We older people have a love-hate relationship with technology at best. We do find it a useful part of modern life, when photos or Skype put us intimately in touch with loved ones. Google answers obscure questions and is useful in pursuing our hobbies. A problem for us all is that the interests of some include mass shootings. These people also connect and encourage each other online. 

I’ve begun a book entitled, “Like War, The Weaponization of Social Media.” Other methods of communication have facilitated questionable uses well. People marveled that the telegraph gave news of battles thousands of miles away, “while wounded were still being taken to the hospital.” Newspaper tycoons such as William Randolph Hearst profited by using the new technology for sensationalism, even creating news. When a photographer begged to return home from Cuba because nothing was happening, Hearst cabled, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

FDR used the new medium of radio for comforting fireside chats to our nation. Hitler used it for brutal, incendiary speeches to foment war and a tool in fighting it. It provided propaganda for invading Poland: “Credibility doesn’t matter; the victor will not be asked if he told the truth.” Russians likewise fomented unrest before annexing Crimea and continue to make life difficult for Ukraine.

On today’s internet, “Things don’t necessarily need to be true as long as they are believed.” In 2014, a relatively small ISIS force approaching Mosul, a metropolis of 1.8 million people, posted online gruesome beheadings of persons who dared to resist them. Young Sunnis were inspired to help them with similar acts of terror. Fear ruled and four Iraqi divisions, well-trained and supplied by the U.S. with state-of-the-art Humvies, tanks and helicopters, melted away.

Prussian Carl von Clausevitz, who dedicated his life to studying war during Napoleon’s time, said, “War is politics by other means, another way to get something you want; winning is finding and neutralizing an enemy’s center of gravity (moral elements among the most important, the spirit that permeates the whole). Figure out how to shatter a rival’s spirit and you might win while avoiding the army entirely.” 

In 2009, Americans were learning to experience news together online via Twitter. Donald Trump was an early user, shooting tweets at Rosie O’Donnell, then at President Obama, gradually transforming himself into a right-wing political power, all the better if politically incorrect. Social media was designed to be addictive, and Trump was hooked. No one has been able to get him to give up Twitter to be more presidential. On the contrary, he’s learned to use it as an effective political weapon.

So have the Russians and many others. Attacking an enemy’s center of gravity takes a few seconds on a smart phone. They’re adept at finding and amplifying contentious issues to encourage us to fight each other. Out of millions, a few dozen sympathizers might be identified to stir the pot of hatred and commit acts of violence against their fellow citizens.Social media has been turned into a weapon of personal or international war. This is quite a bitter pill to swallow for its creators — who dreamed that it would promote worldwide peace and understanding.

The boys in gangs of Chicago and Los Angeles fight less these days about gang territory and drugs and more about settling scores on social media. They cybertag each other and compete with damaging insults, while the whole world watches whether challenges are accepted or not. The online provocations end up with someone getting shot in real life. More kids have been killed in Chicago than special forces fighters in 10 years of war in Iraq and Syria.

Mexican drug cartels edit graphic executions into music videos. ISIS used internet videos and images of religiosity and ultraviolence that were horrifying to many, and to others intoxicating, recruiting 30,000 foreign fighters to their cause. Nearly every rebel group uses YouTube to recruit, fundraise and train. It’s not that any of these groups have unique capabilities; they’re not geniuses. It’s the reach of the technology that affords them such power.  

The internet disrupted the worlds of entertainment, business and dating and now war and politics. “It’s a momentous development in the history of conflict, a revolution that no leader, group, army or nation can ignore.” Somehow, this released genie needs to be tamed. I’m eager to see if this book has recommendations.

Verna Benham, who lives in Kerrville, worked for the U.S. Foreign Service, which took her across the globe, including to Argentina, Taiwan and Chile.

 

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