First Monday

Revisiting an strategic assessment of the Internet
by Charles Swett


The political process is moving onto the Internet. Both within the United States and internationally, individuals, interest groups, and even nations are using the Internet to find each other, discuss the issues, and further their political goals. The Internet has also played an important role in recent conflicts. As a result, overseas segments of the Internet can be a useful tool for U.S. Department of Defense, both for gathering and for disseminating information. By monitoring public message traffic and alternative news sources from around the world, early warning of impending significant developments could be developed, in advance of more traditional means of indications and warning. Commentary placed on the Internet by observers on the scene of low-intensity conflicts overseas could be useful to U.S. policy-making. During larger scale conflicts, when other conventional channels are disrupted, the Internet can be the only available means of communication into and out of the affected areas. Internet messages originating within regions under authoritarian control could provide other useful intelligence. Public messages conveying information about the intent of overseas groups prone to disrupting U.S. military operations can provide important counterintelligence. The Internet could also be used offensively as an additional medium in psychological operations campaigns and to help achieve unconventional warfare objectives. Used creatively as an integral asset, the Internet can facilitate many U.S. Department of Defense operations and activities.


Current trends
The Internet and domestic U.S. politics
The Internet and international political activism
Some predictions


In the last few years, the Internet has become a household word. After a long period of relative obscurity when it was solely the domain of technically oriented individuals, the Internet has burst onto the national scene and is playing an increasingly important role in an ever-widening spectrum of activities involving an exponentially increasing number of people. It is now in the mainstream. Having a tangible effect on in the social, cultural, economic, and political lives of millions, the evolution of the Internet is taking it into roles completely unanticipated by its original designers. Rather than merely “fitting in” to pre-existing social processes, the Internet is actually transforming the nature of the processes themselves.

The Internet has been increasingly involved in politics and international conflict. Local, state and national governments are establishing a presence on the Internet, both for disseminating information to the public and for receiving feedback from the public. Candidates for elective office are conducting debates over the Internet. Organizers of domestic and international political movements are using the Internet. It played a key role in Desert Storm, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the attempted coup in Russia, the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and in the challenge to authoritarian controls in Iran, China, and other states. The Internet is playing an increasingly significant role in international security, a role that is potentially important to U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).


The goals of this strategic assessment are to:


The discussion in this assessment is non-technical. It is intended for audiences who are both familiar and unfamiliar with the Internet. Topics more relevant to social and commercial use of the Internet than to uses directly related to national security are provided in order to establish an appreciation for the broader importance of the Internet in the daily affairs of individuals and institutions, and its potential for reaching wide audiences.

 Current Trends

One important trend is the growth in the proportion of professionals having personal e-mail addresses on the Internet. Increasingly, business cards include not just voice and fax phone numbers, but Internet addresses. This trend is so strong that many professionals now assume that their counterparts have an Internet address to which they can send e-mail. Rather than considering an Internet address to be a luxury, not having one is coming to be viewed as a handicap, comparable to not having a fax. Individuals and organizations without Internet access increasingly risk being left out of important discussions and processes taking place via the Internet.

The internal use of e-mail within organizations, by putting all personnel in direct contact with each other regardless of organizational rank, has tended to “flatten the pyramid,” i.e., functionally change the organization to a certain extent from a hierarchical one to a horizontal one. There have been reports of this occurring even within a military organization.

Along with the individuals who have Internet addresses comes their own expertise. Millions of experts in various fields, from medicine to plumbing, conduct business over the Internet and use it for a recreation and information exchange, making available a vast potential storehouse of specialized knowledge. In my experience, much of this knowledge is available for the asking.

Commercial online databases containing every form of information imaginable are now accessible (mostly for a fee) via the Internet. “Open source intelligence” originates largely from these databases. Public library catalogs, including the one belonging to the Library of Congress, are available for free over the Internet.

Increasingly, authors of magazine and newspaper articles include their Internet addresses in their bylines, allowing readers to contact them directly to provide their reactions or ask for additional information.

In the United States, federal, state, and local governments are establishing a presence on the Internet. Dozens of Federal agencies provide public information online and many are reachable via the FedWorld Information Network, operated by the National Technical Information Service of the U.S. Department of Commerce. FedWorld acts as a gateway through which the general online public can reach any agency’s system. The U.S. Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs has just implemented a World Wide Web service, called DefenseLINK, containing current and historical news releases, daily summaries, press advisories, transcripts, and contracts.

Local governments and other organizations are increasingly establishing “Freenets,” online information services open to the public (for example, Prairienet in Illinois). These services provide local government services, documents, and news, and act as a medium for discussions among Freenet users about local issues.

Internet users interested in particular subjects participate in “conferences” devoted to those subjects. These conferences are collections of messages embodying extended discussions about those subjects. Currently, there are roughly ten thousand conferences available on the Internet in various forms. Conferences exist for virtually every subject known to man. On these conferences, one can find unique expertise, experience, information, and sources of advice unavailable elsewhere so conveniently and at such low cost. Some of the most energetic types of conferences are those devoted to current events and political debate. At any time, there is an enormous volume of discussion about the news of the day. Opinions span the entire political spectrum, from far left to far right, and originate in many different localities around the world (those places linked to the Internet, of course). Whenever an important event occurs, such as a national election or a major conflict, even a natural disaster, there is an almost “deafening roar” of responses on the Internet. Participants in the international conferences include journalists, professors, political analysts, and politicians.

Internet conferences provide a unique medium for interpersonal communication on a massive scale. As Howard Rheingold wrote:

“Usenet (one of the Internet’s conferencing systems) is a place for conversation or publication, like a giant coffeehouse with a thousand rooms; it is also a worldwide digital version of the Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park, an unedited collection of letters to the editor, a floating flea market, a huge vanity publisher, and a coalition of every odd special-interest group in the world. It is a mass medium because any piece of information put onto the Net has a potential worldwide reach of millions”. (Rheingold, 1993)

Many of the issues addressed in these conferences focus on current military operations in which DoD is involved. Often, incorrect statements, misrepresentations of the U.S. position, and gross distortions of situations are made. However, the vast size of the audience for these misstatements amplifies the magnitude of their effect on public opinion.

In global terms, Americans are by far the heaviest users of the Internet, and the proportion of American homes with personal computers and modems is increasing quickly. Internet use in Europe is less prevalent but still significant, and is increasing rapidly. In the other parts of the world, particularly in some of the very nations where future conflicts are likely to occur, few individuals other than government officials, business persons, educators, and some professionals have access to the Internet. It is important to note that all South American nations and most of Africa have at least some level of Internet connectivity (Fineman, 1995). There are several international efforts that are attempting to spread the Internet to much of the lesser developed world, but progress is slow.

The threat from “hackers” and computer viruses is always present. Internet security is one of the greatest concerns of organizations using it, particularly the U.S. Department of Defense. Malicious tampering with government computers could seriously disrupt various operations in the absence of sufficient countermeasures. “Firewalls” have been developed, whereby a second or more computers are placed between an organization’s own computer and Internet communication lines, to help control access and prevent “break-ins.” In spite of these precautions, in some cases a triple firewall architecture has been successfully penetrated.

With respect to viruses, there is a kind of arms race spiral. Programmers of different kinds of “vaccines” improve their software to work against new types of viruses as they appear. Authors of computer viruses respond by developing new programs to circumvent new vaccines. In turn, vaccines are improved, which leads to viruses with better immunities, and so on.

 The Internet and domestic U.S. politics

The Clinton Administration has embraced the Internet as a means of direct political communication with the American electorate. Using the President’s e-mail address — — anyone with access to the Internet can send a message to the President’s staff. At least some 5,000 messages arrive digitally into the White House every week. Interns read every message, track and tally them by issue and by opinion expressed, and send a standard response. This is part of a relatively newly developed political strategy:

“To a certain group of techno-literate staffers at the White House ... the Net is not just a mechanism for receiving mail. It is emerging as a full-blown forum for conducting the country’s political affairs. While the vast majority of the public gets its dose of political information from television and newspapers, the citizens of the Net are plugged directly into their government. On a daily basis, subscribers to America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy, as well as other denizens of the Internet can download and read a stack of new policy papers, speeches, and transcripts of conversations put out by dozens of departments within the Clinton Administration. In the past, only reporters and lobbyists saw these documents ... White House staffers tend to view the Net as a ballast against the out-of-control mass media and Washington press corps. And they believe the public is sympathetic — that there is as much anger against the media as there is against government ... By ... establishing a growing presence on the Net, the Clinton administration is making a pitched effort to perform an end run around the media. Not surprisingly, the inside-the-beltway press corps does not like the idea of giving up its role as the filter through which the public sees its government”. (Schwartz, 1994).

The White House uses electronic correspondence:

“... e-mail is all neatly stored on the White House computer network where staffers can search by keywords such as ‘health care,’ ‘crime,’ ‘Persian Gulf,’ and so on. That enables staffers to instantly measure which issues are foremost on people’s minds”. (Schwartz, 1994).

They see interaction with the public via the Internet as a positive force:

“Jonathan ‘Jock’ Gill, a former Lotus Development Corp. manager who now works in the Office of Media Affairs, is hepped up about using technology to cut through the thick fog of cynicism in America. He believes that the Net can greatly expand the ‘idea space’ in which public discourse happens. Instead of watching a few talking heads on TV, citizens can sit at their computers and engage in two-way conversations with each other and with government officials. ... Gill’s goal is to ‘give everyone in government a name, a face, and a contact point.’ The reason the public seems disconnected from government in recent years, he says, is that it has grown beyond the reach of the ordinary citizen”. (Schwartz, 1994).

This direct, two-way interaction between the pinnacle of the Federal government and ordinary citizens is highly significant. Bypassing congressional representatives and their staffs, poll takers, and the media means that the electronically connected public has the means to counteract any distortions or filtering that those entities might have otherwise added. This sort of direct connection is a new phenomenon and if it continues to grow and improve over the long term, it could fundamentally alter the American political process. However, future Administrations may not put so much emphasis on this mechanism, or other means may evolve to enhance communication between the Executive Branch and the public.

It is not only the American public that uses the Internet to communicate with the White House. On 4 February 1994, Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt sent an e-mail message to President Clinton, the first head of state to do so. The message read:

“Dear Bill: Apart from testing this connection on the global Internet system, I want to congratulate you on your decision to end the trade embargo on Vietnam. I am planning to go to Vietnam in April and will certainly use the occasion to take up the question of the MIAs ... Sweden is — as you know — one of the leading countries in the world in the field of telecommunications, and it is only appropriate that we should be among the first to use the Internet for political contacts and communications around the globe. Yours, Carl”. (Schwartz, 1994).

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has established a program to make electronic versions of all draft legislation available on the Internet. This will allow the subset of the electorate, with Internet access, to evaluate legislation and permit them to make better informed inputs to their representatives in Congress. It will also place those without Internet access in a relatively weaker political position, because they will generally not be able to know legislative details or independently ascertain their significance.

The theme of the Internet as a threat to the established mass media is a common one in the recent literature.

“‘The important trend,’ messaged Michael Newman ... on the Well (an online information service), ‘is technology abetting the grassroots distribution of information rather than the information being the domain of huge institutions to dole out according to their agendas. The “many-to-many” model is going to eat the “few-to-many” model alive.’ (Newman) is right on the button. For generations, the leading newspapers have served as the nation’s information gate-keepers, deciding which of the many millions of news stories will move through the gate and out into the country. Armed with relatively inexpensive technology, millions of Americans are now finding that they don’t need the gatekeepers any more. For the first time, they’re free to pick and choose their own stories and share their own responses. They tap into electronic wire services at will, call up expanded versions of news stories that interest them, then tell one another directly of their political aspirations or cultural passions. The bulletin boards not only carry news and forge communities, they shape values and public opinion without help from the gatekeepers — those who have always told us what information was important and what we should think about it. ... For journalists, such interaction (as occurs online) means surrendering control and sharing power, things that journalists are trained not to do. Although individual reporters struggle to hear from and respond to readers and viewers, journalism is not user-friendly. Its institutional structure is hostile to people who want to communicate with its practitioners or argue about its content. Reporters rarely answer directly to consumers and constituents in the way they expect politicians to. Most media organizations believe they know better than their constituents what's good and proper for them”. (Katz, 1993)
“The importance of today’s passive mass media is likely to diminish greatly over the coming decades. Passive media will be replaced by a new type of interactive multimedia, characterized by highly specialized media outlets often described as ‘information agents’.” (Snider, 1994)

Some newspapers and magazines have been timid about going online. Others, believing that they had better go online to retain their relevance, are facing strong and serious criticism:

“In a media conference on CompuServe, AOL (America Online), (or) the Well, journalists are repeatedly challenged by non-journalists. People ask — and are told — how editing decisions were made, question why stories were left out, point out errors, disagree with conclusions ... Time (magazine)’s online effort is intensely interactive, generating more than two million online visits in its first eight months. Editors and writers regularly make online appearances for drubbings by displeased readers who want to go a few rounds about gun control or women priests ... Time’s online message boards contain some of the most vigorous democratic debate on social issues in any modern medium ... More importantly, users sense that Time, hardly a bastion of populist journalism, is changing as a result, becoming a bit less aloof, more in touch. It turns out that communicating with readers, like getting a needle, is scary, but it doesn’t hurt all that much and is actually good for you”. (Katz, 1994)

In part, these developments lead to an “electronic democracy.” In this virtual form of a democracy, American citizens can become more influential participants in their government’s decisions by making their views known via the Internet:

“‘Electronic democracy’ is inspired by two overlapping dislikes — of bureaucrats and of politicians — and by two ideas for making these groups more likable. The first conjures up a world where the grumpy civil servant behind a counter is replaced by an easy-to-follow screen that makes all the government’s information available at the touch of a button. The second idea wants to make politicians as answerable and accessible to their constituents as Pericles was to the tiny Athenian democracy.” (Anonymous, 1992)
“The promise is that the average citizen will provide more input and have a greater impact on the decisions of government. Through ... electronic mail and bulletin boards, and instant feedback mechanisms, government officials can know more clearly what their constituents want ... Instant knowledge of decision-makers’ actions with the opportunity for instant feedback from angry constituents would necessitate backbone implants for many of our politicians before tough decisions get made.” (Varn, 1993)

Some advocates of electronic democracy envision online elections and referendums:

“Clearly, the new technology facilitates new forms of voting and thus direct participation. For example, instead of physically going to the polls, people could vote from their homes. With more-convenient and less-expensive voting, people could be expected to vote more frequently and on more issues. Ballot referendums and polls could proliferate.” (Snider, 1994)

Other observers are more skeptical:

“We’ll be in trouble if politicians cannot resist the movement to let people vote on individual issues electronically. Unless Americans can gain a lot more leisure, they just don’t have time to do their homework. That’s why we elect politicians to attend to our business. If we don’t like the way they are doing their jobs, we toss them out of office. I’m skeptical of people who think the whole country could be run like the Internet. Voting on the creations of a new newsgroup isn’t quite the same as voting on the death penalty or abortion laws. The effects are a little more permanent”. (Baczewski and others, 1994)

Still others fear the development of an Orwellian Big Brother in the political process:

“Policy-makers ... will ratchet up their sophistication in manipulating the perceptions of their actions. Databases of information on constituents can be used to target information and manipulate opinions”. (Varn, 1993)


“How do we know that our computer vote is secret? Perhaps it’s stored on a disk alongside our name ... A government or a civilian computer hacker might rewrite an election for money, political motives, or a lark”. (Bacard, 1993)


“The Net that is a marvelous lateral network can also be used as a kind of invisible yet inescapable cage. The idea of malevolent political leaders with their hands on the controls of a Net raises fear of a more direct assault on liberties”. (Rheingold, 1993)

The Internet has already played in important role in several local elections. In these elections, candidates were essentially put under the online spotlight of determined questioning by voters. For example:

“... organizers on the Net don’t need vast hordes to be effective. One of the first potent (cyber)tribes was gathered ... by a software developer from Washington State. Browsing political (discussions) on the Internet ... Richard Hartman last summer found an instant — and national — fellowship that shared his dislike for his congressman, the then-Speaker Tom Foley. Within weeks a “De-Foley-ate Congress” campaign had used the Net and commercial online services to find supporters and donors. Foley might have lost anyway, but news of Hartman’s effort helped spread the notion of the Speaker’s vulnerability — and brought help from national Republicans”. (Fineman, 1995)

Many other political activists have discovered the utility of the Internet for sharing information and publicizing their activities. For example,

“LatinoNet, a non-profit advocacy group based in San Francisco, has created a service on America Online to help Latino organizations cooperate and lobby government officials. The open service, called LatinoNet, was praised by Reed Hundt, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. With LatinoNet up and running, we may soon see additional networks for ethnic lobbyists, such as Serbo-CroatNet, SlovakNet or BelarusNet”. (Anonymous, 1994)

One activist has actually published advice for online political activists, in the form of ten rules, summarized below:

The ability via the Internet to efficiently reach large numbers of individuals who are potential political actors plays to the strengths of special interest groups and political action committees. The Internet is thus highly attractive to activists who value a populist approach as opposed to a more traditional tactic which emphasizes electing sympathetic representatives and influencing their positions.

Examples of online political activism abound. For instance, the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action (NRA–ILA) found that its own electronic bulletin board was an effective means of distributing information to activists defending their rights to carry and use guns. At the 125th Annual Meeting of the Association in Dallas, Texas in April, 1996, the NRA–ILA announced that it would take advantage of the Internet even more with a new cooperative relationship with NETCOM, an Internet service provider (see for more details). With connections to the Internet, NRA members receive daily reports on new legislative actions and efforts by groups and individuals to control guns in the United States. Tanya K. Metaksa, Executive Director of NRA–ILA, said that “I check my e-mail everyday. And I think that electronic communication is fast becoming the most powerful tool NRA members have in defending their right to keep and bear arms.”

Howard Rheingold provided this example in his book, The virtual community:

“When it looked as if the Colorado Springs city council was going to make a decision that would effectively prohibit telecommuting from his home in nearby Old Colorado City, (David) Hughes went into action. ‘The city planners of Colorado Springs decided to tighten the ordinance that regulates working out of the home,’ Hughes recalls. ‘I was the only person to stand up in front of the planning commission and testify against the ordinance; the planners tabled the matter for thirty days. I then brought the text of the ordinance home with me and put it on my BBS.’ Hughes sent letters to the editors of his two local papers, inviting people to dial into his BBS and read the ordinance. Two hundred and fifty callers above the normal traffic level for his BBS called within the next ten days. What Hughes did not realize at the time was that many of those callers worked in large high-tech plants, and they downloaded, printed, copied, and circulated hundreds of copies of the ordinance throughout the city. At the next city council meeting, more than 175 citizens, representing every part of the political spectrum, showed up to protest the ordinance. It was defeated. Hughes pointed out that ‘ordinarily, the effort needed to get involved with local politics is enormous. But the economy of effort that computers provided made it possible for me to mobilize opinion’.” (Rheingold, 1993).

Various fringe groups are beginning to exploit the Internet. These include:

According to the Jared Sandberg, reporting in the Wall Street Journal,

“Fringe groups are increasingly going online, gathering converts and seeking validation on the Internet. The network’s far-flung links and low-cost communications are a boon to backwater groups that can’t afford to use direct mail to make their pitches ... The more a group is shut out of the mainstream, the more likely it is to go online ... The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which monitors hate groups ... has tracked about 250 hate groups in the U.S. and says 50 or more communicate online. Other experts believe the number is considerably higher”. (Sandberg, 1994)

Still other kinds of interest groups have moved online. Groups of conspiracy theorists exchange e-mail explaining conspiracy theories involving the U.S.. government in general and the Department of Defense specifically. A much better organized group, the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), has its own computer network with a gateway to the Internet ( Some of the traffic on this network refers to U.S. military operations that MUFON members believe relate to investigations of UFO-related incidents.

The relatively more advanced role being played by the Internet in American politics, where a number of different groups are using the Internet, provides a glimpse of what may happen in other nations in the future. Different political systems, however, may change the precise nature of the Internet’s role, but its energizing effect is likely to be universal.

The Internet and international political activism

Certainly, the Internet will increasingly play a catalytic role in international affairs:

“We are moving into an era in which political decisions in a number of areas are going to become supra-national in character. And we are no longer going to be able to allow the intervention of the age-old doctrine of state sovereignty to interfere with certain imperatives ... and I think the Internet, being the one great system that links all of the various information technologies and services around the world, is the likely theater — a great, global theater — in which many changes can be brought into being and new ideas can be exchanged ... Right now I am very interested in using the Internet, and the technique of electronic petitioning, to strengthen the United Nations ... I am also interested in developing a world court, not like the one that currently exists, but a world court of public opinion that people would have recourse to. You would, in effect, be taking an electronic poll throughout cyberspace and using that medium to assemble opinion and then publicize and propagate the results so that they would find their way into the other media around the world and be acknowledged as representing an important segment of world public opinion. In addition, I believe with the Internet we could build a kind of political early warning system. Back when we fought the Cold War, we had an early warning system, with sensors and monitors from one end of Canada to the other, warning us of the approach of missiles from the Soviet Union. With the Internet, we could erect warning stations around the world, so that before a situation developed, like the one on Rwanda, we would know that trouble was brewing, that one tribe was threatening to annihilate another”. (Long, 1994)
“The advent of global networking is fragmenting and re-sorting society into what one author calls ‘virtual communities.’ Instead of being bound by location, groups of people can now meet in cyberspace, the noncorporeal world existing between two linked computers”. (Cooke and Lehrer, 1993)

The Internet has been playing an increasingly important role in international politics. One highly significant effect of Internet use overseas has been to circumvent the informational controls imposed by authoritarian regimes on their citizens:

“Undeniably, cyberspace has great subversive potential. The Internet gives individuals publishing power hitherto undreamed of. You can write a book, or a manifesto, and distribute it, free, to hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. In theory, all national censorship and control becomes obsolete, so long as telephone communication exists”. (Jenkins, 1993)

This is more than just potential. In Asia, for example, according to the Economist,

“Asia’s authoritarians are continuing their unequal struggle against the Internet. In China last week some users noticed that access had been blocked to over 100 sites on the World Wide Web, the multimedia part of the Internet. The ban seems to cover, among others, American newspapers, Tibetan exiles, the Taiwanese government, Playboy and the Economist. The Chinese government has said nothing about what is going on — although it did promise a clampdown against pornography last February. The ban still seems patchy. International wire-services that provide Internet access seem to be unaffected — which may have something to do with the fact that they are compelled to pay fat fees to the official Chinese news agency.”
“New controls are also on their way in Singapore, where three local Internet ‘service providers’ have more than 150,000 subscribers -5% of the population. In March the government began a drive to curb unwholesome activity in cyberspace, such as pornography and ‘material sowing social and religious discord.’ Until now, regulation in Singapore has relied largely on self-policing”. (Anonymous, 1996)

In Indonesia, one description gave some sense of the importance of the Internet as an information resource:

“The public still get the news thanks to the Internet and international radios. Protesters gathering at the PDI headquarters in Central Jakarta distributed print outs of the ‘Indonesia-L’ mailing list gopher:// They also faxed the news reports to their provincial offices and plastered the uncensored reports on the wall.

Internet-based reports with titles such as ‘Officers Accompany PDI Representatives in Congress,’ ‘Army Engineer Congress,’ ‘Journalists Are Beaten and Bribed,’ ‘Army Sets Up Check Points Around Medan,’ and ‘Suharto Himself Appoint Soerjadi’ are widely distributed in Jakarta.

Even after the military forcibly took over the PDI headquarters on 27 July, the Internet played a more crucial role to penetrate the information blockade in Indonesia. It has been very important to build public opinion; the military has taken a number of measures to deal with it.

A lecturer at Duta Wacana Christian University in Yogyakarta, around 500 kilometers east of Jakarta, has been arrested at his home by soldiers. He was accused of distributing electronic mail messages relating to the 27 July 1996 riots.” (Harsono, 1996)

In addition, the Internet has played in important role in recent and ongoing conflicts. For example:

“During the siege of Sarajevo, the war-torn citizens of that city were prisoners in their own homes. They risked their lives just to buy food or find fuel to heat their apartments. They also were isolated: phone calls didn't go through; letters went undelivered. But a lucky few found another way to send messages to their families and friends. With one computer and a single phone line, more than 150 people were able to send electronic mail out of Sarajevo in one three-month period”. (Long, 1994)

In the August, 1991 coup attempt in Moscow, the Internet was incredibly important as a communications tool and information resource:

“The Soviet Coup of 19 August 1991 was led by Gennady I. Yanayev, the Russian Vice-President, and the eight members of the self-appointed State of Emergency Committee — all Gorbachev’s closest advisors — during the time that Gorbachev went on vacation to his dachta in the Crimea. Time was of the essence and the coup leaders had to act quickly in order to take over successfully.

Radio Rossiya (Radio Russia) was taken off the air and ‘a single, official program was going out over all frequencies.’ Soviet television broadcast ‘opera and old movies,’ an event that tipped many Russian off to the existence of a coup d'’eacute;tat. The leadership sent KGB agents to radio stations to block transmissions, and ‘ordered the closing of all newspapers that had been too fervent advocates of glasnost and reform.’ At the newspapers Smena and Nevskoye Vremya ‘all the fax machines and computers ... had been destroyed.’

However they failed to isolate and extinguish all the sources of newly independent strains of mass media. Radio stations that were originally shut down were poorly monitored by the KGB and managed to broadcast reports at infrequent intervals. Radio Liberty set up an AM station in the Parliament Building and operated at several frequencies. The Soviet Interfax News Agency was able to continue faxing and posting reports, and the computer networks were online uninterrupted throughout the three days of the coup and continued transmitting an onslaught of electronic ‘broadcasts’. The coup leaders did not focus any attention on the threat of the computer networks in part because they were not really aware of the utility of the leased telephone lines, and because, as one Demos personality put it: ‘...these cretins don’t consider us mass media!’

While the people in Moscow built barricades to slow the armored columns from occupying the Russian Parliament building, stood on top of the tanks, and argued with the soldiers to defect allegiance to Yeltsin, the networks passed around news bulletins, information of events and troop movements, and messages intended for friends and comrades in the Soviet Union. The online world was nearly unanimously opposed to the actions of the coup and people worked in various to subvert and counter the events taking place.

There are five different elements to the way network information services were used during the coup. First-hand reports were vital to the update of events and demonstrations; The posting of official statements allowed the world to see the boundaries of the coup; Transcriptions of news reports from other media provided a wider outlet than most media could reach during this time; the nets offered fora where people could engage in analysis and a free discussion of the events taking place; and lastly, the computer networks were considered a valid source for world media agencies giving predominance to individual spheres of influence on the world media scene.

The messages on the nets were primarily personal contributions than the voice of institutions; either personally written statements, or information reproduced from some other source by a dedicated individual were passed through listservs and newsgroups. The listservs operated as pirate media during the coup, and attempted to protect the sources of information as much as possible ...”. (Corcoran, 1995; Valauskas, 1992)

A very significant use of the Internet is by international protest groups and political activists:

“Protest groups opposing regimes from Uruguay to the Philippines are plugging in their computers and planning their political resistance. Trade unions and charities in the industrialized world are keen to give computer equipment to groups elsewhere. If an impoverished group can persuade a better-funded organization to donate a modem to connect to the phone and can obtain a reliable phone line — often the most difficult part — it can make contact with millions of people worldwide via international computer networks. This can make governments nervous. Some African regimes are unhappy that a few unions seem to be using more advanced technology than they are. In India, a modem cannot be connected to a phone line without official permission”. (Holderness, 1993)

Another example of this phenomenon is an Internet mailing list called “Counterev-L.” It describes itself in this way:

“This list is under the aegis of l’Alliance Monarchists and is dedicated to promoting the cause of traditional monarchy and the Counter Revolution. We believe in government based on natural law principles, decentralization, subsidiarity, an economy based on the principles of distributive justice, and the defense of traditional Western values. We believe in a Europe, United, Traditional, and Free from the Atlantic to the Urals, but we oppose the centralizing bureaucracy of the Maastricht treaty. While we are based in the US, we are affiliated with L’Alliance pour la maintenance de la France en Europe, and we have members, as well as fraternal relations with the monarchist organizations, in most Western European countries. We work for the strengthening of existing monarchies, the restoration in those countries with a monarchist tradition, and the building up of an infrastructure appropriate to the installation of monarchy in those countries without a living monarchist tradition.”

Yet another example is the use of computer networks by a Mexican underground group:

“According to federal legislator Adolfo Zinser, who met with Marcos at a jungle hideout last year, the rebel leader typically would write his voluminous communiques on a laptop computer, which he carried in a backpack and plugged into the lighter socket of an old pickup truck he used when traveling between the remote Zaptista strongholds of La Garrucha and Guadalupe Tepeyac ... Marcos’ communiques continue to flow unimpeded through cyberspace, usually reaching readers in countries as distant as Italy, Germany and Russia faster than they can be published by most Mexican newspapers ... If Marcos is equipped with a telephone modem and a cellular phone, it would be possible for him to hook into the Internet even while on the run ...”. (Robberson, 1995)

What do these uses of the Internet indicate for the future?

Some predictions

New political parties

In the next five to twenty years, new political parties operating through the Internet will emerge.

The convergence of large numbers of people of similar political persuasion through the Internet eventually will cause the development of political blocs, or parties, whose only means of interaction is through the Internet. Virtual conventions will be held over the Internet, where party platforms are agreed upon, and candidates for office are determined by vote. These activists will then interface with the “physical” world by running for elective office, representing an electronic constituency. Virtual political parties of every type will be ad hoc and may not be institutionalized for long periods of time like conventional parties; they may be oriented toward single issues or just a few issues, and thus they may dissolve once the issues are resolved to their satisfaction. They will also not recognize any political or geographic boundaries.

Electronic parties will transcend local, state, and even national borders. Membership in and activism on behalf of these parties will occur on a global scale. They will increasingly make their presence felt in the internal political affairs of nations and in international affairs. The proliferation of these parties will also make the political scene much more complex, and multiple simultaneous political wars will occur in cyberspace. Due to the almost instantaneous transmission of news about current events to members and the very rapid development of responses to them via e-mail, these parties will be able to react almost immediately to developments that relate to their interests. This reactive speed will afford them a degree of influence that is disproportionately strong relative to their actual numbers.

Although it will be essentially impossible to enforce party discipline in these semi-formal, loosely defined organizations, considerable political momentum will be achieved when large numbers of members support particular positions. Single-issue coalitions between different parties with common interests will add to their potency. Financing would also be problematic, since members may be reluctant to transmit funds to a virtual “treasurer” for a party that might go out of existence without warning. However, these parties will have modest financial requirements compared to current conventional political parties, since most of their operations will occur over the Internet. The only significant costs will be incurred by activities through which party leaders interface with the “real world” of Congress and the White House. Lobbying, advertising, membership drives, polling, and most other party activities will occur almost exclusively on the Internet at almost negligible financial cost.

Political groups whose operations are coordinated through the Internet will be vulnerable to having their operations disrupted by false messages inserted by opposing groups. This will encourage the proliferation of encrypted messages. However, these groups will face the dilemma that encrypting their messages excludes the wider audience, from which they hope to elicit sympathy and support.

New media, raw media

The monopoly of the traditional mass media will erode. No longer will the news editors and anchorpersons of television networks and newspapers solely determine what the mass audience learns and thinks about current events. Raw news reports from local, national, and international news wires and alternative news sources, and from unaffiliated individual observers on the scene of events acting alone, will be accessible by all Internet users. The filtering and slanting of the news currently performed by traditional media will give way to some extent to direct consumption of un-analyzed information by the mass audience, diminishing the influence now enjoyed by those media. An increasingly skeptical audience will be able to compare raw news reports with the pre-digested, incomplete, out-of-context, and sometimes biased renditions offered by television and newspapers. Some of the mass media will attempt to reassert their traditional roles on the Internet, and they will fail, because they will not have any advantage over their audience. Another consequence of this is that the average consumer of news on the Internet will have a much wider cognizance of current developments worldwide than currently, and will be more likely to have an opinion on overseas situations.

This is not to say that the traditional mass media will lose their audience and become insignificant. They will continue to play a major role in the national news flow. However, they will lose considerable ground to alternative sources and alternative interpretations circulating on the Internet.

Politicians, bureaucrats, and the Internet

Members of United States Congress and officials in U.S. agencies will be inexorably drawn into the Internet. When members of Congress who do not currently have a presence on the Internet realize that other members (who may be political competitors or enemies) do have a presence on the Internet, they will want to join themselves. Particularly when they understand that they are being attacked in the electronic political debates and there is no one in cyberspace to defend them, or even worse, that they are not being discussed at all, they will not be able to avoid joining. Remaining out of the Internet will increasingly be recognized as a strategic weakness and a sign of being behind the times. The same phenomenon will affect officials in the Executive Branch of the Federal Government. U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said in a speech in Hanoi in 1995:

“Communications technology is pushing the expansion of freedom for the individual at the same time as it is shrinking the distances between nations. My speech to you, for example, will be broadcast back to the United States by satellite. Through the Internet, it will be available to almost anyone in the world with a computer and a phone line. Governments cannot control this movement of ideas in the Information Age, even if they want to.“ (quoted in John, 1996)

Increasing demands for public accountability will draw elected officials and bureaucrats into the Internet too, beyond simply posting news releases and other documentation online. Members of Congress and senior Federal officials will require staffs just to monitor and respond to the traffic.

Video and multimedia

Text-oriented e-mail will be replaced by video/audio messages. As a result of reductions in the size and cost of high quality video cameras and improvements in video data compression technology, all personal computers in the future will be equipped with small video cameras, much as each computer today has a mouse. At the same time, the capacity of the communication links connecting personal computers to the Internet will greatly expand, due to replacement of twisted-pair copper telephone wires with fiber optic cables.

These two trends will allow Internet users to compose messages consisting of compressed full-motion color video images. When a user wants to send a message, he or she will first prepare a script and then speak the words for the camera while reading them from the computer screen like a teleprompter. The resulting data file will then be uploaded into the Internet and played back by all recipients using standard video playback hardware/software with which all computers will be equipped.

Although some users will prefer the anonymity of text-oriented e-mail, many others will find the urge to let the world see what they look like and hear what they sound like irresistible. The addition of the visual and audio dimensions to computer-mediated communications will greatly expand the content of messages, since facial expression, tone of voice, body language, race, nationality, gender, and age all convey much information that is lost when ordinary text is used. When today’s emoticons and smileys are replaced by full-motion color video with sound, the emotional impact and intensity of political debate on the Internet will be greatly magnified.

Politically oriented groups will realize the propaganda potential of video on the Internet, and will produce and disseminate video clips supporting their point of view. Internet users will have available to them a wide variety of political advertisements in the form of video files. Opposing groups will engage in video propaganda battles entirely within the medium of the Internet.

Digital diplomacy

The Internet will be used as a tool of statecraft by national governments. The use of the World Wide Web portion of the Internet by the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments is highly significant. Those nations, not renowned for their technological sophistication, have been the first to bring international diplomacy officially into the online world. Although many governments currently have an official presence on the Internet, many only provide standard embassy-type public affairs statements, with information about their populations, cultures, industries, and businesses. In the future, more governments will recognize the strategic value of this medium for conveying their messages. The current style of press releases placed on the Internet by official government organizations will be supplemented with politically-oriented material conveying argumentation favorable to their respective positions on issues important to them.


The Internet will play an increasingly significant role in international conflict. Political discussions among the members of the online public at large, and real-world activities of national leaders, representatives of electronic political parties and interest groups, world bodies such as the United Nations, commercial enterprises, and individual political activists, will be energized by the Internet. Current information about conflicts placed on the Internet in real time by on-the-scene observers and alternative news sources will be voraciously devoured by the world audience and will have an immediate and tangible impact on the course of events. Video footage of military operations will be captured by inexpensive, hand-held digital video cameras operated by local individuals, transformed unedited into data files, and then uploaded into the global information flow, reaching millions of people in a matter of minutes. Public opinion and calls for action (or calls to terminate actions) may be formed before national leaders have a chance to develop positions or to react to developments. Military commanders in the field will have their actions subjected to an unprecedented degree of scrutiny.


Political roles

While there is already a great deal of political use of the Internet domestically and internationally, there is likely to be a significant increase in the scale and sophistication of such use in the coming years. Due to the differences in concentration of Internet use between different areas of the world, the impact of the Internet in directly influencing public opinion is likely to be heaviest in the United States, less in other parts of the developed world such as Europe, and still less in other parts of the world. Individual activists operating in less developed countries, though, are likely to bring the Internet with them in the form of laptop computers that can access the Internet through any telephone line or even by satellite links. Information brought into those countries through the small numbers of Internet access points can be spread locally through more traditional methods such as print, radio broadcast, and word of mouth. The activists will also be able to use the Internet to disseminate information to the rest of the world and to help coordinate their activities.

The Internet is clearly a significant long-term strategic threat to authoritarian regimes, one that they will be unable to counter effectively. News from the outside world brought by the Internet into nations subjugated by such regimes will clash with the distorted versions provided by their governments, eroding the credibility of their positions and encouraging unrest. Personal contact between citizens living under such governments and those elsewhere, conducted via e-mail, will also help achieve a more accurate understanding on both ends and perhaps further undermine authoritarian controls. Information about violations of human rights and other forms of oppression will be increasingly conveyed to the outside world by the Internet, helping mobilize external political forces on behalf of the oppressed.


The Internet is a potentially lucrative source of intelligence useful to the U.S. Department of Defense and other defense agencies and organizations. The Internet can be used to secure:

The Internet may provide early warning of impending security threats. Internet message traffic about developing situations tends to precede news and intelligence reporting, since the individuals who create reports on current events are not constrained by the resource limitations to which news and intelligence organizations are subject. Those organizations must prioritize their efforts, focusing on what appears to be the most important items of the moment. Individual observers overseas who have access to the Internet can write about anything that interests them. It is likely that routine monitoring of messages originating in other countries would provide strategic warning of developing security threats that would be of concern to the United States and other states.

At the same time, it should be noted that a great deal of the traffic on the Internet has no intelligence value whatsoever. Monitoring would require automatic and intelligent filters that examine messages for certain relevance criteria. It is also important to note that the accuracy of much of the information on the Internet would be suspect. New means of validating information received by these filters and agents would be needed.

Beside being used to develop early warning of developing conflicts or the beginnings of new global trends, the Internet could also pinpoint information about specific topics. Networks of human sources with access to the Internet could be specialized in areas of security concern, oriented to seek specific information. If constructed and managed correctly, such a system could be much more responsive and efficient than current complex and unwieldy intelligence collection processes. We might even consider cultivating the capability to perform strategic reconnaissance “by modem.” These approaches would never replace traditional and official intelligence collection systems, but could be a useful adjunct. The Internet can also serve counterintelligence purposes.

If it became widely known that defense agencies were monitoring Internet traffic for intelligence or counterintelligence purposes, individuals with personal or political agendas, or who enjoy playing pranks, would deliberately enter false or misleading messages. There would be a need to account for these sorts of messages.

Support to policy-making

Beyond intelligence, the insights and analyses of thoughtful overseas observers such as educators, former politicians, local journalists, and officials of other governments could be very useful to policy-making. E-mail discussions about the likely consequences of various policy approaches to security problems could help improve the quality of policies. Any such use, of course, would have to be protected by appropriate security measures.

Offensive uses

Just as a specific country could be vulnerable to electronic disinformation, politically active groups using the Internet could be vulnerable to deceptive messages introduced by hostile persons or groups. Far-right groups and far-left groups tend to watch each other, and it is likely that “moles” will obtain access to the other camps’ networks for the purpose of disrupting their operations. This would tend to weaken the protection afforded by coding or encrypting messages.

Increasingly, officials in national governments, foreign military officers, business persons, and journalists, are obtaining access to the Internet and establishing individual e-mail addresses. There is even a commercial service that will shortly offer access to an online database of the names, organizational titles, phone/fax numbers, and Internet e-mail addresses of virtually all government officials in all countries. Using this information, it would be possible to employ the Internet as an additional medium for psychological operations.

Roles during conflict

Even if the actual presence of the Internet in the location of a conflict is very limited, the widespread access to Internet available in the United States and other parts of the developed world will provide a medium over which political debate and activism related to that conflict can occur. Thus the Internet can indirectly play an important role in the way the world deals with a conflict, without having substantial physical presence within the conflict.

The Internet can play an important positive role during future international crises and conflicts. In the chaotic conditions usually present in such situations, normal government and commercial reporting channels are often unreliable or unavailable, and the Internet might be one of the few means of communication present. Some of its uses might include:

In order to use the Internet most productively for such purposes, it would be necessary for Department of Defense and other agencies to address it directly and explicitly as an integral asset, rather than as an uncontrollable element of the environment whose role is determined by happenstance or as an afterthought. If viewed as a resource and systematically integrated into our planning and operations, the Internet can make some important contributions to conflict management and assuring the success of foreign policy. End of article


Charles Swett, Assistant for Strategic Assessment, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict (Policy Planning), Room 2B525, The Pentagon.


The views expressed in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the policies or positions of the United States Department of Defense. An earlier version of this paper appeared on the Internet at and was presented by the Project on Government Secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists.


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Copyright © 1996, Charles Swett. All Rights Reserved.

Revisiting a strategic assessment of the Internet
by Charles Swett.
First Monday, Volume 1, Number 4 - 7 October 1996