Gender, War and Technology: Peace and Armed Conflict in the 21st Century

Emily Jones, Lecturer in Law, University of Essex

Technology is vastly changing contemporary conflict. While there has been a lot of recent focus by international lawyers on topics such as drone warfare and autonomous weapons systems, very little has been published on these issues from a gender and law perspective. Seeking to bridge this gap, I recently co-edited a Special Issue for the Australian Feminist Law Journal on Gender, War and Technology: Peace and Armed Conflict in the 21st Century alongside Yoriko Otomo and Sara Kendall. The issue brings together a wide array of voices. Several different technologies are discussed; from drone warfare to lesser known technologies being used in conflict settings such as evidence and data collection technologies and human enhancement technologies.

As the introduction to the Special Issue notes, gender is used throughout the Special Issue in multiple ways, highlighting women’s lived experiences in conflicts as combatants, victims, negotiators of peace agreements, military actors and as civilians, as well as being used as a theoretical tool of analysis, ‘considering issues of agency, difference, and intersectionality, and contesting gendered constructions that presuppose femininity, ethnicity, and passivity.’Intersectionality is also a key theme throughout the issue, with articles also ‘considering issues of race, colonialism, ability, masculinity and capitalism (and thus, implicitly, class).’ War is understood in light of feminist scholarship on conflict, noting how war and peace work on a ‘continuum of violence’ with neither war not peace being as easy to define as legal categorisations suggest.

One key theme which emerges throughout the Special Issue is a focus on the posthuman, with three of the articles bringing posthuman theory to the law. These articles overlap and use posthuman theory in slightly different ways to analyse different technologies. The Special Issue begins with one such article; Matilda Arvidsson’s ‘Targeting, Gender, and the International Posthumanitarian Law and Practice: Framing the Question of the Human in International Humanitarian Law.’ Using feminist posthuman theory, Arvidsson calls into question the central human figure of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) through drawing on examples of the gender and racial bias present in drone targeting decisions, thereby analysing and challenging the particular form of humanitarianism at the heart of IHL.

Also drawing on feminist posthuman theory, my own article, ‘A Posthuman-Xenofeminist Analysis of the Discourse on Autonomous Weapons Systems and Other Killing Machines,’ uses both feminist posthumanism and xenofeminsim to analyse current debates on autonomous weapons systems. Drawing on examples of existing weapons systems such as the Samsung SGR-A1, as well as on trends in emerging military technologies towards enhancing the human (from exoskeletons to brain augmentation), I call for an understanding of these technologies which problematises the idea that autonomy is distinct from automation and sees, instead, the ways in which the human and machine interact in making life-death decisions.

The third article to draw on posthuman theory in the Special Issue is by Gina Heathcote in her article entitled ‘War’s Perpetuity: Disabled Bodies of War and the Exoskeleton of Equality.’Focusing in on exoskeletons, Heathcote notes how debates around exoskeletons and their use by military personnel are used to promote ideas that “women can be as good as men on the battlefield.” Heathcote challenges the gender equality debates underlying such arguments, showing ‘how these technologies work very much within gendered and ablest norms, both being limited by and perpetuating them.’

Helene Kazan’s article, ‘The Architecture of Slow, Structural and Spectacular Violence and the Poetic Testimony of War,’ takes a slightly different theoretical turn, focusing in on the impact of conflict on human lives and lived experience, looking at who is impacted by conflict and how that is expressed. Kazan focuses on ‘the affective experience of both human and architectural structures in the context of Lebanon’s civil war’ via drawing on her own lived experience of conflict. Thus ‘Kazan, in the mode of écriture feminine, describes how Lebanon and its inhabitants become sensors of ‘slow, structural and spectacular’ violence,’ seeking forms of reparation for these inhabitants and proposing a possible turn to tort law as a means through which to create accountability.

Taking a slightly different approach to gender, focusing in on masculinities, Kristin Bergtora Sandvik’s article, ‘Technology, Dead Male Bodies and Feminist Recognition: Gendering ICT Harm Theory,’ outlines the ways in which data collection and big data is being used in drone warfare and in the regulation of the human refugee consequences of conflict. Sandvik shows how such data collection is used to invisibilise male refuges, the vast majority of which are brown men. Thus, ‘Sandvik’s paper highlights the ways in which certain men are deemed more targetable or lessworthy of saving by nature of their perceived hegemonic masculinity.’

Another approach is used in Christiane Wilke’s article, ‘How International Law Learned to Love the Bomb: Civilians and the Regulation of Aerial Warfare in the 1920s.’ Wilke provides a historical account of attempts to regulate weapons, noting how such efforts are based upon ‘presumptions about which populations are worth protecting, a thoroughly racialised biopolitics bound up with a colonial framework.’ Wilke’s article thus asks questions about who is being affected and how these people are seen and through what biases, noting how the frameworks of international law in this area which were created in the colonial period still structure current frameworks.

The Special Issue thus ends with a praxis piece by Clare Brown of Legal Action Worldwide. In her article ‘The Use of ICTs in Conflict and Peacebuilding: A Feminist Analysis,’ Brown provides a practitioner’s perspective on the use of ICT’s such as messaging and data collection technologies in conflict and peacebuilding. Noting how many of these technologies are being developed to respond and record evidence in conflict situations, Brown highlights how these technologies have been developed without account either for women’s lived experiences or for feminist perspectives.

As the introduction to the Special Issue notes, ‘Beyond this special issue, the field would benefit from analysis of the broader range of intersectional concerns that emerge from recent technological developments in warfare.’ The use of technologies in conflict settings is only set to increase. Intersectional gender perspectives on this area are therefore required now to shape the development and use of these technologies as they are being deployed and developed. I hope that this Special Issue will be the beginning of an area of scholarship which I hope will continue to grow.

*Reblogged from the Human Rights Centre blog


Research on online news consumption


Alexandros K. Antoniou, Lecturer in Media Law, University of Essex

On 13 July 2018, Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, published two qualitative research reports (here and here) on people’s attitudes towards online news consumption.

The purpose of the research was to acquire a more detailed understanding of the behaviours sitting behind the increase in the number of people accessing the news via online platforms in order to inform policy considerations. Respondents, who were selected to represent a cross-section of the United Kingdom, were asked to complete a combination of online pre-tasks as well as a set of activities on their media use. The data captured was followed by in-depth interviews and group discussions, exploring participants’ views on their own news intake and their engagement with such content.

Although news plays a significant role in people’s everyday lives in several ways, some respondents reported that they felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of news in circulation and increasingly stretched across a wide range of sources and content. In some instances, a feeling of social pressure to keep up-to-date with the latest news was expressed. Feelings of negativity and fatigue featured strongly in the participants’ characterisation of the news, with some respondents claiming to have become ‘news avoiders.’ An important consequence of this overloaded news landscape appeared to be increased levels of faster and less critical processing of news, with participants often engaging with multiple sources only at a superficial level. Ubiquitous newsfeeds and features like push notifications were shown to drive further passive consumption.

The majority of the respondents’ news consumption occurred via news-aggregators or social media, which remain largely unregulated. The ‘blurred’ boundaries between news and other content (for instance, advertising and entertainment) on these platforms made it difficult for participants to discern what ‘counts’ as news and identify its original source. Most respondents had a general awareness of ‘buzzwords’ associated with current concerns around online news, for example ‘fake news’, but demonstrated varying levels of understanding of their meaning, whilst few of them adopted effective mechanisms to counteract these types of issues. In order to assess the accuracy, importance and reliability of online news, most individuals relied on shortcuts and their own heuristics, such as the number of times an article was shared, liked or retweeted. Some younger respondents used the rule of thumb that if an article had an embedded still or moving image, it was probably true.

The research also revealed a mis-match between the number of online stories participants said they looked at and those they actually saw, showing that people tend to underestimate how much news they consume online. This finding also suggests that the extent of online news consumption is essentially unknown. Unconscious processing of news, encouraged at times by smartphone user interfaces, might account, to some degree, for its under-reporting.

The studies also highlight that concerns about online news should be set against a backdrop of distrust in media, public figures, politicians and other institutions. Although some participants recognised the role of news media in exposing wrongdoing, others expressed uncertainty over what the news is actually telling them. Finally, the research acknowledges that the rapid and significant changes to the current news landscape have given rise to complex challenges in relation to how people understand and navigate news today, thereby strengthening the argument in favour of independent regulatory oversight of the activities of online companies.

Reblogged from the IRIS Merlin blog