“Have I done the world good, or have I added a menace?”
– Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio
When the rules of war change, it is often said that it takes military and political leaders until the next major war to adjust to the new paradigm set forth in the previous conflict. The tools of war are often so novel when they make their debut on the world stage that few can possibly conceive of their battlefield potency. Oftentimes, these tools are not even conceived with military implications, but savvy individuals quickly see their potential in such a role. The weaponization of the radio, a machine conceived with peaceful intentions but later given a deadly purpose in military communications, shows how this can happen. As indicated above, inventors can even recognize this in their own time.
Three decades ago this year, when the internet arrived on the geopolitical scene, it was but a blip on the radar of most governments, corporations, and organizations. It would take about two decades for leaders in the halls of military and political power in the world’s strongest nations to realize this bold new technology’s potential as an asset in fighting a war. It would take longer still for some of them to master it, and in many cases, their enemies would beat them to the task.
It is this realization that Emerson Brooking and P. W. Singer demonstrate in their frontier work, Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media, released in late 2018. While they began writing their book before the earth-shattering Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, the authors nonetheless use that seminal event in addition to other recent patterns of large-scale internet malice to drive home LikeWar’s key message: far from solely making the world of organized social interaction and political behavior manifestly better, the internet has also raised serious challenges to democracy and governance. At a minimum, these challenges complicate the internet’s purported benefits, if not undermine them entirely.
Brooking and Singer, both defense experts who focus on national security strategy, implicitly claim with their book’s title that LikeWar will be a book primarily concerned with warfare and its interaction with the online phenomenon that became known in the late 2000s as “social media.” But that is frankly a misnomer; LikeWar is, in fact, more broadly about the transformative power of the internet as a whole and its role in changing the conduct of war only features prominently in certain sections of the later part of the book. In these sections, it is the mid-2010’s global military campaign against the so-called Islamic State which provides the touchstone for Brooking and Singer to make many of their most convincing arguments about social media’s uses in new-age warfare.
The authors have admitted in interviews that they began the project that became LikeWar after observing how effectively both Israel and Hamas harnessed Twitter to influence public opinion towards supporting their respective causes in their 2012 war against one another. Brooking and Singer then began noting the Islamic State’s uncanny skill in using that same social media platform to not only capture attention and support for its Middle Eastern conquests in the spring and summer of 2014, but persuade many online onlookers to engage with, and even join the group. The authors masterfully demonstrate how online recruits from Western countries, many of whom were in their teens and twenties, were convinced online by middle-aged jihadists in Iraq and Syria to move there and join the Islamic State. These young new tech-savvy religious warriors appropriated Twitter hashtags, created memes, and employed the type of user-engagement techniques of online fandoms which would be recognizable to Taylor Swift’s social media followers. All of this was in service of creating an online illusion of the popularity of, and eminent battlefield victory by, the Islamic State. Hitherto, few had thought so creatively of how to use Twitter, Facebook, or Youtube for military ends. Truly, these young jihadists had mastered a nascent technology, warping it into a powerful weapon of war, much like the radio had been during the Second World War.
But just as the internet transformed warfare, so too did it transform political campaigns, states’ monitoring of their citizens, and even gang violence and drug crime. Chapter by chapter, Brooking and Singer veer from their original focus of the deployment of Twitter on Middle Eastern battlefields, and gradually expand their focus to other types of problems that have emerged as themes in the internet era, like disinformation, online echo chambers, and the digital surveillance by repressive states.
The first substantive chapter (2: Every Wire a Nerve: How the Internet Changed the World) focuses on the birth of the internet, recounting how smaller experimental networks of linked computer mainframes on university campuses (ARPANET) acted as pilot programs for what would become the World Wide Web. The internet went live in 1989, and spread like wildfire in the United States and eventually the rest of the world, with online commerce blossoming in the late 1990s. This chapter discusses the 1994 uprising of Mexico’s Zapatistas, regarded as being the first militant group to utilize the web to communicate. It also covers the birth of online search engines in the late ‘90s (like Google) and the rise of social media platforms in the mid-2000s (like Facebook).
The next few chapters of the book (3 and 4) draw out how readily accessible almost all the information in the world is thanks to the internet, and how that availability can undercut the secrecy of any individual or organization. This “end of secrecy” can either work for good or ill. On the positive side, activists can now use open source information like satellite map software to discover the culprits of war crimes, such as the 2014 downing of Malaysin Airlines Flight 17. On the other hand, the same available information can be used by terrorist organizations to commit mass violence. The authors demonstrate this later facet by recounting the 2008 Mumbai bombings by Al-Qaeda agents who monitored citywide social media chatter in real-time as they attacked in order to find out what parts of the Indian metropolis to target next.
Of course, the availability of information can certainly also be weaponized by authoritarian states like China to repress citizens, which is exactly the opposite of the democratizing effect that early scholars of the internet thought it would have. Chapter 4 (The Empires Strike Back: Censorship, Disinformation, and the Burial of Truth) highlights this, and discusses the case of China, where the Communist Party there has recently implemented a so-called “Social Credit” system. This ambitious project is intended to assign every Chinese citizen a numerical score that is based on internet-use, allowing for rewards or punishments based on how high or low one’s score is, respectively. High scores arise when a citizen uses the internet to do something that the Chinese state views as productive, such as buying diapers, which indicate that a citizen is a responsible parent. Bad scores are meted out upon individuals who for example visit message boards that are critical of China or its Party, indicating that those individuals are “troublemakers.”
Chapter 5 (The Unreality Machine: The Business of Veracity vs. Virality) covers a topic that has recently come to consume the news media of much of the world: disinformation, or “fake news” in common parlance. The rise of fake computer-program run social media accounts (“bots”), or real accounts operated by human workers paid by state governments to spew out pro-regime propaganda (“sockpuppets”) feature prominently in this chapter. So does the so-called “echo-chamber” effect, wherein internet users select which sites they choose to get their information, only listening to sites that affirm their worldviews, and shutting out opposing viewpoints. This increasingly commonplace practice makes one all the more susceptible to disinformation and political polarization.
Finally, the book concludes by discussing the role that private companies, particularly social media corporations have in controlling the strange and oftentimes frightening new world we live in that is the internet. Brooking and Singer posit what responsibilities those companies should play and how much oversight they should provide in their own domains. The role of governments in responding to the challenge of weaponized social media is also central to the chapter.
In the last chapter, the authors offer some suggestions that governments, social media corporations, and private individuals can undertake to combat the many growing problems that LikeWar identifies. Governments are encouraged to take the growing threats like disinformation seriously, companies like Facebook and Twitter are encouraged to do more to combat hate speech on their platforms, and everyday internet users are advised to be more astute about what they click on.
One of the strongest elements of Brooking and Singer’s writing style is how their narrative is flush with the use of primary sources, including a plethora of intriguing anecdotes and deeply revealing quotes. This might be expected from a book that tasks itself with documenting the rise of such an incredibly recent global phenomenon like the internet: many of the World Wide Web’s original creators and those who theorized about its potential uses during its infancy were alive during the book’s drafting, and plenty are still with us in 2019. Moreover, the internet itself now acts as an effective mechanism for historical preservation which scholars can call upon to access thousands of terabytes of data in primary and secondary sources that can be used to support their academic claims. One might then expect that constructing a narrative argument about the internet using the power of the internet would be a simple task, but Brooking and Singer do not just pick any random examples of the concepts that they identify. Instead, the pair always go for either the original case of a phenomenon presenting itself, or the case that most cohesively illustrates it.
For instance, in Chapter 3 (The Truth Is Out There: Social Media and the End of Secrets), the authors posit that the internet in general, but specifically media streaming sites like YouTube, have created a political atmosphere where candidates for elected office, or even unelected bureaucrats, are permanently under scrutiny for their comments and actions, even those that are not necessarily recent. A politician, diplomat, judge, etc. can and will be held accountable for any comments or actions that are made in confidence or otherwise, so long as someone somewhere captured a photo, video, or audio recording of them. To illustrate the point, one might think to turn to that now-infamous case of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney at an event for his campaign for the US presidency in 2012. There, Romney was caught on video saying off-color remarks about a large swath of the American electorate who he didn’t believe would vote for him. The video was widely circulated on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and online message boards, dooming Romney’s campaign.
Instead, Brooking and Singer go back even further to a 2006 senatorial campaign of Virginia’s George Allen, who was caught in the same candid manner greeting an observer of one his campaign rallies with a racial slur. A YouTube video of Senator Allen circulated like wildfire, ultimately tanking what would have otherwise likely been a successful re-election bid. While the Romney incident is likely more remembered than the now obscure Allen moment, the authors use the latter because of how much value it contains as the first of its kind. This anecdote was the first major incident in which an American politician was brought low by an internet that provides access to practically any and all information on that politician to those sleuths who are willing to dig deep enough for it. No one at the time had seen something quite like it happen, and Allen himself could hardly fathom what had happened to him.
In discussing this, or how other web-produced phenomena like “bots” or “sockpuppets” were born in real-time, and what drew -say- young Eastern European teens to start operating them (making money and attracting girls, it turns out), Brooking and Singer masterfully accomplish an essential role of good historians: putting their readers in the shoes of those individuals who lived through these experiences, and making how it felt experiencing them relatable to the readers.
LikeWar, like any terrain-shifting work, is not without its faults. For example, while the authors posit several strong arguments, each of them deserving of their own book, there is no strong transition or connection between each of them, other than the vague overarching narrative of “sociopolitical challenges the internet has created.” They bounce-around from the creation of the internet, to state censorship of it in authoritarian regimes like China, to the spread of disinformation, to the ethics of the control of social media platforms by private for-profit corporations. This has the effect of leaving readers with a fair amount of topical whiplash.
Another possible shortcoming of the book is that the scope of its recommendations may be too narrow. While the authors offer a good number of suggestions for how to grapple with internet challenges like disinformation, most are vague and well-trodden. It would be interesting to see the authors take up novel recommendations that enjoy popular currency, and debate their merits. For instance, the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary in the United States has seen the suggestion of breaking up social media companies thrown around quite a bit. While positions like this, espoused by politicians like Elizabeth Warren, are radical in nature, they deserve to be considered by academics as astute at Brooking and Singer.
While it is not exactly what it claims to be – purely an analysis of the weaponization of social media – LikeWar is nonetheless a compelling look into the ways that the internet has changed how that civilization conducts itself politically, socially, and militarily. We now live in a world where over half of the planet’s population were born and raised in a time when the internet already existed. Millennials and Generation Z are now beginning to take their place in the global workforce and this means that very soon, a majority of people in jobs across the world will have been raised internet-literate, as opposed to having to learn on the job. For these and future generations, the observations set forth by Brooking and Singer will only grow in their pertinence.
Grayson Lewis is a Masters of Arts candidate in the Democracy and Governance Program, graduating in December. He has researched and written about disinformation in an academic and professional capacity. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Singer, Peter Warren, and Emerson T. Brooking. LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media. Eamon Dolan Books, 2018.
Robinson, Andrew. “Marconi forged today’s interconnected world of communication,” NewScientist. Aug. 10, 2016.
Carlin, Dan. “Blueprint for Armageddon, Hardcore History Podcast. Oct. 30, 2013.
Kelly, Makena. “Most Democrats refuse to back Elizabeth Warren’s big tech break up plan on the debate stage,” TheVerge. Oct 15, 2019.