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Psychologist Explores Motivations Behind 2007 Cyberattack on Estonia

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In April 2007, the government of Estonia decided to move a statue honoring Russian soldiers who died in World War II out of the capital of Tallinn. Angry ethnic Russians throughout the world launched a cyberattack on the small Baltic nation, crippling its cyber infrastructure for four days.

Why did such an attack happen? And can it happen again? Rosanna E. Guadagno, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alabama, and two colleagues have written a paper analyzing the attack and suggesting reasons word of the movement spread so quickly and evoked such passion among Russian Internet denizens.

"The symbol of what the Estonian government had done—disrespecting the brave Russian soldier—really incensed people," says Guadagno, who researches Internet behavior in the UA Online Social Influence Laboratory. "It made people angry and disgusted. Those are the kinds of messages that will spread and spur people to action in an online environment. "

The paper, "Storming the Servers: A Social Psychological Analysis of the First Internet War," was published this fall in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking. Her co-authors are Robert B. Cialdini of Arizona State University and Gadi Evron of Tel-Aviv University. The paper probes the reasons for the cyberattacks, which eventually were brought under control through counter-measures.

"They took out the government, they took out banks, they took out newspapers," Guadagno says. "Estonia is much more cyber-reliant than the United States, so they really crippled the country."

Guadagno became interested in the event through Evron, who is a "white hat" anti-cyberattack expert, and Cialdini, her mentor at Arizona State, where she earned her doctorate. Among the reasons the paper cites: Ethnic Russians feel a strong sense of loss over the breakup of the Soviet Union. Estonians saw the statue as a symbol of Soviet oppression, but Russians see it as a way to honor their war dead. Moving the statue compounded Russians' sense of loss.

"The Russians both within Russia and the Russians in the countries that used to be part of the Soviet bloc, they see themselves as the saviors of the other countries," Guadagno says. "So there's this disagreement among native or ethnic Estonians versus Russians who are still living in Estonia, because Estonians see them as oppressors, and Russians see themselves as liberators of Estonia. So Estonians saw that statue as a representation of oppression, but the Russians saw it as a symbol of their liberation."

Another factor involves the social psychology concept of contagion. Riots broke out on the streets of Tallinn over the Estonian government's move. Lawlessness begets lawlessness; the angry feelings spread to the Internet, enabling law-abiding citizens to participate in jamming Estonian cyberspace.

"If you set up a situation where there's already littering, there's already graffiti-ing, people are more likely to engage in anti-social acts," Guadagno says. "So people are more likely to steal a bicycle if the bicycle that's sitting in an area that's littered and full of graffiti. So lawlessness spreads through contagion."

And the Internet serves as a great enabler. Russians who already were trusted members of online communities began to spread messages of outrage along with instructions on how to clog Estonian cyberspace through spam attacks and other devices. The anonymity and ease of acting online contributed to the movement.

"I spent quite a bit of time following the messages, because on the Internet everything stays forever," she says. "I was actually able to go through and look at the Russian language posts. People who were existing members of online communities were more influential, so they got more responses when they were the ones posting the calls for the attack. But what I found interesting was that most of the responses to their posts were positive—'Yeah, go get them.' There were very few posts from people who said that it was wrong."

Guadagno's research into the cyberattack on Estonia dovetails with the research she performs in her UA lab on how Internet videos spread virally. Two upcoming studies on viral videos suggest that videos with strongly emotional content, or videos that evoke disgust or humor, spread faster than others.

"These videos spread through contagion—people pass them on and pass them on and pass them on," she says. "For example, the image of Tim Tebow crying at the end of the Alabama-Florida game spread through contagion. Not only did it get spread all over the Internet, it also transformed into more and more provocative images ridiculing Tebow. What our research has found is that people are more likely to spread videos to the extent that they evoke very negative emotions. If something makes them angry or disgusted, they will actually spread it to others."

Given that emotions spread like wildfire on the Internet, what's to stop a repeat of what happened to Estonia, beyond technological safeguards? Not much, Guadagno suggests.

"The symbol of what they had done—disrespecting the brave Russian soldier—really incensed people," she says. "It made people angry and disgusted. Those are the kinds of messages that will spread and spur people to action in an online environment."


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