Ever since the 2016 U.S Presidential elections articles and analyses are being made on the effect of the cyberspace in influencing and impacting international and national politics. Even though it is no longer in doubt that the Russian government interfered in the Presidential election of 2016, up to this day some maintain Russia’s illegal cyberspace hacking activities as a ‘Big Hoax’. I argue that Russia’s weaponization of the cyberspace against democratic institutions had an impact on the outcome of the election, and governments need to start considering proportional response to cyber-attacks. However, a paradox is created when a platform that is meant as a sign of internet freedom is weaponized against the very core foundations of democracy. The cyberspace and its platforms such as Facebook, Emails, and Twitter etc. might have opened up participation in electoral democracy as a conduit that speaks directly to the electorate, it has also become a double-edged sword to both the globalization champions and those who seek to utilize the internet domain as a weapon for different agendas.
This has encouraged academics and think tanks to research ways that could be used to counter the potential threats social media might have on international politics and national politics. Especially when it is used by foreign powers as a weapon or abused by extremists to impact domestic politics. Electronic communications have made issues such as cyberterrorism and database hacking as top priorities for concern. The cons of the internet have alarmed national security agencies to acknowledge that the internet has brought with it complex problems and unconventional security concerns. Because of insufficient precedent on how states should react to cyber-attacks there is a challenge governments are facing on how to enforce a proportional response to the cyber-attacks. Governments around the world should start asking themselves what equates a proportional response to cyberspace hacking by an adversary and they should further have apparatus in place that respond in a swift manner if the cyberspace security is breached or threatened. What I mean is that, states should start considering the cyberspace as a potential battle ground. Because if the Russian Commander-in-Chief, can instruct his Russian military intelligence to attack American democratic infrastructure that amounts to declaring a cyber-war.
Powers that were once the monopoly of nation states: participation in international politics, control of transnational communications and credibility as sources of accurate information are now being exercised by a wider array of players. The 2016 U.S. presidential election is a case study example of how the internet domain could be used by adversarial states to influence domestic political agenda. Foreign powers should not influence political opinion or affect the course of the election process through any means even though this is not always the case. An attack on the democratic electoral process should be met with an equal or counter-reaction that any government would use against a party that threatens its domestic political institutions. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have had much impact on how information is passed and shared. However, most governments are still catching up on how to respond to foreign powers that monopolize these very entities. The threat that the weaponization of the cyberspace presents is equally as important as any threat to national security and should be given proportional thought in the same manner that any threat to national security would be given. Deterrence against cyber-attacks should be readily available and they should be up to date with the current threats that are being faced. To ignore attacks on the cyberspace is the same as giving up on protecting the very values that create the foundations of security and peace in a democracy.
Current and former officials at the FBI, at the CIA and in Congress believe the 2016 Russian operation was just the most visible battle in an ongoing information war against global democracy. Russia’s attack on the 2016 presidential election was not only meant to create discord in the oldest democracy, but it was also meant to show how Moscow could weaponize the internet to dismantle Western institutions it has tried to destroy since the Cold War era. The failure to respond to cyber-attacks from countries like Russia, influences other actors to attempt to wage cyber-warfare because they realize the incapability of the target state’s apparatus to respond. The weaponization of the internet could to some extent explain why states like North Korea, Iran and China are still censoring the internet for fear of foreign actors influencing their domestic politics through the cyberspace. In most of these states, the regimes have to keep the internet platforms closed for their own survival and to fit their closed society policies which do not encourage free media and internet freedoms.
The internet could be safely described as a tough test for state-centric theories of international relations and an easy test for global civil society arguments. The state no longer has complete sole autonomy on the political and social narrative in its domestic borders. Even though the state still retains power, the ability of external forces to use the cyberspace to spread propaganda is increasing one click of a button at a time. Russian internet trolls did not only end their divisive efforts to demoralize and create discord in the U.S. after November 8th, 2016, but they have been cynically pushing to create more discord over NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem by pushing both sides of the argument over whether players should take a knee while the national anthem is being played before NFL games. The use of Twitter bots and internet trolls to create discord, is motivated by the same aspects that led to the Cold War.
The shared values of Western democracies are perceived as a threat to Russia’s position in the world. Therefore, one of the ways in which Russia can reverse the successes of the West, especially when it comes to open participation and democracy, is by sowing seeds of dissent to unravel the Western political systems. Even though this article focuses on the U.S.-Russia case study, the same tactics could easily be used elsewhere in former Soviet blocs, Western Europe, Asia and Africa. The U.S. 2016 experience is not only unique to the US, as was illustrated during the 2017 Presidential election in France and the BREXIT referendum. However, the mainstream media should be careful in how they frame or report on hacked material. A lot could be learned from how the French media handled the discord that was being spewed by Russian interference as compared to how the US mainstream media handled the cyber warfare on the nation’s democratic institutions. On the other hand, the government and Silicon Valley should work together to protect the internet and all cyberinfrastructure in tandem with an active cyber deterrent in which a cyber-war attack would be handled.
The pitfalls that come with the cybersphere should not overshadow, how the cyberspace platforms have influenced political change in certain instances. The spread of ideas and information across the internet and other social media has broadened cultural horizons and empowered people around the world to challenge autocratic rulers and advance the cause for human rights and democracy. The internet has become a tool for the oppressed to have a voice and call out the ruling élite by mobilizing like-minded people to join in their cause for transformation in the political system. The case of how the masses during the Arab Spring managed to use social media platforms to organize and mobilize against their oppressive regimes demonstrates how social media and the internet has become a key tool for information as well as a key to effect political change in domestic politics. The use of social media during the Arab Spring was unprecedented. Considering the kind of restrictive laws, the Arab states have, this was one of its kind which only opened channels for the use of social media through the ‘hashtag phenomenon’ for later cases. However, in the case of the U.S. 2016 presidential election the way Russia used the cyberspace to spread misinformation through “fake news”, bots and internet trolls illustrates how the certain weaponization of the internet might be the most immediate threat to democracy and state institutions in the 21st century. Thus Bollier coined the term “Netpolitik” to illustrate the powerful capabilities that the internet has in shaping politics, culture, values and personal identity.
The cyberspace has shown a dark intersection between democracy and the potential manipulation that could be used by hostile actors to invade on that democracy. Leaders that use the cyberspace to threaten democracy like Russia’s activities in the 2016 U.S. presidential election should be held accountable. Even though Netpolitik might be considered a new phenomenon, like realpolitik it is here to stay. Sanctions could be a tool that could be used as deterrence against foreign actors that seek to create discord in domestic politics. Such sanctions should be enforced and targeted sanctions directly targeting adversaries who orchestrate the cyber-attacks should be considered to send a clear message that cyber-attacks would be mate with the same rigorous reaction. Not responding to cyber-attacks would give the impression that adversaries can play around with democratic institutions without facing the proportional consequences of such an act. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as showcased in the Arab spring have been very instrumental in mobilizing protestors and helping to democratize nations. There is still much research which needs to be done on the response that states should use against cyber-attacks. Cyber terror and database hacking have increased the need for cybersecurity even though most states lack the resources or the means to have a stronger secure cyberspace. In as much as the internet has made the world connected it is also revealing the vulnerabilities of governments and their cybersecurity apparatus.
The author is M.A. & B. A in International Politics by the University of South Africa. He has been published in Asian Journal of Peace. His areas of research include nuclear diplomacy, cybersecurity, and foreign policy. He is currently serving on the IAPSS authorial board and is the Chairperson of the IAPSS SRC on Conflict Security & Crime.