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