In our age, it’s impossible to claim that any force has changed the nature of human interactions more than social media. Indeed, in 2005, when The Facebook was a small start-up, Mark Zuckerberg was interviewed saying, “The goal wasn’t to create an online community, but a mirror for the real community that exists in real life.” From networking to business to dating, social media has been the most revolutionary change in human interaction since the origin of language.
Perhaps this change is nowhere darker and more Orwellian than in the use of social media as a tool of ideological warfare, propaganda, and social engineering. As John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt of RAND Corporation write in their 1993 visionary tract on social media weaponization Cyberwar is Coming!, “At a deeper level, [warfare of the future will be] about ‘knowledge’—about who knows what, when, where, and why, and about how secure a society or a military is regarding its knowledge of itself and its adversaries.”
The age of netwar is here. Its combatants? The Western order and the cohorts of illiberalism—namely, right-wing nationalism and Islamic jihadism.
Putin’s Russia, in a concerted effort to fracture the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bloc, has undertaken a vast program of development in its social media arsenal. RT, formerly Russia Today, is a propaganda organ of the Russian state hidden unassumingly in the Facebook feeds of millions of Americans boasting the slogan, “Question more,” and priding itself on giving Western audiences the Kremlin’s “second opinion.” Putinism, by its nature as a reaction to the capitalist and democratic reforms of Yeltsin’s Russia in the 1990s, and its habit of saber-rattling, is predicated on the narrative of the failure of democracy. Thus, it is no coincidence Russia has funded and supported through state media a network of far-right political parties stringing across Europe and North America, in a concerted effort to destabilize and delegitimize liberal democracy.
This effort on the part of the FSB extends to social media, with the Russian state allegedly hiring armies of internet trolls to scour discussions with keywords such as NATO, Ukraine, the 2016 Presidential election, and Brexit. The sheer magnitude of these operations have extended Russia’s range of influence from Eastern Europe to even the greatest citadel of life, liberty, and property. As Emerson T. Brooking and P.W. Singer write in The Atlantic, “After Election Day, we should not be surprised to find a vocal group of internet users with mysterious IP addresses decrying the result as a fraud and driving talk of conspiracy—and even of resistance or secession. In time, we may see a multiplying number of homegrown violent extremists (along the lines of the infamous Oregon militiamen), encouraged by the subtle manipulation of a certain rival government.”
The effects of new digital forms of combat can further be seen in the rise of ISIS in the nightmares, Twitter feeds, and public spaces of the West. In the words of Brooking and Singer, Daesh “Spreads a panic online. Immaculately staged photos, filtered through Instagram, transformed a ragtag force riding in dusty pickup trucks into something larger than life. Armies of Twitter bots twisted small, one-sided skirmishes into significant battlefield victories. Hashtags were created and pushed (and others hijacked) to shape and hype the story.” Controlling the story is no longer a power reserved in the hands of powerful bureaucrats and national security officials. Political and social narratives can be spun by a few operatives and magnified across borders and media platforms. According to a 2016 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Institute of Science, the number of friends who disseminated the content and the content’s adherence to their preconceptions are the two most powerful determinants of whether a person adopts and shares material or drops it. In the context of Daesh, this means packaging beheadings and mass-murder with seemingly genuine testimonials from fighters, humanizing the cause in the eyes of potential recruits.
More broadly, the move towards social media as a tool of state subterfuge and intimidation should be expected to continue though not condoned. The question on the part of all of us, on the other hand, is how to respond. Should the United States develop its own RT-esque media platform? Can the government legitimately use propaganda as a defense policy tool without violating the principles of the Constitution or human rights? As Machiavelli writes his seminal treatise Il Principe, “Prudence consists in being able to assess the nature of a particular threat and in accepting the lesser evil.” Even in the context of traditionally morally ambiguous concerns such as national security and fighting terror, distinguishing this lesser evil is a balancing act between a libertarian consideration of natural rights and the Hobbesian sense of liberty through stability.
Using information as a weapon has massive implications for the future of state power on the Internet, and is a power that must be regulated and have established, universal norms. Just as the telegraph allowed witnesses to become news authorities in the age of World Wars and revolution, social media will inform, manipulate, and distort our sense of American identity, civic religion, and role in the world. Left to itself, it is an existential threat to democracy and this nation.