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Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age by Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca Stein

by Esperanza Miyake
15 Aug 2015 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: General Issue [10]
 

Review: Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein (2015) Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age. Stanford, California: Stanford UP. ISBN 978-0-8047-9490-9

It is often easy to overlook the ordinary, especially in the context of war, violence, militarism and nationalism where it is the spectacular extra-ordinary that usually grabs our attention in the first instance. Live accounts of explosions, death tolls, blood and civilian unrest: we are drawn to the discourses of war – increasingly produced and consumed online – that often point towards regimes of power and oppression. But what about the ordinary? The mundane? The casual but nonetheless equally significant act of a soldier, for example, who posts an ‘ordinary’ and ubiquitous pouting-smiling selfie on Facebook? Digital Militarism begins at this point by demonstrating with chilling effect how the ordinary – the everyday use of digital communication technologies and platforms – is equally tied to technologies of military oppression and become the means which reinforce, propagate and sustain such a state mechanism. ‘Chilling’ because nearly all the online texts, cases and images presented to the reader – from jocular Facebook conversations, stylised Instagrams, banal hashtags, to geeky poster memes – upon first glance are just that, so ordinary…until the reader is made to realise that these emerge from a geopolitical, digital field of conflict and war. How can we even begin to read – let alone analyse – such ordinary global networking practices alongside the extraordinary acts of military brutality from where they also emerge?

By examining the ordinary and routine social media practices of Jewish Israeli users in the context of Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territories, Digital Militarism thus unravels and explores ways of reading the complex, paradoxical and often uncomfortable interplay between social media and militarist politics. Through their extraordinary documentation and historical analyses of the digital field between 2008 and 2014, Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca Stein explore the process of what they define as Israel’s digital militarism: the productive two-way process where militarised culture extends into social media on the one hand, and also where the impact of militarisation on everyday Israeli social networking is apparent on the other hand. Most importantly, by tracing the development, consolidation and eventual normalisation of Israel’s digital militarism, Kuntsman and Stein shed a very critical and sharp light on how easily the social vernacular can become not just part of a deeply militarist discourse produced and reproduced by both the state and networked civilians, but how because of its ordinariness, social media can become the very tool that subsumes, normalises and hides military violence behind the veneer of digital banality. Digital Militarism attempts to shatter this veneer of banality by politicising and theorising the digital ordinary of militarism and war.

It is thus that the reader is taken on a fascinating and necessarily disturbing journey of Israel’s digital militarism, where Kuntsman’s and Stein’s analyses of key viral episodes explain the processes of the development, consolidation and normalisation of digital militarism. “Another Warzone” (chapter 2) provides a historical account leading up to the increasing political use of new technology and social networking by both civilians (whether patriotic or anti-occupation) and the state. The authors highlight significant incidents and points in history – from hacking, a Youtube channel launched by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), to the Freedom Flotilla incident – to argue how such everyday global networking trends become un-noticeably tied to strategic military practices. The accounts and images presented by Kuntsman and Stein really reinforce how easy it is to become a willing or unwilling participant of digital militarism through the everyday use of social networking and its visual and verbal syntax (‘like’ and ‘dislike’), to become part of a networked process which hides the military’s brutality and state violence.

One key episode the authors explore in depth is the controversy surrounding former Israeli soldier Eden Abergil’s posts on Facebook. “Anatomy of a Facebook Scandal” (chapter 3) is perhaps the most ‘chilling’ on multiple counts: the pop cultural aesthetics and language used by Abergil and others reacting to her against a background of war and violence; issues relating to virality, digital privacy and availability of online information; and perhaps the most pertinent, the management of such technology and data, especially by the state, to re-focus and divert unwanted criticism and attention whilst burying the true violence behind the very means that brought such issues to the surface in the first place. This chapter makes the reader reflect – perhaps a little sadly and also in fear – upon the nature of digital culture and the digital age as a whole: ordinary civilian digital participation and discursive practices relating to  online self-branding, celebrity, consumption and scandal are just as responsible for the development and consolidation of political militarism as the state is. Digital militarism in its most ordinary sense thus obscures, confuses and hides the real political issues and violence. As Kuntsman and Stein state poignantly, referring to the Abergil episode, ‘although the public urged a shift in Israeli military policies regarding social media use, with calls for better internal education within military ranks to safeguard information security, there were few calls to reassess soldier behaviour or military policy in the occupied territories’ (2015, p.54).

In “Palestinians Who Never Die” (chapter 4), Kuntsman and Stein explore yet another digital tactic which once again has the effect of diverting attention from the state and buries military violence within the digital sphere. The idea of ‘digital suspicion’ is examined, a phenomenon explained by the authors where Israeli users became concerned with digital authenticity and the digital doctoring of online images and texts which cast a negative light upon the Israeli state: for example, photographs of Palestinian deaths manipulated for political effect. Again, such everyday ordinary practices relating to social networking and digital technologies serve to both reinforce state rule whilst rendering state violence invisible as it becomes reabsorbed through the very mechanisms of its existence. As with the Abergil analysis, this chapter makes the reader re-think the very nature of digital culture and the digital age: reconfigured within the context of war and digital militarism, the very ‘ordinary’ photoshop tool suddenly becomes a weapon of war; being able to dissect and engage in digital forensics to identify photoshop work and tweet about it can become an act of militant patriotism. This is very sobering indeed.

Finally, “Selfie Militarism” (chapter 5) and the Afterword cover perhaps the most worrying aspect of ordinary digital practices in relation to militarism and violence. Kuntsman and Stein identify how the process of digital militarism is normalised, mainly through the online phenomenon of the selfie – or as the authors term, ‘selfie militarism’ – and the often jarring but increasing proliferation of militarised imagery within popular culture, or the popularisation of military images into the ordinary. Some of the selfie images provided by the authors make hairs stand on end: they speak at once of soldierhood, patriotism, violence, militarism, solidarity, fetishism, extremism, narcissism, terror and activism; all of these and more are sugar-coated ‘safely’ in a saccharine veneer of pop culture, the highly stylised aesthetics of global social networking practices. Military violence is so apparent yet at such a distance, framing yet removed from the smiling faces of a self-acknowledging soldier in front of their domestic smartphone. We thus arrive with shock at the political crux of the authors’ overall argument: digital militarism happens every day, produced and maintained through social networking and the ordinary digital practices of both the state and its civilian users, to a point where violence becomes normal and simultaneously unnoticed, obscured into the invisibility of insignificance. For the reader, even the act of consuming these images of online selfies reproduced in this book feels like an act of indirect digital militarism. This is an uncomfortable and critical realisation that one should experience at least once.

By tracing some of the digital footprints left by the Jewish Israeli users of social media during 2008-2014, Digital Militarism can be read as an archive which documents and seeks to understand the process of Israel’s digital militarism. But Kuntsman’s and Stein’s work moves beyond the geopolitical and temporal specificity of the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories. Their work offers new ways of engaging and thinking about the everyday digitisation of militarism, and the militarisation of the digital everyday more generally. What marks this work out so brilliantly is it politicises the ‘ordinary’, serving as a warning to everyone: do not overlook the apparently trivial everyday practices of social networking as they are the very means though which political regimes and military oppression are maintained and reproduced, making digital citizens complicit in the digital and tactical processes which trivialise, disperse and normalise violence. Digital Militarism is anything but ordinary.

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Dr Esperanza Miyake is a Research Associate at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her research and publications examine gender, race and queerness in relation to a wide range of subjects including motorcycles, media, popular culture, music, technology and everyday life.
All posts by: Esperanza Miyake | Email

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