LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media
© 2018 P.W. Singer & Emerson T. Brooking
412 pages

The digital world is not simply one in which people can tweet restaurant reviews from the very table at which they’re ignoring their dinner date.  It is a world which has made the border between peace and war practically nonexistent, and allowed virality to become the shaper of reality.  LikeWar introduces us to urban gangs who war not over territory, but their online reps — to states quickly creating different ways of manipulate both their and others’ populaces, and to modern celebrities who have built colossal followings and become world leaders on nothing but theater.  The image created here is frightening, a proposed future where unreality is king.  That’s not to say we’re abandoned to despair, because the social media platforms themselves are facing increasing pressure to police  the activity they effectively promote, and in the last year have in fact began banning various personalities. That in itself is potentially problematic, carrying a strong odor of partisanship,  and is only the first move in what will presumably be a very long cat and mouse game.

Singer and Brooking begin with a quick history of the internet and of the predominant platforms, chiefly  Google, Facebook, and Twitter.  This is not simply background, because these three dominate social media,  and their success at becoming the primary carriers means the platforms are easy to weaponize; once something ignites there, it can take over.  The algorithms that push rising content accelerate  it all the more, as does negative attention when people comment their boos and hisses.  Politicians, recognizing the power of virality, are following its siren call to become ever more extreme and nonsensical. Other algorithims, helpfully promoting related content to what users are already viewing,  can be used to railroad users into viewing ever more extreme content  — unless they themselves backtrack. In a such  a way vapid morons become millionaires, and ISIS turns Google into its brand promoter.

If  promoting hate and ignorance were not bad enough,   the railroading takes users deep into a filter bubble,  with the effect that people are now beginning to live in different realities from one another.  There is so much content out there that people can experience an apparent variety of thought which is  in actuality fairly constrained compared to what’s outside the bubble.  It is incredibly easy for people to listen to perspectives from their own side, appreciate their apparent rationality, and scratch their heads in wonder that other people don’t see this.  But the divergent realities can also be a tool of those who wish to manipulate us; famously, in 2016,  the State of Russia promoted fractiousness within the US by employing social media warriors to create divisive content from different ideologies; others pushed the same content forward by commenting and promoting it.  These were not small scale maneuvers, either; some  were quoted and retweeted by prominent personalities, and would be shared over a hundred million times before they were caught and deleted.  Even worse, some states like that of China’s are starting to use people’s social media against them directly, by turning it into the basis of “social credit rating” that will help or hinder them in society based on how faithful to the Party they are. 

This is a daunting book, but one those living in the 21st century need to read — not only so they can understand what they’re seeing in society, to appreciate why things have developed they way they have, but so readers can evalute ourselves. No one is immune from this; we all go for narrative, we all follow familiar scents and find our internet bubbles cozy.  No one can keep us off the railroad but ourselves. Actively disengaging,  actively scrutinizing what we see, and actively pursuing other tracks are our only hope for not becoming part of the problem.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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10 Responses to LikeWar

  1. mudpuddle says:

    wow… i'm no millionaire, or even a thousandaire, but the “vapid moron” is i when it comes to this stuff… the trouble is, i don't expect to live a whole lot longer, so it's difficult to take it all seriously, although serious is what it is, i gather…

  2. Brian Joseph says:

    This book sounds like it would be of great interest to me. I have kind of followed these issues for a while. I have payed more attention to Twitter then other platforms. Another book thaf covers somewhat similar themes is Russel Blackford’s Tyranny of Opinion. I think that it focuses upon internet mobbing and shaming. People’s lives and careers have been destroyed as a result of such things.

  3. Stephen says:

    Certainly wouldn't call you vapid or moronic!

  4. CyberKitten says:

    It's interesting (as always) to see us reading books on the same topics – in this case IT & Genetics – yet regularly reading different books about them! I find it both intriguing & amusing in equal part.

  5. Stephen says:

    Thanks for that reference, Brian — Blackford sounds REALLY interesting.

  6. Stephen says:

    Perhaps it's a good thing — doubles the amt of books we see on interesting subjects!

  7. CyberKitten says:

    Oh, it IS a good thing! I get to see books that I missed (and get your review of them) and you do likewise – just at a slower pace. I do wonder why it is though… Something cultural? Personal history? Political beliefs….?

  8. James says:

    This sounds like a timely book that I should consider. The growing war against free speech on the internet is ominous.

  9. Stephen says:

    My books come chiefly from Amazon reccommendations, with a little in-store bookstore browsing as a wildcard. Books sometimes lead me to other books. But most of it, I think, is based on Amazon results or recommendations, which are themselves driven by my past browsing. So it's possible that the books I tend to see advertised are completely different from yours. Do you mostly find books through one avenue?

  10. CyberKitten says:

    I'm always on the look out for new books so I pick them up from Blogs like yours and Sarah's, Amazon recommendations, Google cover searches for my Blog, what I see people reading, browsing in book shops… Everywhere really.

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