Internet, social media become weapons of war

America is at war.

You may not have noticed it, because the battlefields are almost invisible. But the signs are evident, and millions have been recruited to serve in that war.

The Internet was essentially an American invention. In a fit of idealism, the federal government decided it should be like the airwaves, open to all but entirely free of cost and regulation. It could be a means of communication, education and better understanding across the world.

Instead, it has been weaponized. Though it serves some of its original purposes, it has also become the prime battlefield in international conflict and a major tool to undermine the very open society it was meant to promote.

The federal government has just announced sanctions against Russian entities and individuals because of their efforts to tamper with elections and undermine electric and water systems.

Despite the focus on the 2016 elections, the real point of the Russian effort is intended to weaken the functioning of the democratic system of government. Chaos would result in the United States, which Russian President Putin sees as his prime adversary, rendering it increasingly incapable of challenging his expansionist plans.

Putin understands that Russia can derive economic and political control of other countries by use of the Internet and its wealth, derived from selling natural gas to Western Europe. Even more important, the Internet gives Putin a low-cost but powerful weapon against the United States.

Similarly, China seeks American business secrets and to undermine government operations to give itself the necessary breathing space to develop as a great power rival to the United States. It denies access to its Internet system and uses strict censorship while taking advantage of the openness of American participants.

Both Russia and China are clearly adversaries of the United States, determined to weaken it in world affairs. It is difficult to distinguish such policies from the goals of traditional warfare.

And it looks like they are winning. That’s because U.S. agencies frequently announce their successes in penetrating the walls designed to protect official secrets, corporate information or the functioning of the political system.

But they never announce any opposing actions by the U.S. Either this country is helpless or it believes that unveiling any successes will only help the Russians or Chinese. That’s unfortunate, because it fails to give Americans and U.S. allies any sense of the government’s ability to mount an adequate defense.

Few people know that there is a U.S. Cyber Command and even fewer know what it does. It should be strengthened and more centralized and its top general should be made a member of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff. After all, it is engaged in real warfare. Such a change could demonstrate that the U.S. is fully engaged.

The American weakness in the wars fought over the Internet is partly of our own making. Russia’s meddling in U.S. elections is greatly aided by the information and access that can be drawn from people’s obsession with revealing a raft of personal information on publicly available social media.

Who needs to be encouraged to demonstrate? Who should be lied to? Whose prejudices or religious beliefs should be exploited? Sitting in St. Petersburg or Beijing, a person set on sabotaging the U.S. plays with American social media without risk. That’s war today.

Social media users need to understand that their data, along with that of thousands of others can be harvested and analyzed by computers in a matter of hours. You cannot be anonymous.

A matter of the greatest concern is less about Russians messing with the political system than that Americans are. Through a phony outfit called Cambridge Analytica, wealthy American conservatives bought Facebook data on 50 million people to influence elections in favor of Republican candidates,

That firm was a shell for a British company that developed the analysis. In short, a foreign entity tried to influence American elections, a violation of federal law. And their American clients knew that.

The social media have abused the free access given to them by the Internet by allowing illegal misuse. They cannot police themselves. They act like there are no limits on free speech, even in supporting illegal activities.

They are much like radio and television stations that are regulated because they use the limited spectrum. Without limiting their usual free speech rights, the social media, using the Internet, should be subject to some regulation against their users performing or encouraging illegal activities.

Or they could be classified as publishers, making them responsible for what they allow on line.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.