will change dramatically and
there will be no more room for nationalism than there is for
smallpox" (1995, p. 238).
If the medium is the message, then what kind of message has the
online medium brought to the cyber world and to the real world? Is
there any room or time left for the continual existence of
nationalism? Or will nationalism end up like "an almost dead fish
flopping on a dock" (Negroponte, 1995, p. 237)? Moreover, what
nationalists can do and have been doing in utilizing the online
technology to promote their causes? A brief literature review in the
following section would provide some basic underpinnings in answering
Cyber-technology as the McLuhanite Medium
Whenever there is an innovation, be it a new idea, a new product, or
a new movement, the first group of commentators always are those
optimists, or idealists, or liberals, depending on in which
philosophical category you want to put them. They hail, excitedly and
undoubtedly, the unprecedented significance and the revolutionary
nature of this new thing. As the hilarious promotions gradually die
down, the pessimists, or realists, or conservatives, dutifully show
up. They downgrade the impact and role of this new thing and denounce
the naivety of their impatient colleagues. After a while, people
suddenly find out that both the optimists and the pessimists are
looking at the same glass of water, though from an opposite angle.
The final group of the wise men then blends the two opposite extremes
into a mixed, half-full-and-half-empty picture. The final consensus,
as shown in statistics theory, always regresses toward the population mean.
The new cyber-technology experienced the same process of ups and
downs and finally returning to the middle areas in the social science
Negroponte in his bestseller Being Digital (1995) first introduced
the unstoppable and undeniable nature of the digital technology and
online medium. As he described, "[I]t has four very powerful
qualities that will result in its ultimate triumph: decentralizing,
globalizing, harmonizing, and empowering" (p. 229). Because the
decentralized and networked structure of online technology empowers
individuals to bypass the restraints of space, time, money, language,
various gatekeepers, and even governmental powers. Dyson (1997)
portrayed a future that the existing hierarchical bureaucracies will
be replaced by a new electronic feudalism with overlapping
communities and multiple layers of citizens' identities and
loyalties. Klein (1999) focused on the new electronic town-hall
meeting which enables online users to engage in political debates on
common concerned issues with people around the world. He pointed out
that the current meeting hall used for the town hall meetings or
congressional meetings actually has changed little from the forum
used by Greek citizens 2,000 years ago. The Internet for the first
time made "possible many-to-many communication without the use of a
physical meeting hall" (Klein, 1999, p. 213). Lessig (1999) argued
that what Internet accomplished overnight in free speech in those
authoritarian countries almost surpassed what the U.S. government had
tried through diplomatic, economic, and military means for the past
fifty years. As long as a country connects to the World Wide Web, it
has to abide by the "First Amendment in code more extreme than our
own First Amendment in law" (Lessig, 1999, p. 167, emphasis in
original). In a book titled Digital Democracy, Hague and Loader
(1999) summarized particularly seven key features of cyber technology
that provide the potential for a new form of democracy. They are
interactivity, global network, free speech, free association,
construction and dissemination of information, challenge to
professional and official perspectives, and breakdown of nation-state
identity. In brief, the technological determinists tend to highlight
that the Internet as a medium is inherently democratizing,
progressive, and anti-nation-state.
Based on the supposedly same reality, the pessimists came up with
equally convincing but less enthusiastic conclusions. Political
scientists are among those who are most annoyed by the determinists'
rosy envisions (see for example, Kaplan, 2000; Keohane, & Nye, 1998;
Shapiro, 1999). Shapiro (1999) regarded the argument of "Internet is
inherently democratizing" "an empty truism and a dangerous one at
that" (p. 14). Keohane and Nye criticized rather incisively that
those optimists "moved too directly from technology to political
consequences without sufficiently considering the continuity of
beliefs, the persistence of institutions, or the strategic options
available to statemen" (1998, p. 82). In other words, although
information can travel faster, cheaper, and wider on the online
sphere, it does not fly in a social, cultural or political vacuum.
The old power holders are equally eager, more prepared, and
well-organized to counterbalance any challenges posed by the online
The evidence gathered by communication scholars from the field proved
that the pessimists' arguments were not unfounded (Aldisardottir,
2000; Chalaby, 2002; Eveland, & Scheufele, 2000; Flanagin, & Metzger,
2000; Nie, 2001; Scheufele, & Nisbet, 2002; Wellman, et al. 2001).
For example, Scheufele and Nisbet (2002) warned that the role of the
Internet in promoting citizenship and political participation is
limited as compared to traditional mass media. Nie (2001) pointed out
that Internet users do not become more sociable or more civic simply
because they connect to the Internet. Rather, their demographic
backgrounds, such as education, financial status, age, and profession
predetermine their skills and patterns of connectivity and
sociability. Moreover, "simply because of the inelasticity of time,
Internet use may actually reduce interpersonal interaction and
communication" (p. 420). Aldisardottir's (2000) multi-nation survey
supported the hypothesis that the global web-media will mainly be
used as local tools by online users. The local identity and cultural
community would eventually outweigh the illusory global culture or
nation-less identity. Shapiro (1999) applied theories of social
psychology (such as selective exposure, selective perception, and
selective retention) to demonstrate people's possible behavior in the
online sphere. Given the endless filter and personalize information
online, "we can also build virtual gated communities where we never
have to interact with people who are different from ourselves"
(Shapiro, 1999, p. 25). On the other hand, several empirical
investigations found that the knowledge gap between information haves
and have-nots widened over time (Bonfadelli, 2002; Eveland &
Scheufele, 2000). Not to mention the low credibility of online
information among its users (Flanagin & Metzger, 2000), the potential
"balkanization" of online deliberation (Wilhelm, 2000, see pp.
41-44), and the availability of online technology as a sufficient
tool for various government censorships (Chalaby, 2002).
Increasingly, online researchers began to adopt the
optimist-pessimist half-and-half mindset. Instead of looking at the
online technology as a morally dichotomous determinant, they view it
as a contingent factor intertwined with and influenced by other
antecedent variables, such as people's social-economic status, a
nation's history, culture, and developing stage. For example, Kaye
and Johnson (2002) categorized people's motives for connecting to
politically oriented sites into four groups: finding guidance,
information seeking, entertainment and social utility. Based on the
uses and gratifications theory (Katz, 1959; Blumler & Katz, 1974),
they investigated and once again found the linkage between two
classic media research questions "what does online medium do to
people" and "what do people do with the online medium." Papacharissi
(2004), instead of continuing the debate on Internet's potential for
civil discourse based on vague and abstract concepts, tried to
clarify those major concepts such as civility, politeness, and
rational-critical discourse at the online era. She found that
contrary to popular belief, most online debates on political chat
rooms are "neither predominantly impolite nor uncivil, although
frequently disembodied and distracted" (p. 275). In other words, the
seemingly heated and anarchic debates online fostered by the absence
of face-to-face communication may serve the ends of democratic emancipation.
After examining American online users' attitude and behavior,
Scheufele and Nisbet (2002) raised a far-reaching research question
that is highly related to this present study. They asked,
what do our findings mean for the future of the Internet as a tool
for efficiently informing and mobilizing large cross-sections of the
population, especially those who are traditionally not exposed to
mainstream print and broadcast media? (p. 69).
Scheufele and Nisbet didn't give an answer to this question. However,
according to Marshall McLuhan, such an answer might need tens of
years, if not hundreds of years, to be found out. Actually, he once
joked about mass communication scholars' futile attempt to evaluate
the psychological impact of TV by using the research method of
content analysis. "Had his [Wilbur Schramm] methods been employed in
1500 A.D. to discover the effects of the printed book in the lives of
children or adults, he could have found out nothing of the changes in
human and social psychology resulting form typography" (McLuhan,
1964/1997, p. 19). Because, as implied in McLuhan's arguments, it
takes a visionary philosopher instead of a content analyst to reveal
the long-term subliminal effect of a new medium.
Nationalism as a McLuhanite Message
Although nationalism scholars have contested on almost every
component of this important concept, most tend to agree that either
as a mature ideology or as a conscious movement, nationalism's first
appearance in West Europe coincided with a series of historical
occurrences, including the collapse of the political dominance by
theocratic and monarchic entity, the Enlightenment movement and the
spread of the idea of public sovereignty, the formation of modern
industrial society, the cyclical interstate wars, and the advent of
mass communication technology (Anderson, 1991; Gellner, 1983;
Hobsbawm, 1990; Smith, 1995). It is hard to tell, though, whether
nationalism was the by-product of those parallel developments or was
the catalyst for them. The next round of nationalism movements in
Europe brought about two destructive World Wars in the twentieth
century which broke down many old empires and at the same time gave
birth to many more sovereign nations. Such a trend quickly spread to
the rest of the world which eventually triggered the decolonization
and self-determination movement in Asia and Africa. The subsequent
Cold War, which "fought" between two camps of ideological rivals for
more than 40 years, seemingly overshadowed, at least temporarily, the
nationalism current. However, the demon was once again out of the
bottle after the fall of the Berlin War in 1991. Nationalism quickly
filled the ideological void left by Communism in those former Soviet
states and its Eastern European satellites. Meanwhile, in Asia as
well as in South America, the economic miracles and new communication
technology not only engendered prosperous societies, but also
cultivated people with firm and determined nationalistic stance. It
seems every time when the old dominant world system collapsed, no
matter whether this system is a one power domination pattern, or a
two-power check-and-balance structure, or simply a chaotic
disorder, people resort to nationalist appeal as the repositioning
and re-identifying strategy.
What is nationalism, then? It is a historical, economic, cultural,
political, and ideological consequence that helps people to establish
collective identity, cultural cohesion, social solidarity, and
political autonomy. It is a strong common consciousness, and it is
also a powerful political movement. As indicated by Hoffmann (2000),
nationalism is a reaction to a problem, an explanation to a
situation, and a program to solve the questions. "At a minimum, it is
the promotion and protection of the nation's integrity and
uniqueness. Often, it goes beyond this, and proclaims not only the
nation's singularity, but its mission in the world, or its
superiority over others" (p. 198).
Although every country's nationalism has its own developing path and
features, three common characteristics of nationalism that are
directly related to this overall research topic will be discussed.
First of all, nationalism is a super ideology. It encompasses and
transcends other forms of philosophical paradigms, political
ideologies, and religious beliefs. Once it comes into being, it
exists as its own cause and only follows its own rationale. Marxism
and some political internationalists failed to recognize the nature
and overriding power of nationalism. Second, nationalism is not a
status-quo ideology. Nationalism, without exception, grows out of the
unsatisfied desire, be it territorial, cultural, political, or
historical. When provoked by the outer pressures, this unsatisfied
desire can escalate, intensify, and quickly turn into a social and
political movement. Third, nationalism is an exclusive, if not an
irrational, ideology. Such exclusiveness has been cultivated and
reinforced by those omnipresent national stimuli, such as country's
name, national flag, national anthem, national color, collective
memory, etc. As a result, the cultural and emotional life of the
people has become closely integrated with the common good of their
beloved nation and their fellow country-men. Such a love and
affiliation is not indiscriminate. When two countries' nationalists
collide with each other over an antagonistic issue, the overheated
rhetoric always leads to uncompromising stance or irrational
behaviors. Therefore, as to the domestic issues, nationalism can be
used by the government to solidify all the political groups under a
common banner, sometimes even as a tool to repress the opposition
parties. As to the foreign affairs, nationalism is widely recognized
a double-edge sword. It can serve either as a rallying point, or as
destructive venom. In brief, nationalism is a complex and difficult
topic. As an ideology, it is shapeless, constantly evolving, and
all-encompassing. However, as a social and political movement, it is
concrete, diverse, and contingent.
How will online technology interact with nationalism? Against the
rhetorical backdrop of globalization, democratization, and
digitalization, talking about something called "nationalism" seems
intuitively obsolete, if not totally irrelevant. Or does it? Before
reviewing online technology's built-in potential in promoting
nationalism, the following misperceptions about information
communication technology should be briefly clarified.
First, the innovativeness of information technology refers to the
technology, not the information. The democratic ideas can be
disseminated by the online media faster, cheaper, and wider, so are
the fundamentalism, terrorism, and all the other opposite extremes in
the human ideology spectrum. An old Chinese saying goes, "A new
bottle can contain the old wine, and a pair of new shoes can always
walk on the old path." As far as the communication technology is
concerned, neo-Nazism and neo-moralism are equally conveyable.
Second, information technology can facilitate communications among
people, as long as people speak the same language. Although the
current technology can instantly translate a message from one
language to another, no technology can instantly implant all the
history, tradition, and culture of another country into people's
mind. Therefore, people cannot not communicate, but preferably in
their own language, and about their own culture and experiences. Even
when people use English as a lingua franca in business or
intellectual communications, "it is a tool for communication not a
source of identity and community. Because a Japanese banker and an
Indonesian businessman talk to each other in English does not mean
that either one of them is being Anglofied or Westernized"
(Huntington, 1996, p. 61). Right now, English is on the verge to be
surpassed by Chinese as the most used language online. Third,
over-supply of information is as bad as under-supply of information.
The white noise from the mountainous junk information is the symbol
of lack of information rather than the sufficiency of information.
Unless the information is picked up by the attentive mind, the
immenseness equals meaningless.
Online technology's unnoticed potential as a catalyst for
nationalist ideology and nationalistic movement takes at least three
forms. First of all, it serves as an information center for gathering
and disseminating nationalism-related material. Such a feature is
more salient in those countries where the traditional mass media can
not be accessed by the nationalist groups. Second, it serves as an
organizational platform for those nationalistic movements which
otherwise have no other means and options to exist, survive, and
continue. Third, it serves as an execution vehicle which can be used
to fulfill nationalistic groups' short-term objectives. To illustrate
the above three points, three well-known world incidents, the Kosovo
War in 1999, Mexico's Chiapas Uprising in 1994, and China's
Red-Hacker Movement in 2001 were discussed below.
Information Center for Nationalism Information
NATO's bombing of Kosovo in 1999 was "the first major international
conflict to be extensively reported and, arguably, fought on the
Internet" (Hall, 2001, p. 94). The death of former Communist Yugoslav
leader Josip Tito in 1980 opened the lid on a bottle filled with
nationalism explosives. The revived conflicts between Serbs and
Albanians over Kosovo resulted in an 80-day bombing campaign
initiated by NATO. Though the tragedies and bloodiness of war
remained the same, the presence of online technology and Internet
communication remarkably overhauled the traditional war-time
propaganda strategies, and sometimes even tilted the power-balance
toward those previously disadvantageous groups (see for reference,
Hall, 2001, chap 4.).
In retrospect, it seems that nationalism was one of the beneficiaries
of this web war fought in an area historically saturated with
nationalistic confrontations. Online technology's role as a war-time
information center for nationalism sentiment existed in three layers.
First, as outside journalists were expelled from Serbia and barred
from Kosovo at the beginning of the bombing, individuals living in
the war zones could utilize the web to communicate directly with each
other and literally with the whole world community. Those live,
unedited, on-the-spot, eyewitness reports from the war zone provided
an unprecedented perspective among those fellow "countrymen" as well
as those outside observers. Thanks to Internet's speed and reach, an
individual's voice can be heard, magnified, and resonated among an
ever-larger population. Second, the opposition groups suppressed by
the Slobodan Milosevic's regime could promote their anti-Milosevic
but nonetheless nationalistic appeals online. Radio B92, a radio
station inside Serbia, was the best example of such a new phenomenon.
Highly critical to Milosovic's policies both home and abroad, B92 was
often jammed and interrupted by the government. In response, the
station "had established itself as the first ISP inside the country
and it responded by sending its broadcasts abroad over the Internet
and then having them rebroadcast back into Serbia from sympathetic
stations in Montenegro, and later by CNN, the BBC and others"
(Ferdinand, 2000, p. 14). During the time of war, B92 online website
received about two million hits and over 700 emails per day from its
audiences (Hall, 2001). Third, while Milosevic's government was in no
position to compete with its enemy (NATO) in the propaganda war
fought on traditional media, according to Hall (2001), "they were
able to conduct an alarmingly effective Netwar which left NATO
looking outdated, out of touch and even vulnerable" (p. 119). Serbia
nationalists volunteered to keep updated the government websites,
translated those new information into English, argued about the war
in numerous online chat rooms, and called for Serbian expatriates
around the world to contribute. Online technology has indeed
empowered those who are the most determined and dedicated.
Overall, nationalism was certainly not the only online theme during
the Kosovo war. However, without the online technology, nationalism
groups would never have found such a cheap, efficient, and less
controllable means to fight an asymmetrical information war.
Operational Platform for Nationalism Organization
On January 1, 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA) came into effect, thousands of Mexico peasants who led by
Subcomandante Marcos seized control of the main urban areas in the
province of Chiapas. When Mexican government sent military to repress
the uprising, the guerrillas – the Zapatista Army of National
Liberation (EZLN) – retreated to the nearby rainforest and hence
started a ten-year long confrontation with the government forces. It
is hard to define the identity of the Zapatistas and the nature of
this movement. The movement's rhetoric intermingled class struggle
against capitalist exploitation, protection of indigenous tradition
and culture, and Mexico's past models of heroism and nationalism
(Couch, 2001). However, what made this event so well-known and
significant was its symbolic meaning. A group of primarily low-waged,
indigenous Mexican peasants rose up against the seemingly unstoppable
trend of globalization, and eventually it was the champion-product of
the globalization – the Internet and the global communication –
helped Zapatistas achieve their goal.
Communication scholar Manuel Castells commented the significance of
this event in his The Power of Identity (1997) as that,
Extensive use of the Internet allowed the Zapatistas to diffuse
information and their call throughout the world instantly, and to
create a network of support groups which helped to produce an
international public opinion movement that made it literally
impossible for the Mexican government to use repression on a large
scale. (p. 80)
Ironically, the globalized network facilitated the existence, spread,
and success of an anti-globalization movement. Internet's
indispensable role in the development of the Zapatistas movement
existed in the following areas. First, when most national and
international commercial media refused to publicize EZLN's
communiqués and letters, supporters of the movement uploaded those
messages onto various Usenet groups, Peacenet conferences, and
Internet lists related to Mexican issues. Such maneuver was so
successful that it helped create the popular tale of the "spokesman
Sub-commander Marcos in the jungle, mobile phone in hand, uploading
communiqués directly to the Internet" (Russell, 2001, p. 358).
Second, the leaders of the Zapatistas utilized the Internet
technology and online community as a platform to rally support,
mobilize sympathetic groups, and sway international public opinion
online. Knowing that the Mexico government could not afford a
negative world image in the face of the international financial
assistance, the EZLN directly appealed to the "emerging transnational
public sphere supported in part by the growth of the Internet, where
it sought the leverage necessary to neutralize the Mexican
government's tactical advantages" (Russell, 2001, p. 360). Third,
Internet's organizational power also embodied through the plebiscite
called on by the EZLN in 1995. Among those one million votes, 80,000
people, most of them living outside of Mexico, cast their vote via
Although Zapatistas is not a strictly typical nationalism movement,
its evolution and development may point to some possible patterns in
future social movements. Online technology enables the non-mainstream
or non-government ideological movement to exist, grow, and spread as
a physically invisible whereas practically functional social force.
In this sense, Internet is not only an information center, it is also
an organizational platform for daily meeting, recruiting, advocating,
Execution Vehicle for Nationalism Activity
On April 26, 2001 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the
United States issued an unusual national warning that Chinese hackers
might mount online strikes against American government Web sites over
the next few weeks. Meanwhile, Pentagon officials ordered all
their computer service systems to take additional precautions to
protect against any attacks from Chinese hackers into the Defense
Department systems. Two days later, on the Department of Labor's
official web site, a hacker posted a homage to Wang Wei, the Chinese
pilot who lost his life in a collision with a United States Navy
spy-plane on April 1, 2001. The official web sites of Department of
Health and Human Services (www.health.gov) and Surgeon General Office
(www.surgeongeneal.gov) were also defaced.
At 7:00 P.M. (Beijing Time), April 30, 2001, thousands of Chinese
hackers held their first online meeting at www.cnhonker.com and
established a loosely organized virtual organization: "Honker Union
of China." As the revenge toward the spy-plane collision and the
Bush administration's handling of the post-collision relations with
China, the Honker Union of China declared online warfare against
America's government websites and set out the objectives and
strategies. From May 1, to May 9, nearly a hundred American's web
sites in government, military, and education sectors were defaced or
taken out of services. In response, American hackers counterattacked
hundreds of China's web sites and posted pro-American messages on
those sites. The peak of the battle occurred from 9:00 A.M. to 11:15
A.M. (EST), May 4, 2001, when hundreds of thousands of
well-coordinated online service requests jammed and eventually
brought down the service of the White House's official web site at
www.whitehouse.gov. According to a report posted by the Honker Union
of China, an estimated number of more than 80,000 Chinese hackers
participated in the collective attacks on the White House web
site. The New York Times correspondent Craig Smith used a
sensational title for his coverage on this online conflict between
Chinese hackers and American hackers: "May 6-12: The First World
It is enticing and even self-evident for most American's China
watchers to draw a conclusion that the Chinese government was somehow
behind this people's online war. As James Adams, the Chief Executive
Officer of iDefense and a member of the advisory board of the U.S.
National Security Agency, pointed out later that "there is no
question that China is sponsoring these attacks. The difference
between American hackers and Chinese hackers is that the Chinese
government has a pretty good history of sponsoring attacks using
surrogates." Actually, there is no question that James Adams
doesn't know Chinese language himself and he didn't have chance or
intention to visit the chat room on the China's Honker Union. In the
days immediately following the spy-plane collision, China's hundreds
of online chat rooms filled with not only anti-American rhetoric but
also harsh criticism toward Chinese government's weak response (see
for example, Li, Qin, & Kluver, 2003). It was the double-resentment
toward American government's "arrogance" and Chinese government's
"impotence" prompted this highly coordinated nationalism activity.
From this brief online cyber-war fought between two groups of
"virtually" organized nationalists, online technology's potential
role as an execution vehicle was all too clear. Hackers, driven by
unsatisfied nationalism feeling, turned online technology's
interactive and borderless feature into a lethal weapon. Individuals
around the world can rally behind a common cause, share information,
coordinate timetable, set objectives, adjust strategy, launch attack,
and report victory. Even if, although it is nearly impossible, the
Chinese government has the total control over online activities
taking place within its physical border, there are more than 3
million Chinese students studying abroad and about 50 million
diaspora Chinese living abroad. How can any government control these
"virtually nationless" nationalists? From this aspect, online medium
is not only a message, it is an invisible military.
Cyber-Nationalism and Some Reflections
Nationalism is an exclusive, unsettling, and super ideology. Cyber
space is an all-embracing, dynamic, and unconventional sphere. It
seems counterintuitive at the first sight to think that the
globalizing cyber technology would promote an exclusive ideology or
movement. Further scrutiny on the internal linkages between this
innovative communication technology and the old-fashioned ideology
revealed something worth noting.
First of all, online technology possesses more subversive power in
those societies where information can not flow freely through
traditional mass media. Online technology became the only viable and
affordable means for those non-mainstream or non-government groups to
communicate, to function, and to grow. Coincidently, in those
politically authoritarian societies, nationalism sentiment is
historically strong. The nationalistic appeal was so resonating and
popular that even the most repressive government could not simply
turn it off. Therefore, in those well-developed democratic societies,
citizens will naturally focus on the democratic functions imbedded in
the online technology and online sphere. In contrast, in those
pre-democratic countries, Internet's communication and organizational
functions would be exploited to serve the nationalistic ends. For
example, Serbia's Radio B92, Mexico's Zapatistas, and China's
Red-hackers embodied such a tendency.
Second, nationalism is an ideology developed in the process of one
nation interacting with another nation. No other communication
technology except for the Internet has provided every individual an
easy and fast means to interact with people from another country. For
example, people can get information about foreign nation by reading
newspaper, listening to radio, or watching television, as long as
those media carry information about foreign countries. However, using
traditional news media, general public can never have a chance to
search information from the foreign sources by themselves, or talk
directly with a foreigner, or engage in a direct conflict. Internet
has forever changed that. Online technology enables individual to act
as an active subject rather than a passive object in the cross-nation
interactions. The diplomacy is no longer the privileged turf occupied
by professional diplomats. In the online age, diplomatic negotiations
take place not only among diplomats behind the closed doors, but also
among fervent online surfers on chat rooms, BBS, or in the online
battlefield. For example, Bunt (2003) introduced the new political
phenomenon of "e-jihad" which the Muslim Hacker Club and Pakistan
Hackerz Club directly engaged in the India-Pakistan border conflict
Third, online technology directly gave rise to the formation of
virtual nationalist community which no longer relies on the physical
presence to exist. Ten years ago, a wild accusation against China
aired by a U.S. domestic television program could never arouse any
reaction from China. Right now, thanks to the Internet, such news
would immediately spread out across over 100 million Chinese online
population and the next day, that television program's web service
would be flooded with angry protests coming from every corner of the
world. As online communication technology helped shrink the world
into a global village, the nationalism feeling may also be globalized.
Stanley Hoffmann (1999), political scientist at the Harvard
University, once commented on the propaganda power of nationalism,
"[i]deologies need mobilized believers who will propagate it and do
battle for it. Few ideologies have been so resourceful in their
choices of vehicles of propagation" (p. 198). Another Harvard
professor Samuel Huntington's (1996) statement also helped our
understanding of the current issue, "[p]eople are discovering new but
often old identities and marching under new but often old flags which
lead to wars with new but often old enemies" (p. 20). In other words,
although we are living in a global village, we still quarrel about
the same old trifles. Returning to Negroponte's (1995) confident
declaration that "without question, the role of the nation-state will
change dramatically and there will be no more room for nationalism
than there is for smallpox" (p. 238), the first part of his statement
is truly "without question," but for the second part, it is still too
early to tell.
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 These three general types of world order were summarized by
Henry Kissinger in his Diplomacy, see Kissinger, 1995.
 See the article on The New York Times, "F.B.I. warns that
Chinese may disrupt U.S. web sites." April 28, 2001, section A, pg. 8.
 See the article on The New York Times, "Chinese hackers invade 2
official U.S. web sites." April 29, 2001, section A, pg. 10.
 "Honker" is a made-up word widely used by Chinese hackers. It
combines the Chinese word "hong" (red) and English word "hacker." It
means "red hacker."
 An article (in Chinese) which documented the history of the
Honker Union of China could be accessed at
 See the article on The New York Times, "May 6-12: The First
World Hacker War." May 13, 2001, section 4, pg. 2.
 See the article on The New York Times, "F.B.I. warns that
Chinese may disrupt U.S. web sites." April 28, 2001, section A, pg. 8.