What is the “First Tool of 21st Century Warfare” and what can we do about it?

In recent years there has been much discussion about the “weaponization” of social media.  This past week my friend, retired Special Forces colonel Dave Maxwell (who is now a Georgetown University professor), has weighed-in on this phenomena with several incisive observations. Most importantly, he offers something of a challenge to today’s youth as to what to do about it.

A little background: last week an article in Defense One (“Social Media is ‘First Tool’ of 21st-Century Warfare, US Lawmaker”) quotes Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va) as quipping  that while America may have “the best 20th-century military that money can buy,” we are “increasingly in a world where cyber vulnerability, misinformation and disinformation may be the tools of conflict.”  Warner adds that “What we may have seen are the first tools of 21st-century disinformation.”

Sen. Warner

Warner was reflecting on the recent allegations that Russia used social media to influence the elections, but the “weaponization” of social media has been a hot topic in military circles much before that.

In 2014 I wrote an essay (“The Hyper-Personalization of War: Cyber, Big Data, and the Changing Face of Conflict”) that did not use the phrase “social media” per se, but rather spoke about the  “weaponization of big data.”  I believe that the proliferation of information in cyberspace – to include voluntarily disclosed information – can and will be exploited by belligerents.

Other writings have been quite specific about the weaponization potential of social media. For example, a description of the seminal 2015 study (“#TheWeaponizationOfSocialMedia”) by Thomas Nissen of the Royal Danish Defence College points out that in “democracies to autocracies, information is a valuable resource that is increasingly difficult to control.”  While observing that such freedom is “how it should be,” it nevertheless notes that the platforms are also “enabling several dangerous trajectories” that include “new marketplaces for loyalty, the ability to opt-in (and out) of identities, perceived transparency across battlefields and diplomacy, and media illiteracy and a commensurate decline in the standards of journalism.”

There have been other examinations including this 2016 thesis by a student at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College that focuses on the use of social media by the Islamic State.  Moreover, in a superb cover story last November in Atlantic magazine (“War Goes Viral: How social media is being weaponized across the world”) scholars Emerson Brooking and P.W. Singer found that “Social media has already revolutionized everything from dating to business to politics.  Now it is reshaping war itself.”

After cataloguing a number of threats social media occasions, Emerson and Singer argue that:

[T]hese are the dilemmas that will come to define the social-media age as it confronts the timeless challenge of war.  National leaders will have to reckon with a social-media environment that seeds violence through vast digital networks and a public that has never spoken with so loud and so immediate a voice.  And they will face new kinds of conflict shaped by the internet’s next iteration.

Similarly, there are commercial implications to the threat as well.  In a July 2017 article in Forbes (“The Weaponization Of Social And Digital Media”) Richard Levick describes how today companies “need to expect to confront a slew of freshly empowered adversaries that are weaponizing social and digital media, pirating thefts of [their] databases, leaking [their] customers’ proprietary information, and trying to deflate [their] stock price while twisting [their] earned media coverage.”

Col/Prof Maxwell

So what are Professor/Colonel Maxwell’s ideas about how to deal with this challenge, particularly in the security realm?  He begins by cautioning that that social media “is just a tool” that can only be understood in the context of the “strategy that exploits it.”  The task then becomes exposing and countering that strategy.  He explains:

The open societies of the US and free and democratic nations are being subverted by active measures and propaganda to undermine political processes and sow cultural and political divisions to allow the closed societies of revisionist and revolutionary powers to dominate in international affairs.  

The way to counter this effort is through a grass roots resistance movement that consists of an educated, activist, energetic, and empowered youth who seek to be part of something larger than themselves and validate their self-worth as disruptors of the status quo.  

However, the closed societies are challenging their ability to disrupt because active measures and propaganda have taken away their initiative.  A new grass roots movement, a cyber-underground, organized around special operations principles could create a nationwide and global network that will seek out, identify, understand, and expose active measures and propaganda from closed societies in order to protect free and open societies. 

In short, our nationwide youth of disruptors could channel their abilities to beat the revisionist and revolutionary disruptors.  The exposure of adversary active measures and propaganda can inoculate the population against adversary effects and render their efforts ineffective and useless.  This movement will help to restore and sustain what George Kennan termed the “health and vigor of our own society” that is the vital antidote to the subversive threats that we face.

Sure, the devil is in the details, but Dave’s out-of-the-box ideas are certainly worth contemplating as a key step in confronting what really is the “First Tool of 21st Century Warfare.”  We know the problem, and now we have to roll up our collective sleeves and focus on filling in the specifics as to how to implement the innovative concepts the Colonel Maxwell and others who are grappling with emerging reality are devising.

Update:  Colonel/Professor Maxwell advises that he is writing a full article about his ideas.  When it’s public, count on seeing a link on Lawfire.

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