Small Wars Journal

Beyond Twitter: The Emergence of the Cyber-Presidency and Small Cyber Wars

Sun, 07/14/2019 - 12:17am

Beyond Twitter: The Emergence of the Cyber-Presidency and Small Cyber Wars

Jonathan Lancelot

Given the nature of the presidency, and the importance for the President to be free of chatter and clear of direct conflict is contradicted when President Trump is expressing his opinion on Twitter. When cyberwarfare is the top defensive policy for the Pentagon, including the protection of critical infrastructure from a catastrophic cyber-attack, the Commander-in-Chief should strategically avoid social media if at all possible. This is not the case within the Trump Administration, yet what has happened is the presidency’s presence on Twitter has turned the platform into a political and tactical battlefield. Twitter, whether it is aware of it or not, has become a target for cyber operations that use the platform to sway public opinion with fake news, political subterfuge, hate speech, and fear-based propaganda. An equivalent is when the President is in an area, and security is increased to protect the situation when the American people meet their executive in public. Therefore, any space the president occupies (cyberspace or real space) must be secured, controlled, and transparent.

The Twitter platform is not a cleared space, and any words spoken by the president on the platform if automatically released without filter or buffer jeopardizes our strategic foundation. Even if the president used the platform with the proper inter-administration checks and balances before posting, the exposure of the commander-in-chief online could have grave strategic consequences. The presidency is the center of our defense policy establishment, and the power of the office should be observed with care.  In the current environment of worldwide tension and conflict, some of which involve the United States, the President of the United States should be extremely wary of making statements (most of which are rants) on any social media platform. The words of a president are powerful and can either aid or sink our collective defense policy domestic or foreign.

Cyberwarfare is the next frontier for competent policymakers to integrate a coherent US foreign policy for a new time. Conventional warfare is a risky proposition in an age where a cyber-attack on an electrical grid is just as valid a weapon as a Northrop Grumman B-2 Stealth Bomber in regard to crippling an opponent’s ability for reprisal. Depending on the proportionality of the situation, any escalation into a physical conflict jus ad bellum should be decided on the severity of resulting externalities. Given, if a cyber-attack on critical infrastructure results in casualties among civilians or members of the armed service, a proportional response of conventional force is an option depending on the confidence cyber-intelligence has in attributing the source of the cyber-attack. In other words, the President of the United States must use an abundance of caution when deciding to leave a footprint online, social media, or cyber policy decisions. If the President utilizes Twitter for ranting, it limits options on methods of defense, and the legitimacy of each option, even if the option is optimal, is greatly diminished.

Twitter is not a position in cyberspace where the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces should find themselves. The world is on edge, and the United States is a major player on where humanity goes from here. What has happened so far with the Trump administration is chaos and disorder within the decision-making process. This is on top of the anarchy within cyberspace and the international system. The missing component in the President’s continuous use of Twitter is a proper observance of cyber-realpolitik, and his ability to move strategically within the e-governance space. The total effect of cyberspace on political institutions and relevant players are not completely understood, and the technology keeps getting faster and more advanced. 

President Trump has distorted and undermined his own ability to govern the executive branch and forced the Pentagon to fend for itself. When General Mattis resigned, it furthered the deterioration of developing a unified US cyber defense strategy. However, it is not too late for the President to adjust to the rapid technological changes encroaching on political decision making.

The administration has been focusing on offensive capabilities and has initiated a cyber-attack in place of a conventional attack after an Iranian missile struck down a United States drone. It is widely agreed upon by rational experts in defense that President Trump’s decision to shelf the option of a conventional attack on Iran was sensible, yet, it was not within the realm of political wisdom to bypass cyber-diplomacy that would have been able to articulate if we are capable of defending our critical infrastructure against reprisals after a nation-state on nation-state cyber-attack. In other words, the nature of cyberwarfare does not allow for a confident defense of our collective cybersecurity if a nation-state is not prepared. America might be prepared to defend its interests with conventional means, yet we have a long way to go in a nationwide cyberspace defense. The two existential threats to US foreign policy are the attribution and disclosure issue in cyberspace, and the President of the United States should be paying attention to the multivariable strategy of presidential cyberwar policy and stay off of Twitter.

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Lancelot is a cybersecurity analyst at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and principal policy analyst for the OSET Institute focused on election cybersecurity in the context of national security. Jonathan graduated from Norwich University with a Master of Diplomacy with a focus on cyber-diplomacy. He published the widely shared papers “Russia Today, Cyberterrorists Tomorrow: US Failure to Prepare Democracy for Cyberspace,” which is published in the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Journal of Digital Forensics, Security and Law, and “Cyber-Diplomacy: Cyberwarfare and the Rules of Engagement,” which is published by the Journal of Cyber Security Technology. He is a contributing writer at Small Wars Journal and is currently researching cyberpolitics, cyberphilosophy, and cyberdefense. Jonathan has an extensive technical background in computer science and is a certified Apple systems administrator. His past work has taken him through Apple, Inc., the United States Senate, and the US Department of Defense.  Twitter: @lancelotpolitic