Photo by Nahel Abdul Hadi on UnsplashPhoto by Nahel Abdul Hadi on UnsplashA broad array of metaphors shape contemporary understandings of cyberspace,1 including the information superhighway (C-SPAN, 1994), an information marketplace (NRC, 1994), a New World (Gunkel & Gunkel, 1997), the Wild West (Biegel, 2001), a feudal society (Yen, 2002), the Maat of the Ancient Egyptian Moral Code (Mancini, 2002), a rainbow (Georgiadou, Puri, & Sahay, 2006), a page (O’Reilly, 2007), a platform (O’Reilly, 2007), and a place (Olson, 2005; Zhang & Jacob, 2012). In a moment where the hypertexts of the World Wide Web extend beyond the digital screen and contribute to the so-called “Internet of things,”2 cyberspace becomes the locus for much of our daily activities, work, and well-being.3 As the number of cyber attacks increases each year,4 cybersecurity becomes a serious concern. While the metaphors to understand cyberspace are numerous, cybersecurity primarily employs the “perimeter defense strategy” (Jang-Jaccard & Nepal, 2014) through a wall metaphor that believes merely raising cyber security measures protects user data (Denning, 2001; Jang-Jaccard & Nepal, 2014; MacKinnon, Bacon, Gan, Loukas, Chadwick, & Frangiskatos, 2013). However, as attack levels continue to rise this approach proves to be inadequate.

This paper advances in four sections to articulate that the metaphors grounding cyberspace frame cyber attack response strategies and position communication ethics literacy as a means to texture adequate responses to these increasingly pervasive phenomena. The first surveys the historical landscape of cyberspace and cyber terrorism. The second reviews the work of communication scholars related to cyber terrorism. Third, the paper develops this issue as a wicked crisis in need of communication ethics analysis. Finally, the paper concludes by demonstrating the applicability of communication ethics literacy to understand the goods of cyberspace.

This work contends that the wall metaphor does not frame effective resolution to cyber attacks because it disregards the multiple, competing goods present within the various contexts of cyberspace. Thereby, in addition to literacy in coding, corporations and policy makers must attend to what Ronald C. Arnett, Janie Harden Fritz, and Leeanne M. Bell McManus (2009/2018) have termed “communication ethics literacy.” Communication ethics literacy and its emphasis on learning from difference encourage an examination of the background issues influencing foreground attacks (Arnett, McManus, & McKendree, 2013).

Landscaping Cyber Threats

In order to landscape cyber threats, the paper first explicates cyberspace within the field of communication. Lance Strate (1999) offers a thorough definition of cyberspace and addresses what this work considers cyber threats. Strate defines cyberspace as “the diverse experiences of space associated with computing and related technologies” and characterizes experiences of cyberspace into a three-level taxonomy (zero, first, and second-order cyberspaces) (p. 383). Zero-order is ontological and grounds cyberspace in space, “paraspace or nonspace,” and time, “cyberspacetime.” Cyber events occur in the paraspace of cyberspace (what is distinctly not a part of the “real world”) and through “cybertime” (time rooted in objective reality that passes during interactions with technologies) (pp. 387, 389). Zero-order cyberspace provides ontological coordinates in space and time.

First-order contains physical, conceptual, and perceptual building blocks constitutive of human experience (Strate, 1999, p. 390). Without the physical, material computer components, cyber events could not occur. Without the conceptual, there would be no logical or metaphorical understanding of the cyber event in the mind of the user. Without the perceptual, cyberspace would not generate the illusion of the event occurring in space to the senses of the user (pp. 391-396). First-order cyberspace permits users to experience cyber events.

Second-order, or cybermediaspace, is the “sense of space generated through the user’s communication with and through computers and related technologies” (Strate, 1999, pp. 399-400). Cybermediaspace includes components of aesthetic space, dataspace, and relational space. The aesthetic emphasizes perceptual cyberspace by accentuating form, the dataspace by stressing content, and the relational by highlighting the two-way nature of cybermediaspace as either “social” or “personal” (pp. 400-403). Second-order cyberspace frames the user’s experience of communication with other users and/or the computer.

In addition to characterizing cyberspace, Strate (1999) also describes cyber threats. These cyber threats occur in the personal relational space of second-order cyberspace, where “intimate cyberspace” between the user and computer can potentially form (p. 403). Strate explains that cyber threats of hacking, email spying, webservers using cookies, and computer viruses are intrusions upon intimate cyberspace (pp. 403-404). Strate labels these cyber threats as “upsetting” without offering strategies for prevention (p. 403). While Strate’s article is helpful for describing the user experience in cyberspace as a result of interactions with computing and related technologies, individual experiences of cyberspace are half the question to providing adequate responses to cyber threats. A brief history of the computing and related technologies creates a textured understanding of cyberspace that bears weight upon adequate responses to cyber threats.

The Internet has experienced continual growth since its emergence as ARPANET in 1969.5 In fact, Thomas Haigh, Andrew L. Russell, and William H. Dutton (2015) describe the Internet as “gigantic and amorphous” (p. 144). The Internet today encompasses and connects broad fields such as “information technology, computer-based networking, work, and community” (p. 145). Household items, from televisions to cars, and businesses, from bookstores to record labels, exemplify the wide diversity of activities wired through the Internet (p. 144). The Internet is a tool that connects many broad, formerly disconnected, spheres of existence.

Importantly, Haigh, Russell, and Dutton (2015) point to an essential distinction between the Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW) (p. 151). Designers intended ARPANET and “Inter-netted” networks to share information across military and government networks. Conversely, the WWW sought to become a “common information space where multiple individuals could communicate and share ideas” and a “‘realistic mirror’” of interactions in the physical-world (Vie, 2008, p. 131). Since its introduction, the WWW transitioned from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, a 2004 label from Tim O’Reilly (Thomas, 2006, p. 389). Web 1.0 contained “static” information that relied upon life outside of the computer medium for activating meaningful experience (Zimmerman, 2012, p. 154). Web 2.0, however, attempts to connect all devices through participation (O’Reilly, 2005, para. 1); Web 2.0 exceeds Web 1.0 in offering an engaging and dynamic experience through Internet technologies. Web 2.0 permits those not fluent in computer-programming language to generate web content (Zimmerman, 2012, pp. 154-155). The transition to Web 2.0 made the WWW accessible and editable to the everyday user.

As the web continues to grow and extend, Sue Thomas (2006) sketches the “end of cyberspace” with the introduction of the “internet of things,” thought to come to fruition in approximately 2036 (p. 390). To explicate the end of cyberspace and the internet of things, Thomas turns to Alex Pang (2006), a Research Director at the Institute for the Future in Silicon Valley, who started the blog “The End of Cyberspace” (p. 389). Pang’s blog contends that cyberspace will end as we come to be “‘online all the time, everywhere’,” thus disintegrating the distinction between cyberspace and the real world (as cited by Thomas, 2006, p. 389). Perhaps, this contention was somewhat prophetic, as the following year attacks occurred through cyberspace that showed the potential of devastating consequences to the physical world, evidencing the blurring of the cyber and the real.

In 2007, the country of Estonia experienced cyber attacks that became a benchmark for global recognition of the destructive potential of cyber terrorist acts. These attacks were distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) launched against the nation’s critical networks, and “shut down the websites of all government ministries, two major banks, and several political parities,” including the “parliamentary email server” (Herzog, 2011, p. 51). Stephen Herzog6 (2011) describes the attacks as “a wake-up call to the world,” which announced that “potentially autonomous transnational networks” possessed the ability to practically cripple the “critical infrastructure of technically sophisticated nation-states” (p. 56). Herzog stresses that the acts of cyber terrorism against Estonia indicate that the “foreign and security policies of nation-states” must adapt to the digital era because Internet based asymmetric threats are a probable threat to nation-states (p. 56). While 2007 was a benchmark year in the history of recognition of the severity of cyber threats, awareness of these risks has continued to increase on a global scale.7

Within the United States, politicians across party lines recognize the threat of cyber attacks. For instance, during the 2016 vice presidential debates, current Vice President of the United States Mike Pence labeled cyber attacks the “new warfare of the asymmetrical enemies that we face in this country” (C-SPAN, 2016). Likewise, 2016 Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (2017) contends: “In the nineteenth century, nations fought two kinds of wars: on land and at sea. In the twentieth century, that expanded to the skies. In the twenty-first century, wars will increasingly be fought in cyberspace” (p. 374). Since the election, conversation continues surrounding Russian interference within the election itself (Ohlin, 2017).

The potential risk of cyber attacks is vast, ranging from threats to nation states to personal identity and data to corporate finances and well-being. In 2017 alone, numerous corporations suffered as victim to major cyber attacks, including health service networks across England and Scotland, the HBO television network, and Equifax Inc. (“NHS cyber-attack,” 2017; Kharpal, 2017; Bernard et al., 2017). In 2016, cyber attacks occurred on the following corporations: Voter records; The Wendy’s Company; U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation; Verizon Enterprise Solutions; LinkedIn; Myspace; Noodle & Company; Democratic National Committee; Voter Information; CiCi’s Pizza; Citibank; Dropbox; Banner Health; Oracle MICROS; Yahoo Inc.; SS&C Technology; Dyn (Twitter, Netflix, and The New York Times); U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC); Friend Finder Networks (Walters, 2016). As contemporary society relies more steadily on computerized technology, the American Power Grid Systems are likewise vulnerable to cyber attacks from hackers (Condliffe, 2017, para. 1). Nations, communities, corporations, and individual persons are at risk to become a victim of the numerous cyber attacks, and this environment of anxiety and peril has produced what has been termed an era of cyber terrorism (Weimann, 2015). Cyber terrorism mirrors the intents of terrorism in the physical world—to instill fear, to coerce, and to recruit (Minei & Matusitz, 2013; Weimann, 2015). The remainder of this section surveys debates about the existence and nature of cyber terrorism as the culmination of cyber threats.

This project resonates with the contention of Maura Conway8 (2014), who suggests that despite the contentious dispute enveloping whether cyber attacks meet the criteria of cyber terrorist acts, they merit attention and thought (p. 103). Conway turns to definitions of cyber terrorism from Dorothy Denning9 (2007) and Mark M. Pollitt10 (1998) to place cyber terrorist acts as premeditated and politically motivated attempts at the data destruction of noncombatant targets. Gabriel Weimann11 (2008) further acknowledges the dual purpose of the Internet as a platform for terrorists to coordinate and execute plans, as well as launch cyber attacks (pp. 74-75).

Conway argues that there have been no acts of actual cyber terrorism as of 2014 and considers the likelihood of such events low; however, she recognizes the importance of acknowledging the destructive potential of cyber threats and warns that if an act of cyber terrorism were to occur the implications would be devastating. Specifically, Conway identifies four reasons why kinetic attacks to physical matter better fulfill an intent to harm than cyber terrorism: (a) cyber attacks are more expensive and thus impractical; (b) terrorist organizations lack the cyber expertise to carry out such assaults; (c) cyber terrorism is rendered less destructive and rapid; and (d) cyber terrorism is less theatrical (p. 107). She reviews the existing conversation/controversy surrounding cyber attacks focusing on a cyber attacker’s intent to harm rather than the technological practices engaged by the hacker.

Conway’s work builds upon a conventional understanding of terrorism aimed toward physical matter and two foundational definitions of cyber terrorism. First, she aligns cyber terrorism with conventional kinetic terrorism—characterized by a “political motive” and “violence or the threat of violence” (p. 105). Second, she turns to cyber terrorism as distinct by referencing two leading definitions. The earliest definition referenced by Conway relies on Mark M. Pollitt, who writes in 1998. Pollitt positions terrorism within the realm of cyberspace aimed toward disrupting the functions of computer programs and data. He employs the Section 2656f(d) in Title 22 of the United States Code to understand cyber terrorism, like physical terrorism, as “the premeditated, politically motivated attack against information, computer systems, computer programs, and data which results in violence against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents” (Pollitt, 1998, p. 9). Then, Conway considers a later definition, taken from Dorothy E. Denning, in 2007, which Conway recognizes as the “most well-known and respected” (p. 105). Denning understands cyber terrorism as:

highly damaging computer-based attacks or threats of attack by non-state actors against information systems when conducted to intimidate or coerce governments or societies in pursuit of goals that are political or social. It is the convergence of terrorism with cyberspace, where cyberspace becomes the means of conducting the terrorist act. Rather than committing acts of violence against persons or physical property, the cyberterrorist commits acts of destruction and disruption against digital property….To fall in the domain of cyberterror, a cyber attack should be sufficiently destructive or disruptive to generate fear comparable to that from physical acts of terrorism, and it must be conducted for political and social reasons. Critical infrastructures…are likely targets. Attacks against these infrastructures that lead to death or bodily injury, extended power outages, plane crashes, water contamination, or billion dollar banking losses would be examples. (Denning, 2007, p. 124)

Denning’s definition articulates the cyber terrorist act as the attempt to destroy or disrupt digital property for the purpose of advancing a political or social objective. Particularly, Denning stressed a reflection of physical terrorism within a virtual context, a political motive, and a threat to physical harm or injury. Denning’s reflections on cyber terrorism (2007; 2001) illuminate the work of Barry Collin,12 who first addressed cyber terrorism in the 1980s. Denning emphasizes Collin’s focus on cyber terrorism as “premeditated,” “politically motivated,” and “violence against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents” (Denning, 2001, p. 281). Denning’s definition is more extensive than that of Pollitt or Collin, but important common denominators include that cyber terrorism involves premeditation and the politically motivated data destruction of noncombatant targets.

It is important to note that Denning’s 2007 definition builds upon her earlier work that frames cyber terrorism as an extension beyond the movement from activism to hacktivism13 (Denning, 2001, p. 241). Denning (2001) contends that as activism transforms to hacktivism and then to cyber terrorism, the level of severity and intent to harm increases in intensity and threat. The activist employs a “normal, nondisruptive use of the Internet,” advocating to advance a particular belief system or movement (p. 241). The hacktivist emerges in the interplay between “hacking and activism” (p. 241). With hacktivism, Internet use becomes abnormal and disruptive while still maintaining allegiance to support a cause (p. 241). The cyber terrorist melds “cyberspace and terrorism,” engaging networks as places for the disruptive actions of attack, recruitment, or the spread of fear (p. 241). The cyber terrorist’s actions become increasingly destructive, disruptive, and violent; however, Denning argues that the cyber terrorist is actually less likely to advance the cause or foreign policy objectives and instead will most often only lead to bolstered cyber security (p. 242).

Denning (2001) describes both commercial and government systems as equally vulnerable to cyber attacks, and despite efforts to increase cyber security, there is no indication of stronger defense (p. 287). Denning implies that cyber attacks operate within an unending pattern of attack-defense, stronger attack-stronger defense. According to Denning, an act of cyber terrorism does not occur from simply hacking computer software; she reserves this term for an instance where the cyber attack results in the politically-charged violence associated with conventional terrorist acts on physical structures. For instance, if cyber criminals were to hack into the computer software of an airplane, it would not be an act of terrorism unless they were successful in hijacking the plane to harm people and physical structures. Thus, Denning, writing in 2001, believes that there are “no reported incidents” of cyber terrorism, yet the threat had a “significant” influence on strategies for national defense (p. 288).

Susan W. Brenner14 (2007) contends that the classification system used to determine actions following a kinetic attack should inform the classification system guiding responses during cyber attacks. Brenner understands a cyber attack as the use of computer technology to “undermine[] a society’s ability to maintain internal or external order” (p. 381). Her work builds upon the internal-external threat dichotomy used to classify kinetic attacks (p. 381). In response to an internal threat, authorities would follow the “proscriptive rules” structuring society, and in response to an external threat, authorities would rely upon “military force” or “international agreements” (p. 382).

This internal-external dichotomy also pertains to issues of origin, attribution, and jurisdiction. Specifically, Brenner (2007) considers the “attacker-attribution” and “attack-attribution” (p. 405). The former identifies who is responsible for the attack and the latter who ought to respond to the attack. The attacker-attribution involves locating the attack’s point of origin (i.e., ISP address) and target destination (i.e., government or privately-owned corporations). The “attack-attribution” corresponds with conventional policies for law enforcement jurisdiction (i.e., governed by county, state, and national borders as well as perceived motives) (p. 405). However, identification processes become increasingly difficult as cyberspace “erodes” traditional borders and obscures the well-defined distinction that military personnel respond to acts of war while law enforcement officers respond to criminal activity (p. 438). The difficulty within this identification process emerges from the “mixed-motive scenario” that often characterizes cyber attacks—hackers gain information in cyber crime (to which law enforcement officers would traditionally respond) that fuels cyber war efforts (to which military personnel would traditionally respond) (p. 438). Thus, we are left to navigate the uncharted territory of various forms of cyber attacks, ranging from crime to terrorism.

Brenner (2007), likewise, denies a documented occurrence of cyber terrorism but recognizes the seriousness of the threat of using cyberspace as weapons of mass destruction, distraction, and disruption (pp. 389-398). Brenner considers the use of cyberspace as a weapon of mass destruction unlikely, following the logic that computers cannot physically harm victims. For instance, Brenner argues that a computer triggered nuclear bomb would be perceived and classified as a nuclear rather than computer disaster (pp. 390-391). The weapon of mass distraction involves a psychological manipulation of a population that undermines civilian faith in the government (p. 391). In such instances, terrorists would use the computer as the primary weapon to wreak havoc and panic by distributing fake messages that are deemed credible as if they were sent from government officials (pp. 391-393). Finally, Brenner categorizes cyber terrorism as a weapon of mass disruption, where terrorists would undermine society’s “faith in the stability and reliability of essential infrastructure components” (p. 393). The weapon of mass disruption might attack “mass transit, power supplies, communications, financial institutions, and health care services” (p. 393). These attacks would “demoralize” civilians by causing them to “question the government’s ability to keep things working” (p. 394). Ultimately, Brenner considers cyber attacks to appear most often as either a weapon of mass distraction or of mass disruption (p. 398).

For Brenner (2007), these classifications help authorities to understand the nature of the attack and to guide action responses. Appropriate responses require engaging the “distinct and evolving nature of the threats we face,” creating appropriate strategies for each new evolving threat (p. 475). Particularly for responding to cyber terrorism, this would involve “integrating” military and law enforcement personnel (p. 456). For cyber terrorism, in particular, this would involve the military assisting law enforcement officers in confirming that a cyber attack either “has occurred or is in progress; and ascertaining the nature of the attack” (p. 460). Ultimately, she contends that cyber attacks, regardless of their type, should be dealt with as crime rather than war (p. 398).

Similar to Brenner, Steven Bucci15 (2012) advances the association of cyber terrorism with cyber crime. Bucci problematizes the Western tendency to post everything on the Internet, where the basic research skills of a child on a search engine can bring up information for attacks that would inflict maximal damage to an organization or community (p. 63). Technology is the “Achilles’ heel” of the West and specifically new trends of “mobile computing, cloud computing, and the use of smart-grid technology” contribute to increased vulnerability for cyber attacks (pp. 65, 67). The technological reliance of the West creates a large target that becomes increasingly accessible to theft and destruction.

To understand this rising threat, Bucci (2012) refers to cyber threats as the “new normal” and differentiates them into three tiers—low-level, medium-level, and high-level (p. 57). Low-level cyber threats are committed by “individual hackers” rather than larger organizations or infrastructures (p. 58). Medium-level threats include use of the Internet by terrorist organizations, cyber espionage, and organized crime (p. 59). High-level cyber threats are executed by the “full power of nation-states,” as exemplified by the 2007 Estonia attacks, and could accompany kinetic attacks (pp. 59-60). Bucci suggests that the Estonia attacks prompted NATO to recognize “the role cyber plays in national and collective defense” (p. 59). Bucci anticipates that the union of cyber terrorists and cyber criminals committing medium-level attacks will populate the future landscape (p. 60).

Bucci (2012) predicts that cyber terrorists will partner with cyber criminals to actualize attacks due to “limited” knowledge of writing code (p. 62). Bucci suggests that terrorists utilize cyberspace for “communications, propaganda, financial dealings (fund-raising and fund transfers), recruitment, and intelligence” rather than offensive tactics (p. 62). For instance, programs such as Second Life16 allow cyber terrorists and cyber criminals to meet online in a hidden, legal platform that can be used to transfer money and share information (p. 63). These virtual worlds unintentionally facilitate unregulated online transactions and meetings that would be suspect or illegal in physical space. Bucci also counters the assumption that cyber terrorism lacks a theatrical quality, acknowledging the “real fear” that would occur as “bank accounts are zeroed, electricity is absent, or water does not flow” (p. 66). Additionally, the combination of cyber and kinetic attacks could be massively destructive “regardless of one’s definition” (p. 66).

Scholars outside of the field of communication confirm the serious threat of cyber terrorism (Brenner, 2007; Bucci, 2012; Conway, 2014). As attacks become more frequent, the question becomes: how can we respond adequately? Although the “perimeter defense strategy” remains a primary strategy used by governments and organizations, the sustainability and long-term success is inadequate and only results in stronger attacks. In order to alter how we talk about and perceive cyber attacks, multiple industries must collaborate on adequate response strategies including those within the field of communication.

Communication Literature Review

Communication scholars have addressed the urgent risk of cyber threats and the potential for cyberspace to become a site for terrorist action (Klein, 2015; Minei & Matusitz, 2013; Stahl, 2016; Walker, 2007; Weimann, 2015, 2008, 2006, 2005). This section frames cyber terrorism within the field of communication. The nature of cyberspace and our increasing reliance on it for facilitating the smallest and greatest human needs and desires demands attention from the field of communication as the increasing risks related to cyber terrorism continue to threaten social, corporate, and individual realms of human life.

Weimann does extensive work on the question of cyber terrorism from the communication perspective. In his early work, Weimann (2005) contends that there have been no documented, “real” instances of cyber terrorism (p. 130). Although Western societies face a high threat of cyber terrorism, low-level and relatively harmless hacker activities are misnomered as terrorist activity. However, the threat of cyber terrorism merits a response that distinguishes between the “real significance” of these activities and the fear such a misnomer initiates (p. 146). The potential crippling nature of cyber terrorism must be addressed and responded to without “manipulating” the population about the actual (in)frequency of such acts (p. 146).

In Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenges, Weimann (2006) writes in response to the “sophisticated terrorist presence on the World Wide Web” that contributed in part to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center (pp. 3-4). Weimann’s research draws from a 1998–2005 “monitoring and archiving” of terrorist web sites and Pew Internet and American Life Project public surveys (p. 4). Weimann describes the Internet as an “ideal arena” for terrorist organizations to communicate (p. 22). A first advantage offered by the Internet and computer-mediated communication is the free and easy transmission of messages (pp. 6-7). A second advantage is the Internet’s mutability. Cyberspace acts as an ideal platform for terrorist activity due to the low price, high speed, and ability to construct and reconstruct sites when/as needed. Weimann recognizes that the threat of cyber terrorism merits attention and response, without inflation or manipulation (p. 10).

In response to this threat, Weimann (2006) documents efforts that counter cyber terrorist use of the Internet. As of 2006, Weimann describes that counterterrorism efforts were directed at determining where the terrorist networks were located, who were conducting the terrorist attacks, and, if an unwanted transfer of money occurred, determining where and how that money was transferred (p. 11). In the United States, counterterrorism measures specifically involved email monitoring, removing certain websites, and offensive cyber attacks directed toward terrorist web sites (pp. 11-12). Weimann then cautions that the “digital war on terrorism” threatens the civil liberties protected by modern democracies (p. 12). This sentiment is echoed in Weimann (2008), where a call is made for information monitoring to respond to cyber terrorism, but one that does not compromise civilian liberty—a fundamental value upon which West was founded (pp. 82-83).

Weimann (2006) also notes “missed opportunities” resulting from the demonization of the Internet as a “terrorist tool” (p. 12). A first missed opportunity is employing the free, fast, and easily-accessible web to construct nonviolent advances of “policy objectives” and “political grievances” (p. 12). A second missed opportunity is “virtual diplomacy,” or employing the Internet to support “good governance” and manage or mitigate “international conflicts and crises effectively and expediently” (p. 12). To help the realization of these objectives, Weimann offers “policy recommendations” (p. 13). The major policy recommendation begins with the realization that terrorism has occurred for centuries and will likely continue. Thus, users ought to limit terrorism and protect civil liberties by a search for the “‘golden path’” by accepting “some vulnerabilities” of terrorism and “some constraints on civil liberties” (p. 13). Weimann encourages the “golden path” through: (1) modifications to the USA PATRIOT ACT; (2) the encouragement of “self-policing”; (3) an application of “social responsibility”; (4) the development of “international collaboration”; (5) “building a proactive presence on the Internet”; and (6) “promoting peaceful uses of the Internet” (p. 13).

In Terrorism in Cyberspace: The Next Generation, Weimann (2015) continues his work on cyber terrorism and situates cyberspace as one of the most salient means of terrorist communications. This work explores new modes of cyber terrorism, what attacks we might anticipate, and means of countering current and future threats. Weimann turns to the 2013 report Jihadist Terrorism: A Threat Assessment from the Bipartisan Policy Center that highlights online self-radicalization as the foremost threat to homeland security in the United States. Additionally, Weimann turns to a Europol report from April 2012 that recognizes that dangers these threats pose to the European Union. Weimann documents acts of lone wolf terrorism in the following countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Weimann documents the changes in the cyber landscape and the emergent threats of 2015.

Weimann (2015) echoes his 2006 contention of the Internet’s potential for, but current failure to protect and promote, peace. Again resonating with his 2006 search for the “golden path” to lessen terrorism on the Internet, Weimann recognizes that major government agencies worldwide understand the Internet’s potential as a tool and as a weapon. Weimann contends a major challenge in responding to cyber terrorism on the Internet lies in the protection of free speech in the United States and around the world. While counterterrorism measures have legal and practical implications, strategies for response lack a clear path to resolution.

Elizabeth Minei17 and Jonathan Matusitz18 (2013) offer a contrary view of cyber terrorism as they identify three central practices of cyber terrorism actively engaged today: recruitment, communication, and propaganda (p. 267). Minei and Matusitz recognize cyber terrorism as present prior to any actualized kinetic violence, corruption, or theft. For them, the goal of the cyber terrorist aligns with that of the kinetic terrorist—to instill a sense of fear and anxiety through images and communication that “frighten and coerce” (p. 278). Not only does cyberspace provide a platform for distributing these fear-mongering messages but also it affords an outlet for terrorist organizations to connect, to recruit new members, and to research information legally that informs how attacks (kinetic or via cyberspace) can ensure maximal damage (pp. 275-276). The Internet advances acts of cyber terrorism already in action by offering a platform for message circulation across a wide audience, aimed toward strengthening existing communication channels that have the potential to recruit new members.

Roger Stahl (2016) describes the rhetorical framing of cyber terrorism as a part of the weaponization of speech within the “information bomb” (pp. 378-379). Stahl identifies the weaponization of language present within the public discourse of numerous presidential administrations—for instance, Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs,” and George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” (p. 380). For Stahl (2016), this “War on…” metaphor exemplifies the problematic implications of weaponized speech.

Specifically, he locates the Clinton administration as the origin point for the public use of the term “cyberterrorism” as a weaponized form of speech (p. 380). Stahl recounts Clinton’s use of the phrase, popularizing it within speeches between 1998 and 1999 (pp. 380-381). He references Carol K. Winkler to express how Clinton’s use of cyber terrorism, much like earlier instances of weaponized speech, referred to a broad concept lacking vernacular agreement. Inherent within Clinton’s rhetoric was the recognition that cyber terrorism utilized computer technologies to interfere with social structures, but the phrase encompassed a vast spectrum of illicit online activities from hacking to credit card fraud to organized crime to acts of warfare (p. 381). Clinton moved cyber terrorism from passive consideration of a hypothetical “what if” scenario with low likelihood of actualization to a high level concern that urgently demanded political policy and response (p. 381).

For Stahl (2016), cyber terrorism is a rhetorical construct that arms the information bomb, facilitating the use of communication as a weapon and targeting both citizens and communication professionals. The rhetorical environment of the War on Terror “legitmate[s]” the weaponization of speech within the practices of discourse by U.S. citizens and officials (p. 389). The ways in which we speak, describe, and understand the world creates an environment that frames communication as a weapon. Stahl urges us to “defuse” the information bomb by reflecting on how our public discourse “shap[es] and underwrit[es] certain theoretical trends” (p. 390). The way that we describe and explain the world around us undergirds how one comes to understand it. Stahl contends that careful and critical reflection on cyberspace and terrorist activities will render a clearer understanding of the rhetorical mechanisms propelling the information bomb (p. 390).

Although no cyber attacks have been labeled acts of cyber terrorism (Stahl, 2016), terrorists can utilize the Internet for purposes of spreading fear, forming identity, recruiting, attacking, or preparing for an attack (Minei & Matusitz, 2013; Weimann, 2006). Scholars in the field of communication do well in raising various areas of concern in relation to the rising levels of cyber attacks. Following Stahl’s call to examine the functions at work in the information bomb, the next segment of the paper examines scholarship that frames the theoretical movement from wicked problems to wicked crises. This investigation creates a textured ground to understand the goods at play in the wicked problem of cyber attacks and facilitates a platform for adequate responses.

Cyber Attacks as a Wicked Crisis

In recent years, “wicked problems” have received scholarly attention from the field of communication (Carcasson & Sprain, 2016; Coombs & Holladay, 2018; Gerding & Vealey, 2018; Grint, 2010; Langellier, 2013; Maier & Crist, 2017; Willis, 2016; Wickman, 2014). This section reviews the theoretical emergence of “wicked problems” (Rittel & Webber, 1973) and their evolution into “wicked crises” (Maier & Crist, 2017). This literature attempts to understand social issues that lack apparent or easy solutions, to emphasize the necessity to properly identify a wicked problem, and to open possibilities for addressing these issues at their sources rather than their symptoms.

Rittel and Webber (1973) introduced the idea of a “wicked problem” and contrasted it with a “tame problem” (p. 160). They characterize a tame problem with known and obtainable objectives that illuminate a path for solution and response. For instance, a tame problem might be represented by the attempt to “accomplish checkmate in five moves” (p. 160) or an electric company’s efforts to bring back power after a wind storm; tame problems offer clearly delineated paths to resolve the issues and are replicable in recurring instances. Wicked problems, however, have no known achievable objectives or “clarifying traits” (p. 160), making solutions to wicked problems ambiguous.

Rittel and Webber (1973) identify ten characteristics that mark wicked problems. First, wicked problems lack a “definitive formulation” (p. 161). That is, one might identify a problem, but its scope, breadth, and connotations cannot be contained. Second, wicked problems lack a “stopping rule” (p. 162), or clearly defined end point. Third, wicked problems require ethical consideration rather than simply practical solutions—responses to wicked problems exist within the scope of “good-or-bad” rather than in the clearly determined realms of “true-or-false” (p. 162). Fourth, an “ultimate test” of immediacy cannot measure the success of responses to wicked problems (p. 163); the sustainability of long-term implications outweighs short-term fixes. Fifth, wicked problems are serious by nature and offer little room for “trial-and-error” (p. 163)—inappropriate responses could have devastating consequences. Sixth, appropriate responses to wicked problems emerge from a narrow and finite realm of action rather than an infinitely broad scope of possible solutions (p. 164). Seventh, wicked problems are “unique” by nature and thus resist commodification and universally applied responses (p. 164); when responding to wicked problems, one must fight against the temptation to mistake this for that. Eighth, the origin point of the wicked problem is difficult to ascertain; the roots of wicked problems often run much deeper than our perceived awareness, allowing us to misappropriate symptoms as causes (p. 165). Ninth, the language used to describe wicked problems shapes the social understanding of the issue; thus, inherently within the way we speak about these issues are hints toward response strategies (p. 166). Finally, those tasked with attempting to solve the wicked problem bear significant and serious responsibility and, according to Rittel and Webber (1973), have “no right to be wrong” (p. 166). The definition of the wicked problem, like the wicked problem itself, is multifarious and complex.

Grint (2010) textures Rittel and Webber’s work on wicked and tame problems by offering response strategies, in addition to what Grint terms “critical problems,” or “cris[es]” (pp. 307-308). Grint characterizes critical problems as “self-evident” and often equated beside “authoritarianism,” as there is neither “time for decision-making and action” nor “uncertainty about what needs to be done” (p. 308). Grint emphasizes the association between how we classify an issue and the response strategies engaged. For resolution, tame problems require the “same process” which caused the problem; there is no change in response procedure because the known and desired resolution is obtainable. The tame problem is bound to repeat itself because the problem has not been addressed at the source. The resolution of wicked problems, however, often merits a “delay”; due to the complexity, breadth, and ambiguity of the problem, “consultation and collaboration” are pursued to a point of inactivity. For Grint, critical problems necessitate “decisive commands” for resolution; there is not time for collaboration and the steps to resolution are evident (p. 307). Grint suggests an “addiction” to a particular label can skew public understanding of an issue and limit opportunities for appropriate responses (p. 307). According to Grint, an obsession with classifying problems obscures the ability to recognize their sources and respond with thoughtful strategies.

Grint (2010) contends that the proclivity to misname wicked and tame problems leads to inadequate response strategies. What is needed to respond to a wicked problem will not solve a tame problem, and likewise, strategies for tame problems will not curtail the wicked problem. Grint explains that “elegant” responses are best suited to the tame and critical problem alike, but are often misapplied to the wicked problem, to which the “clumsy solution,” of Verweij and Thompson (2006), is optimal (pp. 309-310). The “elegant” response is “internally consistent,” proven to have previously worked, and applicable to problems with identifiable objectives (p. 309).

For instance, when attempting a checkmate in five moves, elegant responses would advise the “Blitzkrieg” strategy. The “clumsy solution” has no such clarity for piece positioning or movement and rather develops an “experimental method” from a “wide range of otherwise contradictory policies and cultures” (p. 309). The clumsy solution to a wicked problem recognizes the ambiguity involved in the many connected angles of the problem and explores new ways for piece positioning on the board. Grint suggests that we are addicted to “elegance” in remedying critical, tame, and wicked problems alike (p. 310). However, an elegant response is not always the best solution to a problem—a simple solution to a complex problem will not resolve the problem at its source and may further complicate it. For Grint, world leaders are “addicted to command” with the imposition of elegant responses to all problems and “allergic to leadership” for not identifying and responding to the problem for what it is (p. 310). Grint calls us to remember the importance of problem identification by listening to the problem at hand and determining the appropriate response strategy, setting the stage for Maier and Crist’s (2017) “being-in-crisis.”

Maier and Crist (2017) introduce the concept of a “wicked crisis” within the context of the clergy abuse crisis in American Roman Catholicism (p. 165). Particularly, they use the phenomenology of Jean-Luc Marion and suggest his responsive witness provides a way of “being-in-crisis” to understand ways in which wicked crises may be understood (p. 172). Maier and Crist define a wicked crisis as being composed of “events so intractable and threatening that they leave even the best leaders speechless and the most prepared organizations grasping for answers” (p. 165). This sentiment resonates with cyber terrorism as definitions and responses are multifarious, ever changing, and shrouded in ambiguity.

Maier and Crist (2017) differentiate a wicked problem from a wicked crisis in that problems fall to “strategic planning or leadership” and crises create “expectancy gaps” for stakeholders mobilized to “act publicly against the organization” (p. 170). Again, a wicked problem has “multiple causes and effects” with implications for multiple “stakeholder groups with widely divergent interests and grievances” for “different and completely incommensurable reasons” (p. 170). The multifarious head of the wicked crisis makes resolution difficult if not impossible. Maier and Crist characterize the wicked crisis in three ways: (1) “unpredictable, ill-defined and swiftly mutating”; (2) in need of “clumsy” solutions; and (3) capable of eroding public trust (p. 170). A wicked crisis moves past the wicked problem in complexity, instigating public action against the organization or institution from which the crisis originates.

This paper contends that cyber terrorism meets each of the three criteria of the wicked crisis. First, cyber terrorism is ambiguously defined and rapidly changing as definitions range from its occurrence to nonoccurrence, intent to harm and intent to recruit. Additionally, cyber terrorism swiftly evolves when the point of attack origin becomes difficult to trace through the Internet and motivation becomes a key determinant for the nature of the attack. Second, solutions to cyber terrorism are clumsy and temporary. Last, the most viable attack strategies for cyber terrorists aim to disrupt public life, casting doubt on our governments, businesses, institutions, and public services from transportation to health care. Maier and Crist end their article with future research possibilities for study considering wicked crises, asking, “How can they [organizational leaders] allow wicked crisis to ‘speak’ in all its complexity?” (p. 172). The contention of this paper is that communication ethics literacy can add coordinates to “being-in-crisis,” allowing crises to speak in all their complexity, and guide a response and understanding to cyber terrorism.

Communication Ethics Literacy: An Adequate Response for Being-In-Crisis

This paper has recounted the development of cyberspace through a historical detailing of Internet technologies, announced cyber terrorism as the culmination of cyber attacks because of the risks they pose to human well-being, and situated cyber terrorism as a wicked crisis that prompts the need of communication ethics literacy to facilitate the recognition of multiple goods protected and promoted by various actors. An understanding of the goods at stake in cyber terrorism will shape adequate and lasting responses. This final section overviews communication ethics literacy and explicates it as a method to texture responses to cyber attacks that recognizes the complexity of the space, stepping outside the wall metaphor.

Arnett, Fritz, and Bell McManus (2009/2018) offer an understanding of communication ethics literacy that hinges upon the protection and promotion of a good in an era of contention. Their understanding of communication ethics revolves around coordinates of “difference, learning, and dialogue” (Arnett, Fritz, & Bell McManus, 2009/2018, p. xx). Difference is significant to communication ethics because it recognizes the multiplicity of goods that are in contention in this historical moment. What one person protects and promotes, another may disregard, and each good may be a valid way of engaging the world. Learning in communication ethics is a “minimal sense of the good” (pp. xiv-xv). When committed to learning, diversity of perspectives will creatively and constructively clash as one perspective enlightens another. Dialogue, which cannot be demanded, creates the environment necessary for sharing goods; when people seek to listen, rather than tell, the potential for understanding emerges.

Arnett, Fritz, and Bell McManus (2009/2018) situate communication ethics as a “pragmatic necessity” to navigate an era of contending goods. Communication ethics, however, requires our attentive reflection. If we fail to reflectively engage practices, we may act in ways that do not protect and promote the goods we aspire to advance. Goods order one’s life and provide an understanding of what is proper “to be and do” (p. 3). Arnett, Fritz, and Bell McManus describe that communication ethics does not begin with answers, but rather with the attempt to collaboratively discern “what might work in a given situation” (p. 8). Communication ethics does not tell one answer that is “right” for multiple situations, but attempts to understand and navigate the goods in tension (p. 10).

An applied philosophy of communication drives communication ethics literacy. Philosophy of communication works from a praxis approach that supplies a why behind the how; communication ethics lies at the juncture of philosophy of communication and applied communication, responding to the questions emerging within historical moments and the corporately agreed upon stories and practices that comprise narrative ground (Arnett, Fritz, & Bell McManus, 2009/2018, p. 41). This project’s communication ethics approach underscores the dual emphasis on philosophy of communication and applied communication when responding to cyber threats that culminate in the devastating potential of cyber terrorism.

Communication ethics literacy calls us to learn about the different goods people protect and promote. By engaging learning as a minimal point of agreement, we can understand the why behind the how of cyber attacks. From a communication ethics perspective, goods are present from the perspective of cyber attackers as well as their targets. An effort to learn these goods from a communication ethics perspective becomes a catalyst for re-imaging the Internet and its influence on the various realms of human existence. Cyber terrorism, as a wicked crisis, is ambiguously defined, constantly evolving, unresolvable, and erodes faith in public institutions. We find difficulty in identifying cyber attack points as well as determining responsible actors. Motivation becomes a key for identifying and labeling cyber attacks and attentiveness to background goods prompt learning that creatively informs response strategies. Thus, by engaging communication ethics as a path to understand cyber terrorism, we can understand the goods at play in the lives of attackers and targets alike.

The significance of this study emerges as we continue to struggle to respond adequately to the rising problem and number of cyber attacks; the exigency of the project strengthens with the ever-evolving potential of cyber terrorism. By attending to and recognizing the various goods within cyberspace, the study points toward and critically considers the unacknowledged tensions that contextualize our engagement with the Internet. The project recognizes the need for their simultaneous acknowledgment to engage cyberspace effectively as a first defense against cyber attacks. Communication ethics literacy offers an avenue to uncover meaningful goods within the many metaphors that shape human understandings of cyberspace and move response strategies beyond the confines of the wall metaphor.


1. Donald Fishman (2004) has also recognized the many metaphors applied to understand cyberspace (p. 34).

2. For more on the Internet of things, see: Irwin, 2016; Gálik, 2015; MacKinnon et al., 2013; Thomas, 2006.

3. See: Carr, 2016; Hawisher, Selfe, Guo, & Liu, 2006; Kellerman, 2010; Ollier-Malaterre, Rothbard, & Berg, 2013; Turkle, 2011.

4. For a list of cyber attacks in 2016 alone, see Riley Walters (2016).

5. For a comprehensive history of the development of the Internet, see Roy Rosenzweig (1998). Roszenweig describes the Internet as emerging from the combined efforts of computer whizzes, bureaucratic teams, military personnel, and computer hackers. Importantly, Roszenweig recognizes that the Internet lies at the juncture between the “‘closed [and centralized] world’” of the Cold War and the “open and decentralized world” of the counterculture (p. 1531).

6. Stephen Herzog is a Ph.D. candidate in Yale University’s Department of Political Science. His research centers on international security, including “nuclear weapons proliferation, arms control, and domestic sources of foreign policy” (Stephen, para. 1).

7. See: Aaviksoo, 2010; Czosseck, Ottis, & Talihärm, 2011; Shafqat & Masood, 2016.

8. Maura Conway is an Irish scholar studying the intersections between terrorism and the Internet. Currently, she holds the position of Professor in International Security in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University (DCU) in Dublin, Ireland. She is also the coordinator of VOX-Pol, a project funded by the European Union examining the violent implications of participating in online political extremism. Conway has authored over 40 articles and chapters in her area of scholarly inquiry.

9. Dorothy E. Denning is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. She has also held positions at Purdue University and Georgetown University. Her research interests include cyber security and cyber conflict. Denning’s expertise on issues of cyber security warranted her inclusion into the inaugural inductees of the National Cyber Security Hall of Fame (Dorothy, n. d.).

10. Former military officer and FBI Special Agent Mark Pollitt spent 30 years investigating organized crime, narcotics, stolen property, white collar fraud, and cyber crime. Currently, he teaches at Syracuse University and serves as president of Digital Evidence Professional Services and on the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC), and Digital and Multimedia Sciences Scientific Area Committee (Pollitt, 2018).

11. Gabriel Weimann is a professor of communication at the University of Haifa, Israel and holds the position senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. His writings are inclusive of modern terrorism, political campaigns, and the mass media (Weimann, 2004, para. 10). Today, he continues writing on cyber terrorism.

12. According to Denning, Collin is “a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security and Intelligence in California” (p. 242).

13. Denning’s contribution is included within the work Networks and Netwars, edited by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt (2001). Arquilla and Ronfeldt describe in the preface that the “fight for the future” has shifted from armies of rival nations confronting one another to the small, nimble operations of terrorist groups, drug cartels, and militant anarchists who can, thanks to computer and information technologies, deploy themselves at anytime from anyplace (p. v). They clarify a distinction between cyberwar, carried out in the military domain, and netwar, activities occurring outside of the military domain that represent an “irregular mode[] of conflict” conducted by terrorists, criminals, and social activists (p. v). While published on October 26, 2001 (following the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks), the impetus of this work emerged from an extension of the netwar concept, introduced by Arquilla and Ronfeldt (1996). Certainly, the online activities contributing to the World Trade Center tragedy increases the need for such examination of online terrorist activity.

14. Susan W. Brenner is the Samuel A. McCray Chair in Law at the University of Dayton School of Law. Her research specializes in grand jury practice and various contexts of cyber conflict ranging from crime to terrorism (Susan, n. d.).

15. Steven Bucci, a former Army Special Forces officer and top Pentagon official, now serves as a visiting fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies. His research interests include cyber security as well as military special operations and defense support to civil authorities (Steven, 2018).

16. Barbara Mitra and Paul Golz (2016) describe Second Life as an Internet-based “3D graphical environment” virtual world that allows users to “construct an avatar and interact through a variety of mechanisms, such as flying, walking, driving, teleporting and chatting” (p. 4).

17. Minei is an assistant professor of communication at Baruch College. Her research interests span “leadership, high-reliability organizations, small-group/team communication, entrepreneurial issues, globalization and glocalization, and cyberterrorism” (Elizabeth, n. d.).

18. Matusitz is associate professor in the Nicholson School of Communication and Media at the University of Central Florida. His research addresses “the role of communication in terrorism, symbolism in terrorism, the globalization of culture, and health communication” (Jonathan, n. d.).


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  • Matthew P. Mancino, Ph.D., is Visiting Lecturer in Communication Studies at Indiana University South Bend. He has a single-authored publication in the Pennsylvania Communication Annual, a co-authored encyclopedia entry on communication ethics, and a forthcoming co-authored book chapter dealing with academic social networking sites. In 2019, he was named to the Eastern Communication Association Committee of Scholars. He serves the discipline as Webmaster for Listening: Journal of Communication Ethics, Religion, and Culture and Assistant Editor for Journal of the Association for Communication Administration.