LikeWar: what’s not to like?

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

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

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

Was Feb 25

Peter Singer, like many successful people, is blessed with both talent and timing. The bulk of his bibliography reads like a crystal ball:

By these high standards of strategic prognostication, LikeWar is late to the party. Countless social media outrages and the tweet-fueled election of Donald Trump are well behind us. Even digitally illiterate legislators now know they need to at least seem concerned about the vast power of social media companies and their reluctant or rejected embrace of civic and moral responsibilities.

As in his two previous outings, Singer has a co-author, Emerson Brooking, who serves as his millennial Virgil on their journey through the online hellscape. Together, they trace the development of digital networks from the Defense Department’s ARPANET to Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room to the launch of the iPhone. They cover a wide range of topics that illustrate the power and perils of social media: citizen-journalists and hacktivists; the Arab Spring and color revolutions; the abuse of influence networks by autocrats, terrorists, and criminal gangs; the proliferation of algorithms, troll farms, and botnets to attract attention and sway opinion; the emerging reality of audio and video deep fakes; belated efforts to regulate corporate giants; and representative nuttiness like the anti-vaccination movement, Pizzagate, and the memetic life of Pepe the Frog.

As this list suggests, Singer and Brooking walk terrain familiar to people with an active interest in digital communication, or even those who have read a healthy sample of mainstream news coverage of social media excesses. The book seems to serve as an introduction to a group that seems imaginary but probably exists in numbers it’s best not to know: Washington decision-makers and national security professionals who have been surprised by the American public’s vulnerability to toxic lies and our inability to overcome foreign ideologues with firepower and free markets.

Communication professionals in government therefore won’t learn much from LikeWar, but they will need to know what their bosses and other influential newbies will get from it. First and most usefully, they will walk away with a clear sense of urgency. Singer and Brooking show the need to do more now about the weaponization of social media. (More on what to do later.) This call to action is placed in the context of the recent stabilization of the information environment around mobile internet technology and forms—a truth that’s often ignored in an effort to excuse inaction by blaming chaos.

LikeWar also provides its readers with language tailored for use in PowerPoint presentations and white papers. Does it seem too obvious to note that human nature plus algorithms gives you echo chambers of content that users like, to the exclusion of anything that challenges them? Call that homophily. Need to know how to win the war for attention? It all boils down to narrative, emotion, authenticity, community, and inundation. Need to know how autocrats seek to undermine the legitimacy of their adversaries? Enter the four D’s: dismiss, distort, distract, dismay. And so on.

All this is pretty solid if standard stuff, but Singer and Brooking’s recommendations are where things go bad by going broad. They sensibly advise that governments need “to take the new battleground seriously,” and point to the whole-of-government models developed by Baltic and Scandinavian countries that have long been a target of Russian information attacks.

But adopting that approach requires “a significant portion of the American political culture” to stop denying or in some cases colluding with “threats to its cohesion.” Even that first of Bill W.’s 12 steps may require that “information literacy” become not just an “education issue but a national security imperative.” Dangerous speech needs to be stigmatized, and Silicon Valley giants who facilitate dangerous speech need to accept more “political and social responsibility,” operating and adapting with more transparency.

In short, getting America to the level of sophistication Finland employs against weaponized social media entails politicians working against their short-term interests, revamping the American education system, re-interpreting the First Amendment, and achieving the voluntary or regulatory reform of the most powerful sector of the U.S. economy.

To some degree, all those tasks are necessary and long overdue. As a policy prescription for what well-meaning Washington swamp rats can do in the time we have before the next election or even the next major conflict, though, the book’s conclusion left me in the realm of that fourth D: dismay.

A century before the internet, the ideological battleground was the European coffeehouse. In one story from that era, a visitor warned the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister that war on the continent might lead to revolution in Russia. “And who will lead this revolution?” he asked, recalling a regular at Vienna’s grandest café. “Perhaps Mr. Bronstein?” Mr. Bronstein later took the name Leon Trotsky.

It may have helped the teetering superpower of the nineteenth century to have foreign ministers who were less smug, coffee drinkers who thought more critically about Marxism, or café owners who could figure out how to stay in business while turning away people who enjoyed their caffeine with a side order of revolutionary conspiracy.

If any of that was slow to happen, though, it may have helped just to know who the hell Mr. Bronstein was and what he was up to. And if what he was up to was encouraging the violent overthrow of a legitimate government among people in his social network, then either jail him or sanction him or get more people in the Café Central talking about how the strudel would never be the same without a monarchy.

Our nation of homophilists needs to heal itself. Until that happens, let’s put more effort, tools, and authorities into the hands of intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic and information warfare specialists confronting our adversaries now.