There are 2.2 billion Facebook users and 974 million Twitter accounts. In the spirit of transparency, I am on both these social media sites. But my comments today are not about who is on Facebook and Twitter, rather I want to go back to the 1950’s and 1960’s and remind people about U.S.-Russian relations and patriotic fears about threats to our national security and national reputation.
When the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957 it was the first artificial Earth satellite. A few months later Sputnik 2 was launched with a living animal, a dog named Laika, who died a few hours after launch. It was not until early in 1958 that the United States launched Explorer 1, this country’s first satellite.
The launching of the two Sputniks not only embarrassed the United States but initiated a frantic effort to catch up to the Soviets in the space race and win back its reputation as the world’s leader in science and technology. Schools from elementary through college stressed the value of science and math and urged young people to become interested in space. Generous National Science Foundation grants were offered to budding scientists to attend graduate school and create a “technical army” to challenge the Soviets. And the Kennedy administration pledged to win the space race and eventually place a man on the moon.
But the most important result of Sputnik is that it awakened a realization that this country was threatened by the Soviets and patriotic Americans needed to take steps to win the space race and overcome the Russian threat to our economic, educational and governmental system. Space became a national security issue and Americans climbed on board to take on the Russians and beat them at their own game.
Today this country is again threatened by the Russians only now with cyber security “Sputniks”, well planned and executed activities to hack our electoral system, divide our nation with fake news, and weaken our democratic institutions and democracy itself. But like our naive attitude toward space science and technology during the 1950’s, today our social media companies like Facebook and Twitter were easily duped into being party to this attack on our country.
What is most disturbing is that the patriotic spirit that filled this country after Sputnik is sadly missing from not just the social media giants but too many leaders in our government. Those who head the social media companies and indeed many who work for those companies seem more interested in increasing their bottom line, piling up stock options, buying fancy cars and living the good life.
Far too many of our best computer minds are in the start-up mode as they develop new social media sites, useless apps, and silly games. Of course all this energy is about making a quick buck and becoming an instant millionaire. Few of these bright minds are going into cyber security, government intelligence agencies or the military; there just isn’t enough money to be made in national security and patriotic employment that protects our democracy.
What this country is experiencing is a social media divorced from real world threats and hostile governments bent on weakening our country. It’s not how many friends you have on Facebook or retweets on Twitter but how we are responding to our enemies who are working overtime to play upon our obsession with social media in ways that divide us.
Hacking our elections by the Russians is the new version of Sputnik – science and technology designed to embarrass the United States, show up our weaknesses and threaten our democracy. Just like in the post-Sputnik era what we need in this country is a patriotic push to challenge and quickly defeat the Russian threat.