LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media
Eamon Dolan / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018, 416 pp., $28
The word surreal appears so many times in LikeWar that I lost count, but each time its use was appropriate; indeed, it would have been relevant myriad other times. How not? The book’s subject is social media, and how those media have been transformed into vehicles manipulated by loathsome villains to brainwash the unsuspecting and wreak chaos, hatred, and even violence. (Social media are sometimes used for decent ventures by decent people). LikeWar is scrupulously researched, deftly written—surprising in a dual-authorship book—and well worth reading. Its depiction of a world being driven crazy, or worse, by a unique new communications instrument constitutes a ghastly dystopian vision.
Despite the word weaponization in LikeWar’s subtitle, P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking spend little time on specific military uses of the internet.1 But social media campaigns that augment military operations have their place in the book, as do the extraordinary range of activities initiated to undermine democracies, strengthen dictatorships, demonize numerous ethnic minorities, and pamper Taylor Swift’s fans (the book has its lighter moments). The latter notwithstanding, the sheer nihilistic rage detailed in LikeWar sometimes has a numbing effect. But the authors aren’t exploiting the “cruel surreal spectacle[s]” that they examine, to borrow their own description of the online extravaganza that accompanied the Islamic State’s 2014 war in Iraq. They’re on the side of the angels; they want the internet cleaned up.
To give the Devil his due, the vile individuals, cabals and governments presented in this book seem much more creative at utilizing social media than the good guys (who usually appear to be playing catch-up). “Half of the world’s population is online,” the authors assert, and most of us, the book suggests implicitly, are vulnerable to heinous cyber-machinations. The malicious tactics can take a multitude of forms, which the book explores at length.
The Islamic State’s invasion of northern Iraq in 2014, for instance, was accompanied by “a choreographed social media campaign to promote it.” The goal of the cyber project was to “sow terror, disunion, and defection,” and not just in Iraq. One might wonder if the invaders—religious fanatics dedicated to their cause—would have succeeded even without the cyber exercises against less-than-competent Iraqi troops. But that question is almost incidental: Because those ruthless zealots carved out a “caliphate” (including the city of Mosul), terrified a lot of Americans by expertly staging executions on the internet, enlisted 30,000 new recruits, and prompted “lone wolf” terrorism throughout the world, the Islamic State’s online crusade became a role model for the dregs of humanity everywhere—and some of those dregs wielded real power.
China didn’t need any inspiration. Under President Xi Jinping the country gives new meaning to the Cold War term brainwashing. “Through the right balance of infrastructure control and enforcement, digital-age regimes exert remarkable control over not just computer networks and human bodies, but the minds of their citizens as well,” the authors write. “No nation has pursued this goal more vigorously—or successfully—than China.” The Chinese government, ruled by the all-powerful Communist Party, ensures that “[a]lthough Chinese internet users [can] build their own websites and freely communicate with other users inside China, only a few closely scrutinized strands of cable [connect] them to the wider world.” The modern equivalent of the nation’s Great Wall is the “Great Firewall.” But Xi and his colleagues haven’t stopped there:
Chinese authorities also sought to control information within the nation. In 1998, China formally launched its Golden Shield project, a feat of digital engineering on a par with…the Three Gorges Dam. The intent was to transform the internet into the largest surveillance network in history—a database with records of every citizen, an army of censors and internet police, and automated systems to track and control every piece of information transmitted over the web. The project cost billions of dollars and employed tens of thousands of workers. Its development continues to this day.
Such passages make the surveillance state of 1984 seem quaint by comparison.
Countries and religious movements aren’t the only entities that employ the internet for sinister purposes. There are cyberpunks of all kinds and allegiances, whose goals may include influencing elections, menacing perceived enemies, promoting bigotry, raising hell for the sheer sadistic joy of it—or all of the above. The authors maintain that social media “[have] revolutionized white nationalist, white supremacist, and neo-Nazi groups, spiking their membership and allowing their views to move back into mainstream discourse. In the United States, the number of Twitter followers of such groups ballooned 600 percent between 2012 and 2016.” LikeWar devotes several pages to the metamorphosis of a cartoon character, the hapless Pepe the Frog, into a meme (defined as “the vessels by which culture is transmitted—and a crucial instrument by which LikeWar is fought”) and a right-wing symbol. It’s an outlandish story, ludicrous in a way, but in another way disquieting for what it says about the brio and cunning with which contemporary fascists successfully orchestrate virtually anything to needle (or worse) their foes. Poor Pepe; poor us.
Fascist ideology—I use the term loosely—essentially comes down to a reveling in the ecstasy of violence. But fascists aren’t the only ones who are buzzed by mayhem. Presenting the cyberbully. The book recounts a dreadful story from 2006 in which a 13-year-old girl was driven to suicide by a malicious sockpuppet account (an phony online persona) controlled by the mother of an ex-friend. The circumstances induced major social media companies, including Twitter, Google, and Facebook, to “[ban] personal threats or intimidation, soon expanding to include a more general ban on harassment. . . . These rules seemed simple. They’d prove to be anything but.” That is, of course, inevitable when First Amendment issues are addressed in this country. Lawyers and pundits have historically been highly adept at parsing censorship regulations in order to neutralize or at least weaken them. The giant online media companies, which like most of us are both supportive of free speech and appalled by cyberbullying—and, of course, interested in chasing profits—find themselves constantly entangled in excruciating legal, political, philosophical, and, yes, literary dilemmas concerning how to police their domains. (“Each new rule required more precise, often absurd clarification.”) In LikeWar, anecdotal evidence suggests that these quandaries will continue for a very long time.
At the beginning of LikeWar, the authors claim that “this is not a book about the Trump presidency.” But inevitably our pernicious President pervades the book like acid corroding metal. During his presidential campaign, “he was a literal [online] superpower. He had by far the most social media followers. […] He deployed this network to scale, pushing out the most messages, on the most platforms, to the most people. Importantly, Trump’s larger follower pool was made up of not just real-world voters but . . . a cavalcade of bots and sockpuppet accounts from around the world that amplified his every message and consequently expanded his base of support.” Trump’s “crucial, deciding force was a new group: a cohort of mostly tech-savvy angry, young, white men who inhabited the deepest bowels of internet culture.”
Why did these anomic Caucasians love Trump? Alienation from the economy and culture are mentioned. “But most of all,” the authors say, “they liked Trump because in the fast-talking, foulmouthed, combative billionaire, they saw someone just like them—a troll.” The trolls whom Singer and Brooking describe—defined as “internet users who post messages that are less about sharing information than spreading anger” and whose “specific goal is to provoke a furious response”—sound like the thugs in A Clockwork Orange given new toys to play with. We’ve come a long way since we at least paid lip service to bestowing political allegiance based on rational considerations, civilized decorum, and what’s best for the country.
Even more disturbing is LikeWar’s inspection of the Kremlin’s internet interventions in the 2016 presidential campaign. The authors survey the mind-boggling sockpuppet campaign created by the Russians to interfere in the 2016 election. Russian-controlled sockpuppets used three techniques: “One is to pose as the organizer of a trusted group. . . . The second . . . is to pose as a trusted news source. . . . Finally, sockpuppets pose as seemingly trustworthy individuals: a grandmother, a blue-collar worker, a decorated veteran, providing their own heartfelt take on current events (and who to vote for).”
Did the unscrupulous incursion work? It certainly disseminated its reports to an extraordinary number of people: “By cleverly leveraging readers’ trust, these engineers of disinformation induced thousands—sometimes millions—of people each day to take their messages seriously and spread them across their own networks via ‘shares’ and retweets.” Followers of the mainstream media are familiar by now with the Russian conspiracy on behalf of Trump, but LikeWar tweaks even those generally trustworthy media by pointing out that they were also successfully breached by Putin’s dirty-tricks agents. However, the most unnerving aspect of this Russian cyber-warfare, as it is presented in this book, is the intimation that the shenanigans were influential.
P. W. Singer is a strategist at the New America Foundation, consults with the military, and is the author of a number of previous books, including the well-regarded Wired for War, a study of the modern intersection of technology and the military. Emerson T. Brooking was a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and has written for The Atlantic and Foreign Policy. These gentlemen have all the right professional credentials for writing LikeWar and, unusually for public intellectuals, they are neither cynics nor advocates for a particular political cause. Despite their bona fides, though, there is reason to question certain suggestions they make for countering the web’s dark forces. “We’re all part of the battle,” the authors declare, and offer advice for how enlightened folks can restore civility and sanity to the internet, and thus to our society. Some of their counsel: governments must “take this new battleground seriously”; “information literacy is no longer merely an education issue but a national security imperative”; “When someone engages in the spread of lies, hate, and other societal poisons, they [sic] should be stigmatized accordingly.” “Silicon Valley must accept more of the political and social responsibility that the success of its technology has thrust upon it.” There’s more, but I believe readers should discover it.
The guidance appears sound enough, but is it viable? Can any course of action, any reform however shrewd and wise, decontaminate cyberspace? I fear that the answer is no. As I see it, Singer and Brooking have succeeded too well in carrying out their muckraking, in delineating a grotesque, savage cyber world that taints nearly everyone. The (almost certainly unintended) subtext of their reporting is that there is no longer any boundary between the internet and the “outside” world. Nearly all of us are sockpuppet memes, characters in a perverse, garish electronic landscape—the ultimate video game, perhaps—craving the exhilaration of hazing and razing our enemies. The authors’ thoughtful correctives won’t be implemented, and wouldn’t work anyway. Too many people are turned on by this funky nightmare.
1 For an excellent account of this topic, see Fred Kaplan’s 2016 Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War (Simon & Schuster, 2016).