Weaponising the # / Arturo Sarukhan

 Arturo Sarukhan
Internatonal consultant & speaker. Former Mexican Ambassador to US

As the storm over the alleged Russian hacking of the Democratic party and its candidate during the 2016 U.S. presidential election continues to brew, it’s well worth underscoring once again how international relations have been radically transformed over the last five years, particularly as a result of three trends: the development of new information and communication technologies, the role of new non-state actors, both domestically and internationally, and the emergence of a new international security agenda. The three are interrelated and feed upon another, which explains why social networks are already being used as a weapon and the fact that the Internet is one of the main battle theatres of the present and future, and an integral component of geopolitical calculus in this century. Here’s a snapshot of the tectonic shift that is occurring under our feet: there are now 3.4 billion Internet users, approximately 500 million tweets are posted every day and the equivalent of seven hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every second; with 1.7 billion users, if Facebook were a country, it would be the largest in the world. Moreover, according to a Pew Research Center report, 62% of people in the United States today get their news from social networks. And we are not yet on the crest of the wave; almost half of the world’s adult population is still not online. But social networks have already revolutionized our lives, from buying a product to finding a partner, redefining social interaction mechanisms across the globe, in both industrialized and less developed nations. These networks and digital platforms have certainly become a mirror that reflects all kinds of human interests, behaviours and aspirations, including the exercise of power. Not surprisingly, these digital platforms today are also transforming how we conduct politics and the way in which nations and non-State actors interact. If in the nineteenth century Clausewitz conceived war as the continuation of politics by other means, it should not surprise us that today in the international system social networks are being used as the continuation of war by other means.


The notion that social networks could be used to detonate change gelled sometime around 2010 and gained traction during the “Arab Spring” of 2011. The common denominator of this narrative was that authoritarian or closed governments were threatened by the power of the individual and of civil society groups using tools of open societies, such as the Internet. Although the limitations to these so-called “Twitter revolutions” quickly became apparent, it is undeniable that social networks can be used as inherently destabilizing tools of any status quo. More than ever before, 2016 proved that unambiguously. Around the world, terrorists, hacktivists, social groups or States are now using these platforms and their capillarity to spur propaganda and fear, to control, misinform and fragment, to empower and promote trolls and troll farms, astroturfing, bots and negative campaigns on the Internet, or as an key instrument and asset in the hard-power arsenal of a nation. The uses of these tools, whether wielded by ISIS or by activists and other actors in the presidential election in the U.S., are clear examples of these patterns.


Moreover, in a world with greater fragmentation but also greater connectivity -where more and more people are connecting- leaders are not very good at actually interpreting the messages that are out there from people who are not connecting through formal institutional mechanisms or traditional media platforms. The 2016 US presidential election is again a case in point, and for those of us who believe in liberal, open, plural and tolerant societies, a very bad piece of news. Last year also confirmed even more starkly how the ubiquity of the new digital space is transforming the nature of power and how technology is driving and augmenting societal changes. Therefore, nations and governments –and policymakers- must move from using social networks passively to conduct –with varied degrees of success- digital diplomacy or public diplomacy, to urgently understanding the extraordinary scale of transformation needed for contemporary governance, Statecraft and streetcraft.  And it is in tackling this challenge where nations across Latin America are woefully unprepared.


Whether it’s in cyber-security capabilities or protocols or understanding that social networks are more than a tool for propaganda or -in the best of cases- interaction, engagement and out-of-the-box problem solving, Latin American governments and leaders are failing to look over the horizon and take the bold decisions and risks –decisions that must be made neither gradually nor incrementally, but resolutely and quickly- that adapting to this new reality entails. Think, for example, of how much Mexico needs, in coordination with its two North American neighbours and partners, Canada and the US, to engage in bolstering its capabilities and tools to continue building upon common domain awareness in North America in order to better protect everything from key infrastructure (border ports of entry or critical energy facilities) to its integrated supply chains and joint production platforms all the way to its electoral registries and systems.


It is technology that lies at the heart of the disruptive power of all relevant actors of the 21st Century international system, and one of the most dire challenges to the cornerstone of our freedoms, wellbeing and resilience that are our open societies. We are witnessing the beginning of a much greater revolution, one that is beginning to reconfigure, at one end of the spectrum, the behaviour and actions of social groups, as well as politico-military strategies of non-state actors and world powers, on the other.