Toy Drones and Twitter: The Ability of Individuals to Wreak Large-Scale Havoc


Jun 18, 2018

A drone flies over the ocean at dawn

Photo by georgealmanza/Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on June 17, 2018.

In late April, a toy drone buzzed past the palace of the king of Saudi Arabia, leading Saudi security forces to shoot it down. Online, a story spread quickly across the internet that the Saudi royal palace was under siege and a full-fledged coup was in progress. Given the recent crackdown and imprisonment of wealthy and influential Saudis engineered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the news was believable—at least initially. But in the end, just like the commercial drone, the story of the coup plot was also shot down, proved to be false and just another piece of the ubiquitous disinformation flotsam populating the World Wide Web.

Throughout history, certain individuals have played an outsized role in geopolitics and world affairs. Today, super-empowered actors have access to technologies that magnify their ability to wreak havoc. This trend will likely be further exacerbated by subsequent technological developments, with the ability of individuals and small groups to cause wide-scale disruptions to society—through cyberattacks or the use of drones coupled with a dedicated misinformation campaign—growing even more acute in the future. Moreover, individuals and small groups can easily be used by nefarious state sponsors as proxy actors in ongoing conflicts.

An individual, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, was responsible for assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1914. The assassination triggered a series of events that led to the First World War. Decades later, a Pakistani nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer (A.Q.) Khan, built a network in the 1990s that smuggled technology and nuclear know-how to rogue regimes in Iran, North Korea and Libya, drastically complicating the global security landscape.

Other individuals who have had a significant impact on national security include the lone-wolf terrorist Theodore Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber; and Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor responsible for copying and leaking vast troves of classified information, impacting security procedures for how the United States government handles classified information.

Individuals and small groups have the potential to use an array of new and emerging technologies, including drones, virtual currencies, encrypted communications and artificial intelligence (AI). Additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, has already been used by individuals to print workable firearms. Given that, there is a steady drumbeat of warranted concern over the potential use of specific technologies by nonstate actors. But it is not simply the use of technologies in isolation that presents the most significant challenge going forward, but rather the combination of these technologies—as evidenced in the Saudi scenario, where a drone was used in conjunction with a deliberate disinformation campaign perpetrated through social media…

The remainder of this commentary is available at

Colin P. Clarke is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a non-resident senior fellow in the program on national security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI).

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