July 24, 2019 —
LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media
By Peter W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018
416 pp. $28.00
Brett Swaney is a Research Analyst in the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.
There is a battlefield you cannot see, a digital ocean of social media, news feeds, botnets, sock puppets, neural nets, and trolls. In LikeWar, defense analysts Peter W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking examine the role of social media in reshaping the character of war and politics. The result is a thematic and insightful overview of the weaponization of social media and the power of narrative in conflict.
The authors frame the discussion by tracing the development of communications and information technologies through the telegraph, radio, television, the Internet, Web 2.0, and social media. At each phase, new communications technology subverts some powers and people while crowning new ones in their place. Each new evolution of information and communications technology has revolutionized tactics, strategy, and the discourse around war. This makes the utopian vision of the Internet and social media often espoused by Silicon Valley tycoons feel naïve in hindsight—a reckoning that is already well under way.
Social media was founded on the optimistic premise that the closer knit and communal world would be a better one. Yet that same openness and connection of social media platforms has also made these spaces the perfect place for continual and global conflict. The so-called Islamic State advanced on Mosul riding a wave of social media that broke the Iraqi defenders before they even arrived. A World of Warcraft gamer used geolocation and crowdsourced social media to reveal the truth behind the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, and Harry Potter character Albus Dumbledore used his army to foster community to combat violent extremists. These fascinating vignettes reinforce the reality that social media has empowered new actors and individuals in conflict with tremendous reach. Conflict is global, and we are all connected to the virtual battlefield, seamlessly able to participate in the narrative battlespace.
In modern wars, Singer and Brooking remind us, the online fight is for attention and influence; the ability to shape the narrative in and around conflict is just as important as the physical conflict. Rupert Smith in The Utility of Force (Knopf, 2007) and Lawrence Freedman in The Future of War (PublicAffairs, 2017) have noted the importance of narrative, and governments around the world have been busy adapting. The Israel Defense Forces have pioneered the development of specialized units and tactics dedicated to social media and the recruitment to man those units. Russia too has rapidly embraced the new battlespace with an army of social media “trolls,” a panoply of state media, and relentless botnets. China is also singled out for its disturbing model of social media–enabled, state-managed systems of mass control. Unfortunately, there is a noticeable lack of discussion regarding U.S. military efforts to grapple with social media in conflict, especially in the counterinsurgency space where there has been significant effort.
Where Singer and Brooking break new ground is in their observation that even as national militaries reorient themselves to fight global information conflicts, the domestic politics of nations have not remained in splendid isolation. Singer and Brooking suggest that the two spheres of war and politics have become more tightly linked. Just as states and conflict actors use the Internet to manipulate, so too do political candidates and activists. Online there is little difference between the tactics required to “win” either a violent conflict or a peaceful campaign. Singer and Brooking are not afraid to challenge the level of preparedness or even the seriousness with which the national security establishment, Congress, and social media companies take these issues. However, there is curiously little discussion regarding the implications of national governments attempting to combat “dangerous speech” in free societies, or the regulatory efforts concerning personal data already underway in many Western nations.
Nonetheless, social media is a seismic shift for military strategy. As Singer and Brooking point out, Carl von Clausewitz would have understood the nature of social media in conflict today. It fits entirely within his articulation of war as politics by other means. At the time, this continuum of conflict was revolutionary and flew in the face of those who believed that war and politics were separate worlds governed by distinct rules. Despite these solid philosophical underpinnings, Singer and Brooking fail to convince that social media has fundamentally changed the nature of war itself.
Smartly researched, engaging, and technically astute, LikeWar is a worthwhile primer on the new information battlespace for national security professionals. The authors argue convincingly that war and politics have never been more intertwined. With colorful and engaging prose, the authors implore us to treat this new virtual battleground with the gravity it deserves. JFQ