If you haven’t seen Alex Gibney’s excellent 2016 documentary Zero Days you should. If you have you will recall it recounts good, bad and ugly aspects of cyberwarfare as practiced by America on others, and the risks of it being practiced back on America by those we have attacked in the virtual world. I think it has relevance to discussions today over weaponizing Facebook, Russian meddling, making life difficult for RT, and the like.
Cyberweapons differ from conventional weapons in an important way. Unless your bunker buster bomb is a dud and is able to be dissected by the enemy to learn its secrets your weapon is destroyed in the act of detonation and your enemy is none the wiser and, hopefully, dead.
Malicious computer code (like the Stuxnet code which is the main subject of the film) can sneak into complex information systems and cause great damage but the chance of the code being captured and used back at you is far greater than the risk of non-detonation of a weapon.
Gibney’s film is critical of U.S connivance and dishonesty as regards the development and use of Stuxnet. But the film is not without sympathy for the American position in such things, which amounts to a kind of dilemma with no easy answers. If we swear off malicious code bombs we can still be attacked. But if we act aggressively to develop and use them in the hopes of gaining tactical advantage there is a significant risk of a strategic mishap. It’s game theory time, and Gibney ends suggesting that the world needs international accords regarding cyberwarfare lest things devolve into a war of all against all.
And “all” is probably the right term here. Whereas the spread of nuclear weapons was held in check by the difficulty of developing them no such barrier to entry exists in neat fashion with computer code. Somalia may not be able to mount a nuclear program even if they fished a bomb out of the Indian Ocean but a return volley of nasty code is a far simpler thing.
So now consider the international scope of the internet and the ubiquity of social media. Can social media be weaponized? Surely it can, and it has.
Here for instance is an article from 2011 revealing a US military effort to manipulate social media around the world.
A Californian corporation has been awarded a contract with United States Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what is described as an “online persona management service” that will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world.
The project has been likened by web experts to China’s attempts to control and restrict free speech on the internet. Critics are likely to complain that it will allow the US military to create a false consensus in online conversations, crowd out unwelcome opinions and smother commentaries or reports that do not correspond with its own objectives.
Sounds familiar, no?
And what of hasbara, the term used to describe Israel’s longstanding effort to tell Israel’s story (i.e., propagandize, influence others to take the Israeli view) to an international audience using social media, often incognito?
Manufacturing consent is not an easy thing but the US basically had the hang of it till the internet came along. That device, combined with the even more problematic rise of social media, confounds the ability of even the nicest governments to create consensus on values, issues, and policies. Social media on its own can just be a conversation, just as computer code can just transmit information. But put to strategic use it can be a powerful tool, one that we and others have been using regularly
In this respect we face a dilemma with social media like the one Gibney posited in Zero Days. If we practice unilateral disarmament we will be played for fools by others who will play the game against us. Somebody’s got to manufacture consent, goddammit, and sure as shootin’ were not gonna let it be the Russkies.
So there are at least two big problems at the heart of this dilemma. One is the problem of blowback even if our propaganda efforts are laudable and we train our aim only at international bad actors. Social media is more like Stuxnet than a nuclear bomb: cheap and easy as a means to create influence (or sow discord, if you like). Blowback is possible, and the more we use social media against others the more they may choose to use it against us.
The second problem relates not to the use of weaponized social media against international bad actors but to its use as just another tool in the domestic game of manufacturing consent. It has not escaped attention of our betters I am sure that mainstream news is no longer as effective as it once was as a reliable means for the dissemination of preferred narratives. New tools are available and people will want to use them.
A lot of the hubbub in the Establishment about Russia may reflect a genuine concern that the people--American people included–are pretty darned easy to manipulate when you can control the message. And why should Wikileaks, or RT, or a Facebook ad get to tell the truth, as they sometimes will, if it is not in our strategic interests for the American people to know the truth?