Strategic Assessment: The Internet

Charles Swett
Pentagon, USA

Abstract

The Internet is playing a growing role in domestic and international politics, diplomacy, and conflict. The more sophisticated and advanced uses of the Internet in the United States are traced first as a possible indicator of future international uses. The Internet is being used by the White House to circumvent the news media and the Congress by getting in direct contact with the electorate on a large scale, "flattening the pyramid." Political parties are using the Internet not just to share information and recruit new members, but to help organize and coordinate their activities. The availability of alternative news sources on the Internet creates a serious threat to the monopoly of mass media news services. Fringe groups of all varieties are using the Internet to make their views known to a national audience. The Internet is having a catalytic effect on the political process, not just by fitting in with that process as it currently exists, but by changing the nature of that process itself.

Internationally, political activism finds a new, fast, efficient means of conducting business using the Internet. Subcommandante Marco of the EZLN in Mexico is making relatively sophisticated use of the Internet to transmit press releases to sympathetic journalists around the world. His organization has also attempted to use the Internet to deceive the audience, by reporting massive assaults by government military forces against civilians that actually did not occur. Far left and far right activists and organizations are using the Internet to help conduct their operations. National governments have begun to use the Internet as a tool of statecraft, placing political argumentation on issues important to them online for all the world to see. The Internet has played an important role in the Tiananmen Square incident, the attempted coup in Moscow, and the Gulf War as one of the only means of communication between individuals trapped in the chaotic circumstances and the outside world. Even when news services and regular government channels are disrupted or shut down, the Internet can provide critical political contact between affected parties as long as telephone service is available. The Internet is also a strategic threat to authoritarian regimes because it will undermine their control over their populations by making available information that conflicts with the party lines, and by bringing the people in contact with political activists outside their countries who bring political pressure to bear against oppressive regimes.

A number of predictions are offered about the future political roles of the Internet: New political parties based on the Internet will emerge, transcending national boundaries and enjoying a degree of influence disproportionate to their relatively smaller sizes; e-mail will be replaced by video clips of individuals speaking their minds on political topics, further intensifying political debate; the monopolies of the mass media will continue to erode due to availability of alternative news services on the Internet; the Internet will play an increasingly important role in international diplomacy, conflict, and war; and the Internet will be used offensively for political purposes.