We often forget that the Internet is not as wireless as it seems. Most online data still flow through physical fiber-optic cables laid out across several hundred thousand miles of ocean floor. If a shark were to bite through a cable (which has happened before), some or all of the Internet could come to a standstill.
These days, however, observers spend less time worrying about underwater fauna than about Russia’s submarines, which have been taking a special interest in ocean-bed cables in recent years. Since 2017, Russian submarines in the North Atlantic have reportedly been unusually active in the vicinity of undersea fiber-optic cables that carry most European and U.S. Internet traffic. It remains unclear what exactly Russia is planning or doing. The Russian activity may indicate an attempt to surveil the Pentagon’s secret cable network or plans to tamper with certain connections. But the reports also fit in with Russia’s global push to shape political outcomes and public opinion through the Internet, whether through Russian-funded news websites or social media meddling.
Russian submarines snooping on undersea cables may seem unique to today’s interconnected world. Yet states have long competed to shape global information flows and control the infrastructure that enables them. U.S. submarines started to tap undersea cables decades ago. One submarine, the USS Jimmy Carter, was altered specifically for that task. Indeed, information warfare has been a feature of the international system for at least a century. Competition has simply shifted from the submarine copper wires and global news agencies of the late nineteenth century to the fiber-optic cables and social media of today. The crucial question, then, is not whether information warfare happens but when and why states engage in it.
One of the best examples of a state seeking to influence global politics by reshaping the information landscape is Germany’s decades-long push to control world communications in the first half of the twentieth century, a campaign that I explore in my
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