The history of social networks is pretty much like Star Wars. Really! Social networks started out obscure and mysterious, with folks saying, “There’s this new type of site, with enormous capabilities and hidden business opportunities, which no one can estimate at present, but in the future will truly make all people truly connected, free and equal!” It’s pure Eastern-spirituality-influenced George Lucas – about “bringing balance to the Force.” And so it came to pass – social networks became a perfect communication ground for all – ordinary folks, companies, and the media.
Of course, with such a boring script you’re hardly going to get a blockbuster movie :-). Let’s face it, you can’t have folks living happily ever after (and all with equal rights, opportunities, etc., etc.) at the start of a film, can you?! The story needs an insidious infernal plan pursued by dark forces to arise. And – voila! – that’s what we got. Social networks became the medium of choice for games played by the world’s intelligence services and manipulation of public opinion – about which I’ve written and talked plenty before.
So, Star Wars: A New Hope has finished. The next chapter has begun:
The Empire Strikes Back
“Forming public opinion” via social networks has for several years already been practiced rather successfully by governments of many countries, no matter their political traditions or leanings. With so much open and free (no cost) information on the surface – no digging necessary – folks themselves tell all about their news, interesting information, whereabouts, lists of colleagues, friends and professional contacts. And the bizarre thing is that anyone who can access that data – private individuals, companies, criminals, members of a cross-stich embroidery group… (you get the point). The data lies about on the surface and people continue (despite warnings) to put more and more such data on the Internet. But with the many APIs crisscrossing social networks acting as mutagens that speed up the evolution, information uploaded one day on just one network is the next day forever (literally: eternally) indexed in search engines.
At the same time the intelligence services have happily joined social networks – becoming “users” themselves – but with their own agenda, naturally. For ordinary folks social networks are mostly a source of reading matter; for companies they’re a source of – or tool for – sales and marketing; but for intelligence services social networks represent a vital means for protecting state interests, and can also be used as weapons against potential opponents.
Just recently in the media we’ve seen further confirmation of the seriousness of the situation. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) initiated a project on the monitoring, collection and manipulation of public opinion via social networks. The Kommersant business daily reported (Google English translation, Russian original) that at the start of this year the SVR announced tenders for $1million+ for the development of several special monitoring systems for social networks. Thus, Russia has officially signed up to the international cloak-and-dagger social-networking club. It’s a long way behind the US, UK, Israel and other countries, but still.
Now, though this might not seem so sensational, it is still significant. The Imperial stormtrooper corps has struck at the very heart of the Republic. While you and I have been amicably and openly discussing news on Facebook and Twitter, the Imperial forces have set up their barracks right under our noses.
The answer is simple: for conducting cyberwar in the 21st century, in which different forces will use information and disinformation (!) to manipulate a significant portion of the Internet-reading masses. And it will work very effectively. It already works very well.
One newsflash on social networks, plus just one correctly worded and expertly promoted post can, in several hours, forever change the attitude of millions to this or that problem. It’s the speed that is frightening. Manipulation of information has been practiced for centuries, but never has its effects been so darn quick! And it is for these reasons that the Imperial stormtroopers are putting all their efforts into trying to understand social networks and their potential. Obviously, having a few hundred thousand or so “fans” or at least bots, being able to analyze in real time what folks really love, what they repost, what they click on… – this is what they want. And they’re getting it. And with it they’ll be able to influence any situation you could name… anywhere on the planet. Even in your – yes – YOUR country.
So, that’s how the evolution’s turned out. First it was an open-to-all Internet party, which at first gave birth to eternal holy wars; then the Net was partly given over to dirty competitive fights (Internet trolls); then we got political agitation and propaganda. Now we’re left to become spectators and, I can’t rule out, victims of informational propaganda wars of a new era. And it’s likely that we’re already in the final stages of this transformation, since social networks on the Internet have been used by different governments for years. Unfortunately, there’s only one script for the development of events:
The Return of the Jedi
Governments and intelligence services are getting more deeply involved in social networks. Some states understood the potential and dangers earlier rather than later, while others are catching up fast. But that doesn’t really matter. In one way or another battle lines will be drawn in social media, and there’ll be attacks and defense moves – often termed war. What’s more, the “Chinese model,” which today seems extreme (when access to foreign resources is limited by a national firewall), could easily become the norm tomorrow. Intelligence services may start to hunt for their adversaries’ social media activity and ban access to it from their countries. Let’s be honest, this is just how it works.
Something tells me that in the near future things will heat up and the belonging of a country to this or that political camp won’t play a big role. One way or another everyone will be big into building up defenses and in the end we’ll be trapped in a vicious circle. On the one hand there’ll be governments advocating freedom of social networks, and on the other they’ll give the green light to their intelligence services and their agitational mouthpieces to get as busy as hell with social networks – which will provoke other countries to search for solutions. Which just so happen to be found in limiting freedoms of those same social networks.
As a result, the Republic is in danger. We can only be saved by a Return of the Jedi. By this I mean full and absolute freedom of communication – freedom to communicate, and freedom of our communication from interference. Both conditions are required – one without the other doesn’t work. Politically motivated manipulation distorts the very idea of freedom of communication, and can cause social networks to collapse into local/regional communities limited by national firewalled sandboxes.
The active interference of world military institutions, intelligence services and other government bodies in social networks and manipulation of public opinion is an inappropriate and clumsy step – one which fans the flames of cyberwar by provoking an escalation of the cyber-armament race.
Do we need that? I don’t.