Social Media as War?


P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).

Along with August Cole, Peter Singer wrote one of the best books about how technology is changing warfare. Ghost Fleet was a delicious thriller that caused greater alarm about the American military losing its edge over China than any non-literary warning could have (why, why hasn’t it yet been made into a movie?). Along with Emerson T. Brooking, Singer has now turned his attention to the immediate crisis at hand: the weaponization of social media.

Although the book is titled Like War, it isn’t so much about warfare as about how social media is affecting society broadly: how we consume information, why social media is so addictive, how it has been capitalized on by social movements, celebrities, politicians, terrorists, and states. It’s worth reading for the history of the Internet alone, which bounces along as vignettes about individuals that personalize the story (they clearly apply the elements of effective social media they identify: narrative, emotion, authenticity, community, and inundation).

And there’s so much interesting they offer: Who knew that the Congress only funded the telegraph by six votes cast over spending the money on hypnotism, or that one-fifth of runners in the Mexico City marathon cheated, that the first political campaign to feature bots was Scott Brown’s Massachusetts senate race, or that the Israeli Defense Forces pace their strikes by Twitter commentary!

But Brooking and Singer make an outsized claim that social media has changed the dynamics of conflict, the interplay of nations, and the entire global system. They argue that the Internet “changed history forever,” “war and politics have never been so intertwined,” that “winning these online battles doesn’t just win the web, but wins the world,” and that social media has “decisively reshaped the modern world.” The book is a valuable primer on where social media came from and how its currently being used. It also has some useful suggestions for taming its effects. But Like War doesn’t come anywhere near proving its outsized claims

Singer and Brooking are great guides to technology and alert to the challenges of translating techno-speak into accessible language and comparisons. They name check all the lexicon, so readers become familiar with crowdsourcing, presentism, throttling, web bridges, digital wildfires, emotional contagion, netwar, flame wars, hactivists, engineering-first mentality, content moderators, and neural networks.

The writing barrels along and uses imaginative images, like comparing the Islamic State’s metastasization to “a demonic McDonald’s” opening franchises. I loved the visual description that the group’s social media “took on the power of an invisible artillery bombardment, its thousands of messages spiraling out in front of the advancing force.” Their literary references are elegant, quoting Marc Bloch’s description of the shocked collapse of French morale in 1940 from Strange Defeat.  I was pleased to see Marie von Clausewitz credited for her contributions to On War (and would have been even more so if they’d cited Vanya Eftimova Bellinger’s pathbreaking book on the topic). There was also some less admirable prose: “Taylor Swift’s Instagram comments fell with the power of precision air strikes,” or “a handful of tech CEOs stood at the controls of this reality-shaping machine — but they hadn’t been working those controls properly.”

Regardless, while Brooking and Singer do an excellent job of conveying the immediacy of social media — its speed, reach, and reinforcement of existing beliefs — they didn’t engage the issue of persistence. Do social media impressions durably frame beliefs? If they only reinforce existing prejudices, then what has changed? They discuss the effect of familiarity, but I would have liked to see them connect their exploration of technologies more fully to behavioral psychology, where these problems are already well understood. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahnemann alerts us to the danger of simple repetition that social media makes possible at scale: “a reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”  Maybe self-selection on information is what we should fear most about social media. But even there, it would have been interesting to have Brooking and Singer explore how social media is distinguishable in this regard from the fracturing of the general media landscape of television and talk radio, which also permits self-selection and reinforcement – or even the Internet before the rise of social media

Their examples show just how fast internet use has become ubiquitous — in 1994, television anchors couldn’t make sense of a web address. Their description of the Internet as “a globe-spanning community vaster and more diverse than anything before it, yet governed by a handful of Silicon Valley oligarchs,” is, funnily enough, an example of presentism. The developers of the Internet were scholars and civil servants. And if the algorithm lords of Silicon Valley are rich and willfully ignorant of the socio-political effects of their inventions, they are not beyond the reach of law and regulation. It just hasn’t caught up to them yet, in part because the rest of us haven’t been careful and informed enough to ensure it.

But the reckoning is coming. We’re still in the early stages of the revolution, mid-stream in understanding, which makes it extraordinarily hard to judge the magnitude of what we’re experiencing. But the dramatic increase in seriousness of questioning social media leaders were subjected to by Congress in the five short months between Mark Zuckerberg’s April testimony and his deputy Sheryl Sandberg’s in September shows that progress to understand and perhaps defang social media’s most dangerous effects is occurring. Journalists and prosecutors doing the forensics on Russian influence in the presidential election are likely to educate us all further.  Brooking and Singer have written an accessible primer that I hope will be widely read as our society thinks through how to capitalize on the advantages social media provides while curtailing some of its dangers.

In that regard, I was surprised the book did not address regulatory efforts already underway. It acknowledges “mounting legal and political pressure,” and urges that “companies must proactively consider the political, social, and moral ramifications of their services,” but curiously ignores those levers in its recommendations for taming social media. In particular, it makes no mention of the European Union’s data protection and privacy measures, the first big effort to contain U.S. social media. I’d have valued their explanation of how it works, judgment on whether it will, and the consequences. I’d also have liked more celebration of tools and policies that are pushing back against social media fiction; quite a number of free societies have education efforts underway. Brooking and Singer give us all so little credit for adaptability.  Surely humans who can build and use these marvels can also eventually figure out how to tame them.

The authors conclude with the insight that “the more confused and nonlinear war gets, the more participatory it becomes.” While it probably came too recent for inclusion, I’d also have enjoyed Brooking and Singer reflecting on the effect of moral peer pressure of the kind evinced by Google engineers refusing to work for the Pentagon (but so far agreeing to work for China). The morality of ‘no to targeting, but yes to repression,” is likely the just first step in the humanities education of these Masters of the Universe. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if the self-righteousness of Silicon Valley turns out to be our salvation from their inventions?

Singer and Brooking fall far short of proving that social media have either changed the fundamental nature of war or upended the entire global system. In fact, they offer the condemnatory evidence again their claim themselves, writing that “Carl von Clausewitz was born a couple of centuries before the internet, but he would have implicitly understood almost everything it is doing to conflict today.” If Clausewitz would recognize it, it hasn’t changed the nature of war. War remains an extension of politics. This book is a valuable guide to the innovative weapon of social media, but doesn’t clear the bar of proving we’re in a new kind of war.


Kori Schake is the Deputy Director-General of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. She teaches in War Studies at King’s College

Image: Darwin Bell/Flickr