With the two year anniversary of the “Arab Awakening” recently behind us, the emergence of social media as a tool of social change in modern conflict became clear. The use of Facebook, Twitter, and now YouTube has shown revolutionary thought. In particular it demonstrated that anyone could arrange military support in an encrypted communications environment outside of sophisticated government network monitoring, through publicly available satellite connections and easily accessible web based tools.

In addition, diaspora far removed from events showed they could literally fund the communication efforts by simply using online bill pay. More specifically, it became common practice in the Libyan revolt to maintain service by simply topping off satellite companies from private accounts anywhere on the globe.

Generally speaking, the prosecution of war has transitioned to the borderless world of cyber. Satellite phones were used to achieve real time battlefield command and control. Video teleconferencing was used to conduct key leader meetings. And social media websites were used to keep people informed on the progress of the rebellion. 

Additionally, Graeme Smith notes the same social media websites, notably Facebook and Twitter, provided NATO planners with real time intelligence. In fact, NATO acknowledged the monitoring of social media tools such as Twitter during UN sanctioned operations. 

As Aryn Baker notes, the conflict in Syria has rapidly evolved from one where “cell-phone imagery and social media platforms were used to inspire and organize,” as in Egypt and Libya, into a sophisticated operation where “both sides have learned to use these tools for perverse propaganda, apparently goading each other into acts of escalating horror . . . making it doubly difficult for outsiders to pick sides.”

The importance of this is in the magnitude of impact social media now has on the global communications grid. The reality is that anyone with an internet connection has the capability to impact the outcome of a physical battlefield engagement. The simple and creative application of publicly available websites in the modern conflict is similar to the advent of radio communications at the turn of the previous century—evolutionary in concept but revolutionary in use. The success and force of this application has sent shockwaves across the globe.  

There are two predominant reasons why this is important. 

First, social media is here to stay, and we must recognize that a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) has taken place. 

Second, we must make a conscious effort to understand the near limitless options available to an adversary in the cyber domain, specifically the cultural shift to globally available social media tools and application of those tools in a modern conflict. 

This assessment is based on three fundamentals necessary for an RMA to occur: technological change, doctrinal change and organizational change. As witnessed in Libya and Syria, all three are clearly present.   

What should the United States do?

Since social media in modern conflict encompasses the whole of government, it should have a whole of government solution, and the only viable way for the United States to secure its interests is through the creation of a governing body similar to the National Security Council called the National Cyber Council (NCC). Conceptually, the NCC would bring all elements of national cyber power under the umbrella of a single advisory body answering directly to the president. The council’s internal structure would include representation from all government departments and agencies as well as from willing private sector cyber giants in an effort to address cyber security and protection of US intellectual property.

Lastly, by joining with the private sector the council would go beyond the current level of effort, and essentially make the cyber domain a “whole of nation” endeavor without creating additional stovepipes in our national structure. The Atlantic Council’s Jason Healey, a leading cyber expert, states, “cyber warfare is a policy tool,” and he couldn’t be more right. 

This idea will of course raise concern and promote some level of pushback, specifically with the concept of growing government in shrinking budgets. However, the most persuasive counter to this line of thought is that a centralization of national assets directly reporting to the president is a solid solution to a complex problem, and the first step in addressing the latest RMA from a national security perspective.   

William Edwards is a student at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

Related Experts: Jason Healey