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Review: Cyberidentities at war: The Moluccan conflict on the Internet

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Budka, P. 2015. Review of Bräuchler, B. Cyberidentities at war: The Moluccan conflict on the Internet. New York & Oxford: Berghahn, 2013. American Anthropologist, 117/1: 179-180.

Birgit Bräuchler’s book Cyberidentities at War was originally published in German in 2005. It is the result of her dissertation research on the Moluccan conflict and how it took place in cyberspace—the social space constituted by Internet-related practices. The English edition of this volume not only brings one of the few long-term ethnographic accounts of an online conflict to an international audience but also includes a new epilogue that briefly discusses what happened to the actors analyzed in the book and current developments in anthropological Internet research, particularly in respect to social movements and religions. In the early 2000s, a detailed anthropological inquiry into conflicts in relation to Internet technologies was still missing. By providing such an anthropological account and by conducting online ethnographic research, Bräuchler broke new ground and contributed to the then-emerging field of cyberanthropology.


In her first few chapters, Bräuchler presents the theoretical basis and the methodological tools for her research. To identify, transfer, and finally apply theories and methods that were not developed for Internet research turned out to be a big challenge. The same is true for maneuvering through the dichotomous conceptualizations of the Internet and related phenomena. Bräuchler utilizes the online–offline categorization but makes clear that “online spheres do not only constitute a reproduction of offline reality” (p. 17); the two are closely interwoven, but offline identity projects, for example, can be expanded and changed online, thus expanding offline worlds in return.

To understand the social formations and identity projects in Moluccan cyberspace, the author decides to build on two theoretical concepts that are not directly related to the Internet: Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities,” which aim to understand national identity formation and mediation, and Arjun Appadurai’s “imagined worlds,” a concept that extends Anderson’s notion to transnational processes and cultural flows. As Bräuchler convincingly demonstrates in the empirical sections of her book, these theories proved to be useful tools for analyzing online community- and identity-forming processes.

Identifying the relevant social actors, their relations, and their spheres of interaction in cyberspace is the first step in delimiting the ethnographic field. Through long-term participant observation of online processes in mailing lists, online newsletters, and websites, the author acquired cultural competencies and gained an emic point of view. While Bräuchler was generally able to transfer anthropological and ethnographic “research traditions” (p. 55), such as participant-observation, to the online field, some methodological aspects had to be adapted to this new social environment and its peculiarities, such as questions of anonymity, privacy, and authenticity. To obtain “insight into the working environment and the sociocultural context of the cyberactors” (p. 55), Bräuchler also conducted two months of offline fieldwork in Indonesia. There she found that for the opposing parties, the Internet was simply an additional tool for expanding their offline activism.

After describing the basics of the Moluccan conflict, its history, local, national, and international factors and contexts, as well as the role of media, religion, and collective identity, the author introduces her selection of cyberactors and their specific cyberstrategies. These strategies were of communicative nature and included (1) “flame wars” (online fighting with words); (2) “cross-posting” of messages to promote solidarity among group members and to defame others; (3) the inclusion and linking of reliable sources to lift the local conflict on a global level; and (4) the manipulation of websites and online identities. All three analyzed cyberactors—the Masariku Mailing List, the CCDA Newsletter, and the online presence of the FKAWJ and Laskar Jihad—utilized these strategies to engage each other, thus using “the medium of the Internet strategically for their goals and purposes” (p. 314).

However, Bräuchler’s research also unveils the specifics of these activist projects. The Masariku Mailing List conducted awareness work through the Internet and promoted the “communitization” (p. 314) of its members. The CCDA Newsletter managed to build a large global network of supporters; meanwhile, the online activities of FKAWJ and Laskar Jihad created the picture of an “idealized Islamic community” (p. 314). Bräuchler concludes her investigations on the conflict in Moluccan cyberspace with the optimistic outlook that Internet technologies can not only be used for expanding conflicts but also as instruments of peace “to overcome existing boundaries and promote a balanced dialogue” (p. 340).

Despite the fact that the book’s English edition builds on ethnographic research conducted 15 years ago in a very fast-changing sociotechnical environment—the Internet—Bräuchler’s work is still relevant. It is one of the first in-depth and long-term Internet and conflict studies that explored the online formation and mediation of collective identities and discursive online practices under specific sociopolitical conditions. Bräuchler’s research provides a valuable contribution to what used to be called cyberanthropology and what many now call digital anthropology (e.g., Horst and Miller 2012).

Reference

Horst, Heather A., and Daniel Miller, (eds.) 2012. Digital Anthropology. London: Berg.

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