REVIEW: Secret States: Luke Harding and Julia Ebner

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Review by Quinn Clark

The Durham Book Festival organisers’ choice of speakers is always on the pulse of current events and trends, and the subject of this review is no different. ‘Secret States: Luke Harding and Julia Ebner’ presents a daring deep dive into the hidden worlds of political turmoil, the utilisation of new technologies, and the development of terrorism and extremism in both online and real-world spaces.

In this hybrid physical-and-digital event, award-winning journalist Luke Harding navigates the tumultuous waters of modern politics with practised ease while discussing his new book Shadow State. Marrying macabre humour, lived experience and provocative research concerning assassinations and espionage, Harding offers a harrowing insight into the inner workings of socio-political events and their accompanying intelligence efforts. By contrast, extremist and terrorism researcher Julia Ebner draws on her work infiltrating online extremist spaces, providing a thoughtful, human understanding of the socialisation involved with radicalisation, and the success of gamification when used as part of terrorist recruitment.

Growing up as what Ebner calls a ‘digital native’ – an individual who is intimately familiar with the online space – the discussion surrounding the increasing ease with which radicalisation and extremism is fostered in online spaces feels sorely needed. Harding paints a background of conspiracy with which to anchor this dialogue, expounding upon recent events surrounding Russia, Putin, and Trump in a way which contextualises the growing efficacy of New Media technologies in the use of political gain. As such, Ebner’s reimagining of the potential terrorist figure not as someone prone to extremist behaviour, but as an easy target for recruitment following events causing isolation, rejection, and humiliation, is both refreshing and relevant to our current discourse.

The ‘Secret States’ event enlightens us as to the ever-thinning boundaries between physical reality and the online space. Harding and Ebner collaborate to bring the subjects of digital technologies used for political and social control into sharp focus, eradicating the common conceptions of mysterious cabals and clandestine operations. In an age defined by anonymity, online socialisation and technological potential, ‘Secret States’ exemplifies our need for the open, transparent discussion of these ‘invisible’ occurrences. It posits and reflects a state of urgency around such secrets; we can no longer afford to relegate such discussions to the shadows.