"Be sure to tune in and watch Donald Trump on Late Night with David Letterman as he presents the Top Ten List tonight!"
That was the very first Tweet message sent by now US president while he was the host of "Celebrity Apprentice" and Twitter was just gaining popularity. The year was 2009.
More than a decade and 36 tweets a day later, President Trump is the most dangerous man on the internet.
That is according to the annual list assembled by Wired magazine in which the president tops the list for a fifth time in a row, beating oppressive foreign leaders, terrorists, hackers….
“Regardless of the outcome of the 2020 election, Trump's use of social media as an unfiltered, un-fact-checked megaphone has unlocked a new era of ideocratic politics, one that will likely never again be constrained to press conferences and official statements,” the report said.
Interesting enough, North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un is not on the list, apart from the country’s hacker group known as Lazarus. He remains one of the few world leaders who doesn’t need the internet or social media to shape politics and to stay in power.
The only superpower more powerful than social media is the absolute absence of social media.
In 2017, North Korean media reported that the country had won the World Cup in soccer, even though its team hadn’t even qualified to participate. That’s no matter. Local reporting had North Korea playing and stomping the U.S., Japan and China (all three of high geopolitical significance for North Korean public sentiment) before beating Portugal in the final. State media even produced a video to prove it.
To some extent, there is no doubt that social media has quite a few benefits, finding long lost friends, preventing and solving crimes, or finding romance after a long period of unacquitted love.
Twitter played matchmaker for Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump's third meeting, held in June, initiated after Pyongyang responded to Trump’s tweet. But prior to that, the two leaders exchanged a series of insults, mostly on a personal level, with Trump calling Jong-un “Rocket man” and Jong-un calling Trump a “dotard”.
It’s a far cry from the correspondence during the Bay of Pigs between Kennedy and Krushchev, for instance.
Powerful as it may be, though, social media is a finely sharpened double-edged sword, both for leaders and citizens.
On one side it is a perfect tool for leaders or state machinery to spread propaganda and disinformation. It’s also a great tool for governments to use as an early warning system for public discontent and prosecuting protesters, or, simply to engage their supporters.
On the other side, it’s cut deep.
Social media played a vital role in the Arab Spring uprising, leading to the end of decades-long rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Almost a decade later, looking at the political and security situation in some of those countries it is hard to say if any real progress was made afterward. Libya is at war and Egypt got another iron-fisted ruler at the helm.
Russia, whose president Vladimir Putin is rated by Wired as the second most dangerous person on the internet this decade, has now implemented its so-called digital sovereignty bill, aimed at protecting the country by creating a sustainable, fenced-off national network.
Critics of the move claim that it gives the government full control over what citizens see online, following in the footsteps of Iran and China. Related: Russia Unplugged: Cyber Control And Censorship
In Iran, the National Information Network allows access to web services while policing all content on the network and limiting external information.
The so-called Great Firewall of China blocks access to many foreign internet services and the state controls what information people can access online. For instance, every year before the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the state intensifies digital censorship.
Three decades ago, the government sent troops to fire on students, activists and other people demonstrating against the Communist Party. International observers claimed thousands of protesters were killed, compared to some 300 reported by the Chinese government.
One survey from 2014 shows that only 15 out of 100 students from the prestigious Beijing universities recognized the iconic "tank man" photo. Even among those who did recognize, some insisted he was an escaped mental patient.
Politicians and regimes aside, in the hands of the masses, social media is a form of entertainment, a mistaken cure for loneliness and a regressive version of “journalism”. Everyone is a journalist these days, which makes social media the ultimate tool of disinformation, spreading ignorance faster than a bush fire.
In the 1990s, media was a crucial tool in the ex-Yugoslavian republics and Rwanda armed conflicts. Even then, without the aid of social media, there were quite a few instances in which the media could have provoked war crimes. Quite a few journalists were tried and sentenced for eliciting war crimes.
Today, anyone with a phone and internet can be “citizen-journalist” bearing no responsibility and suffering no consequences.
That makes you--the average Joe--the most dangerous thing in the digital world, even if Trump and Putin top Wired magazine’s list, followed by Xi Jinping, Mark Zuckerberg, Julian Assange, ISIS, Peter Theil, and others.
By Michael Kern for Safehaven.com
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