| Leigh Giangreco |
WHEN lawmakers hauled Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to Capitol Hill for a hearing on privacy and abuse of data in April, the only clear theme to emerge from their line of bizarre questions was the Senate’s complete misunderstanding of social media. Instead of unravelling how Russian disinformation thrived on Facebook and influenced the 2016 election, Senator Orrin Hatch (Republican representative for Utah) wasted his given time asking basic questions about the platform’s business model, while Senator Brian Schatz (Democrats representative for Hawaii) took a misguided tour of the messaging app WhatsApp.
In a more innocent time, the gang of clueless senators would have made for an amusing montage on The Daily Show. But in the age of information warfare, it showed that our leaders had little grasp on the greatest existential threat to American democracy.
Had PW Singer and Emerson Brooking’s new book, LikeWar, come out just a few months earlier, those senators might have had a better grip on Facebook’s role as a weapon in today’s war. Packed with the past five years of news and a brief account of the birth of the Internet, LikeWar is a breezy read about modern warfare, with the authors flipping through tales of Russian bots, washed-up reality stars and Silicon Valley magnates like clips on your friend’s Instagram story.
That rapid succession of stories makes it a suitable textbook for today’s journalism or political science students looking to understand how the same apps they use to communicate with friends can be amassed as tools in a potent arsenal.
There are points where LikeWar is too married to that textbook format, as when it trots out a hackneyed description of the Kennedy-Nixon debate, or may try too hard to frame old mediums in a contemporary lens, calling Benjamin Franklin “the founding father of fake news in America” because he published under the pseudonym ‘Mrs Silence Dogood’ in the New-England Courant.
But it’s not the young, digital natives that need LikeWar the most. When Singer’s novel, Ghost Fleet, was published in 2015, Washington’s national security community gripped it as both a cautionary tale and a future battle plan. LikeWar, on the other hand, is not a warning about tomorrow’s war – it’s a map for those who don’t understand how the battlefield has already changed.
To ground their readers in familiarity, Emerson and Singer have framed the players in this new kind of war as kings overseeing burgeoning empires. But these monarchs, often clustered in Silicon Valley, could rule in peace only until a powder keg exploded.
LikeWar begins with United States (US) President Donald Trump’s first tweet in 2009, announcing, “Be sure to tune in and watch Donald Trump on Late Night with David Letterman as he presents the Top Ten List tonight!” But this is not (thank goodness) another book about the President. Instead, it revolves around an unholy trinity of those who have mastered the Internet as a weapon: Trump, the Islamic State (IS) extremist group and Russia.
At times that carousel of deplorables can become dizzying. The three turn up in a journal published by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in a piece written by a Trump campaign organiser that links their use of meme warfare and shows how they capitalise on viral content.
When Emerson and Singer note the 4Ds – “dismiss the critic, distort the facts, distract from the main issue, and dismay the audience” – it’s hard to tell if it’s a reference to Russia’s new defensive strategy or a wink to Trump’s bizarre dance with the media.
In some cases, the opposing parties even complement each other’s goals. When IS posts videos that link gruesome acts with scripture, the website Breitbart seizes on them to fan the flames of its far-right supporters. With each ‘like’, IS gets new recruits and Breitbart gets ad dollars.
Beyond recapping the news, LikeWar becomes a compelling read as Brookings and Singer give historical context to today’s news to demystify the Internet as a battlefield. The authors liken the stunning capture of Mosul, Iraq, which IS publicised far outside the Middle East by bombarding social media, to the unyielding tempo of the German blitzkrieg, which paralysed French fighters with a relentless broadcast of its attacks.
Today’s ‘sockpuppets’, young Russians who masquerade online as Americans, prove to be nothing more than hipster updates to Cold War tactics deployed by the Soviet Union that targeted the extremes of American politics. The contemporary Russian General Valery Gerasimov, who in 2013 published a treatise ranking nonmilitary means above traditional weapons, is, in the authors’ telling, just a fresh take on the early-19th-Century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. Just as Clausewitz established war as politics by other means, Gerasimov laid out a radical new approach to conflict by taking advantage of the Internet as the ultimate disinformation weapon.
But if Clausewitz crops up as a motif that grounds the book in staid military doctrine, references to pop stars and reality television celebrities keep the text out of the realm of the typical think tank fare. It may seem a cheap bid for younger readers at first, but the authors draw smart and eerie parallels between terrorist groups and seemingly vapid celebrities. Even Vladimir Putin’s longtime media adviser admires the social media savvy of Kim Kardashian, who can direct millions of her supporters without the KGB.
But the heart of LikeWar, and what would have assisted our hapless senators, lies in its explanation of homophily and its role in spreading falsehoods. Online news, true or false, is sustained by the number of people who ‘like’ it. Each successive ‘like’ contributes to an algorithm that generates similar content, guaranteeing an infinite echo chamber.
LikeWar isn’t waged by sophisticated hackers but by those who know how to master the narrative with viral memes, slick videos and clickbait headlines. And when the information war is won in this abstract cyberspace, all the metal in our grand fleets and advanced fighter jets will be rendered immaterial. – The Washington Post