By Taylor Drake Morgan
The American Republic is under attack. Liberty, democracy, and civil society are at stake. The battlespace is public opinion. The target is your mind.
It’s been 244 years since our Founding Fathers signed that fateful document, the Declaration of Independence. Emboldened by the convictions of the Enlightenment era, we made a bold claim: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It was under this premise that the Great American experiment was born. You see, the rights we envisioned for ourselves in this new nation were rights that most of the world, then under monarchical rule, could only conceive in their wildest dreams.
These claims were unprecedented, but our convictions were strong. So strong, in fact, that we fought a Revolutionary War to secure our freedom. After winning the war, the hard work of building and running a nation began.
From the beginning, Shays’ rebellion made it clear that our fledgling nation would not survive as a loose confederation of states. So, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison made the case in The Federalist Papers to ditch the relatively weak Articles of Confederation and adopt a stronger U.S. Constitution that would bind the states into a stronger Federal union.
In Federalist number 10 James Madison warned that, if left unchecked, factions would be the undoing of the Republic. Specifically, he was worried about: “…a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community…”
Benjamin Franklin echoed this sentiment. As Franklin walked out of Independence Hall following the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman from the crowd shouted, “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Franklin’s quip was both a warning and a challenge. The viability of the Republic was not a guarantee. If the American people were to keep their newfound and hard-won liberty, then they would need to diligently attend to its upkeep.
Today, the Republic is under attack from a new and subtle form of warfare that is exploiting the growing trends of tribalism, populism, demagoguery, tyranny, group-think, and aggression. As our Founders warned, if this siege on our society is not countered, then it will lead to the breaking apart of the Republic.
If we give into fear and hate, divide ourselves into separate Americas, and treat our fellow citizens as strangers, outsiders, and lesser people, then the core problem of our time will persist.
If we forget our story and the bonds that hold us together, then people will sort themselves into like-minded enclaves and the growing divide between values, cultures, and economies will calcify.
If we allow it, then folks will opt-out of collective society and move discussions into self-affirming and radicalized tribes.
If we ignore the warnings of our Founding Fathers and continue on this path, then ultimately, we will betray our liberties, surrender to tyranny, and lose the Republic for which we have sacrificed so much.
The New War
The Changing Face of War
The vision of warfare that most folks have in their heads entails warplanes overhead, bombs dropping on buildings, and soldiers storming the streets. This is a psychological hangover from WWII era fighting. The reality is that we’ve entered a new age of warfare that employs information technologies to disrupt social cohesion and the functioning of society. This new type of warfare is arcane and subtle, but it is proving to be more effective than conventional means. The goal of this new warfare is to sow civil unrest and conflict from afar and therefore avoid altogether the need to deploy conventional, and more costly, methods of combat. The face of war has changed. In the 21st Century, the battlespace is public opinion and the target is your mind.
Cyber warfare is the penetration, command, and control of critical online assets and networks. Organizations from nation-states to terrorist groups engage in this type of warfare to deploy both offensive and defensive tactics. These tactics are used to carry out, and thwart, espionage and sabotage.
In cyberwar, there is a mutual assumption between nations: if one nation were to carry out a catastrophic cyberattack that hit another nation’s most critical infrastructure — such as nuclear, water, energy, aviation, and defense, or caused human casualties — then there is a credible threat of military retaliation. Given the dominance of the United States’ military power, our enemies have decided to hit us with something more elusive, information warfare.
Information warfare is a type of cyber and psychological warfare that seeks to de-legitimize the political and social system on which a nation’s military strength is based. Historically, information operations have been a supporting function of combat operations. Now, we’re increasingly seeing combat operations as a supporting function of information operations.
For example, the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia was precipitated, and followed by, the 2014 Russian Military Intervention in Ukraine, the 2014 Ukrainian Presidential Election Interference, and the 2015 Ukraine Power Grid Cyber Attack.
More recently, in 2018, Chinese cyber-operatives boosted an insurgent, populist, pro-Beijing candidate, Han Kuo-yu, to score a mayoral victory in Taiwan. Then, Han Kuo-yu ran for the 2020 Taiwanese presidency. Due to Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong, Han Kuo-yu lost against a backdrop of pro-independence fervor.
These two examples highlight the efficacy of information operations abroad. Given the success and the low cost of such operations it is very likely that disinformation campaigns will become more common and more effective over time.
Meanwhile, in the West, information warfare has proven particularly successful because it uses the West’s values and systems to spread disinformation and increase conflict.
Actors and Impact
More than 120 nations are actively developing cyber capabilities. Among the most advanced are the United States, Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Israel, and the United Kingdom. These countries have advanced cyber capabilities, carry out cyber operations, and are organizing for cyberwar.
The United States Joint Forces Command has made it clear, “Cyberspace will become a main front in both irregular and traditional conflicts. In much the same way that airpower transformed the battlefield of World War II, cyberspace has fractured the physical barriers that shield a nation from attacks on its commerce and communication. Adversaries have influenced the perceptions and will of the U.S. government and the American population.”
The Social Media Threat Vector
Consolidation and Productization
The internet used to be a decentralized Wild West. Now, users have aggregated onto just a handful of social media platforms. Given this rich store of data and the concentration of so many users, social media platforms are able to understand your desires and emotions, then optimize the content it serves to you in order to keep you engaged and enraged.
Why would these platforms want to keep you engaged?
Because eyes on content, means eyes on advertisements, which generates revenue for these platforms.
Captive audiences make user profiling, precision marketing, viral messaging, and network effects easier to achieve. The old business adage rings true: If you’re not paying for the product, then the product is you.
By curating information feeds with content that keeps users engaged, social media platforms lead users down a path towards the concentration and reinforcement of strongly held beliefs.
Social media platforms know that sensationalized content and extreme views keeps users engaged.
For instance, a YouTube user who watches one Ben Shapiro video may be served a slew of suggested content to the tune of, “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Transgenderism And Pro-Abortion Arguments.” Alternatively, after watching one AOC video, your viewing options may veer towards, “Ocasio-Cortez destroys Republicans with her BEST speech yet.”
Both videos have garnered millions of views and thousands of comments from engaged, and most likely enraged, users.
Social media users who dip their toes into a particular brand of politics are encouraged to consume more videos of the same type. This creates ideological echo chambers, reinforces tribal tendencies, and fuels radicalization.
The social media business model, the concentration of users onto just a handful of social media platforms, the formation of digital tribes, the emergence of social media echo chambers, and the triggered audiences in those echo chambers readily commenting on and promoting content… all of this opened up a threat vector, or a vulnerability in a system.
This threat vector can be, and has been, exploited by those who are looking to own the narrative space, spread disinformation, and win the war of ideas.
The general order of operations goes something like this: create an online affinity group, drum up pride within the group, reinforce a feeling of isolation and alienation from broader society using in-group and out-group messaging, exploit the group’s emotion using charged content, and incite action against a rival group or groups.
This playbook was alluded to by the Chief of the Russian General Staff during a 2013 speech. In that speech, he described the new rules of 21st Century warfare, where political goals are to be obtained through: “…the widespread use of disinformation… deployed in connection with the protest potential of the population.”
“The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” — 1984 by George Orwell
This isn’t the stuff of speeches and old books. It’s happening in the real world. This strategy was put into motion during the Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. During that operation, the Russian Internet Research Agency created various interest groups on American social media platforms.
Then, in order to stoke conflict, operatives carried out disinformation and influence operations within those groups, such as scheduling activism events against rival groups on the same day and in the same location.
Using this vulnerability, small groups of loud people with an agenda have been able to manufacture consensus and suppress dissent using social media manipulation tactics.
The Path Forward
The Executive Branch
The function of the Executive is to provide for our nation’s security. Its primary duty is to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, our American values, and our democracy.
It is given its power, by the people, to protect our Republic. It has an obligation to protect our Nation against 21st Century threats, such as cyberattacks and information warfare. This assault on our civilization and our values requires a strong deterrent.
If we are to successfully fight back the current tide of tribalism, division, and hate, then the Executive branch should promote national unity and direct resources towards the advancement of U.S. cyber capabilities and information security.
Social Media Platforms
The prerogative of any good business is to push boundaries into new, greenfield territories, innovate, create new realities, serve customers, and create new wealth.
The social media tech giants of the 21st Century have realized those prerogatives and brought unprecedented communications capabilities and connectedness to humanity.
However, they have also opened up new vulnerabilities in our society, exacerbated social tensions, created tribal echo chambers, and allowed for foreign actors to sow doubt and dissent on a mass scale.
Social media platforms, especially those that have large user bases, wield great influence. Because of this influence, they have the power to bolster or break our Republic. Given these vulnerabilities and the impact, we should be asking ourselves: Are our social media platforms failing us? If so, what should we do about it?
The Legislative Branch
Like transportation and finance, social media is now part of the critical infrastructure of our civilization. Therefore, Congress should uphold their duty to protect our Republic by ensuring that these companies and services have the proper oversight and regulation.
To be clear, this should not be an invitation for the government to seize the means of production or control speech. That would be in contravention to our core American values. It’s a tightrope to walk, to be sure. But it’s doable. After all, we’ve answered these types of questions for other industries in the past. For example, should the U.S. nationalize banks and transportation? Nope. But should it provide regulation to ensure we don’t repeat the Great Depression or let planes fall out of the sky? You betcha.
The question that Congress should be asking is: How can we implement measures to bolster our Republic against the threat of information and cyber warfare, while also protecting free speech, privacy, civil liberties, and American enterprises?
The American People
On an individual level, it’s increasingly important to keep your wits. Exercise skepticism. Gut-check your social media sources. Be kind to one another.
At the societal level, we must demand that all future attacks are investigated and that the findings are made public. We must use our Nation’s financial, military, and tech powers to consistently deter those responsible for attacks as well as any would-be attackers.
Additionally, we should support leadership that will work to increase our cyber capabilities and information security.
Finally, we must recognize that we are not immune to disinformation. Our enemies have the resources and intelligence capabilities to increase polarization, stoke hate, exploit divisions, and incite conflict.
If we are so eager to tear each other apart from within, then our enemies never need to set foot on American soil and can comfortably watch us implode from afar. In fact, China, Iran, and Russia are currently carrying out disinformation campaigns aimed at creating strife within American society and disrupting the 2020 U.S. Elections.
The American people must come to understand that cyber and information security is national security.
We have a Republic as Benjamin Franklin noted back in 1787. The question is: can we keep it?
If we are to prevail and prosper, then we need an immediate and united response from the Executive Branch, our social media platforms, the Legislative Branch, and the American people. Remember, we are all Americans. E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. Divided we fall. United we stand.
As it has always been, the strength of America, and its people, is our unity. It’s that radical idea that out of many different peoples, ideologies, religions, and races… we are one.
The views expressed above are the views of the individual author, and do not express the position of any particular organization or entity.