Weaponizing Social Media

What happens to a country when its figurehead uses social media to undermine reality and truth?
04/10/2017 12:05 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2017
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We are embroiled in Congressional hearings and FBI investigations about Russian interference in our elections. As part of that investigation, Congress is investigating tweets from @realDonaldTrump and his other public statements accusing President Obama of “wiretapping” his campaign HQ at Trump Tower. These allegations, now refuted by the FBI, NSA and other agencies in the know, appear to be an example of the weaponization of social media. In this instance, Trump is using an unevidenced, apparently false attack on Obama to cloud the discussion around the Russia investigation.

Trump seems to be using these tweets to create a false equivalence in the public eye where his unevidenced allegations are presented as comparable to the allegations of collusion between his campaign and transition teams and the Russians. While there is no clear evidence, at this point, of criminal collusion with Russia, there is abundant evidence creating probable cause. But on the issue of the alleged wiretapping of Trump Tower, there appears to be no evidence of probable cause, either. With this false equivalence, the president’s tweets can reasonably be characterized as the weaponized use of social media.

The weaponization of social media is a recurring theme, but increasingly  in politics. In addition to the President long history of attacking the character of people and companies on Twitter, there are examples too numerous to be comfortable of trolls ganging up to attack women who speak out on sexism in the workplace and in politics (think #GamerGate and much of what drove the worst of attacks on Hillary Clinton). Fake news sites were used throughout the 2016 campaign to confuse and exploit US voters. And ISIS and white nationalists are using social media to recruit followers across the world. And while I firmly believe that social media can and is a powerful tool for good, it is also clearly a powerful tool for bad. Such is the nature of a global communication network with low costs of entry and nearly universal access.

The term “weaponizing” is a broad term with respect to the degree of harm the weapon is meant to cause. Weaponizing in a military or terrorist application is designed to facilitate or directly cause physical harm. In political contexts, it may be designed to cause character assassination, sow confusion or otherwise dis- or misinform people. In the case of Twitter trolling, it may include baiting a target tweeter into an angry response, followed by an orchestrated reporting of the target to Twitter for violating terms of use, triggering an auto-suspension of their account.

Weaponizing social media should not be confused with satire or the dissemination of political opinion. These are legitimate rhetorical tools protected by the First Amendment. Weaponization crosses the line (or, arguably, skirts the line) of libel and slander, or it threatens or causes physical or financial harm to the victim. Even if it does not cause any harm, its threat may effectively chill the speech or other behavior of the victim. In politics, this may result in the silencing of critics, the suppression of votes, deterring someone from running for office or the undermining of their efforts to win an election.

In the past month, I have explored these themes in presentations, one at Johns Hopkins University (requires Adobe Connect to view), another at George Mason University (2:26:00 on the video), and a third on a recent episode of The Dr. DigiPol Show. These videos range from talking directly about the weaponization of social media, to character assassination with social media, to the use of social media for disinformation campaigns designed to influence elections (in the US, France, UK and Germany).

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