Understanding the Future of War: A Book Review of LikeWar – The Weaponization of Social Media

Author: Marine Ragnet, May 2020.

“During the course of the book, the authors detail the tactics likely to be most effective in the online battlefields of the future. The nature of social media reflects the classic “marketplace of ideas” where emotions are knowingly manipulated, amplified and distorted to socially condition populations across the world.”

Cover page of P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking’s LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media from https://www.likewarbook.com/.

In LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, Peter Singer and Emerson Brooking compellingly argue that the future of war will be fought on social media. Using the Clausewitzan[1] sense of war that understands it as a political act, one that follow the same continuum as “trade, diplomacy, and all the other interactions that take place between peoples and governments” (Singer and Brooking, 22), the authors emphasize the vital role of social media in the present and future of warfare strategies. Written over a period of five years, the book’s subject matter resonates with current events surfacing in both the United States and Europe. These events lead the authors to argue that, “political subversion has taken on elements of information warfare, while violent conflict is increasingly influenced by the tug-of-war for online opinions” (Singer and Brooking, 24).

Social media has proven to be an excellent tool for ensuring the “continuation of politics by other means” (Clausewitz, 87). In the current context, “the internet has become a battlefield (…) it is now equally indispensable to militaries and governments, authoritarians and activists, and spies and soldiers” (Singer and Brooking, 22). This analogy fits into a global context where the difference between “peacetime” and “wartime” can become unclear, as emphasized by the U.S. National Intelligence Council. It states that “strong-arm diplomacy, media manipulation, covert operations, political subversion, and economic coercion are long standing pressure tactics, but the ease and effectiveness of launching cyber disruptions, disinformation campaigns, and surrogate attacks are heightening tensions and uncertainty” (National Intelligence Council, 24).

Furthermore, because of its accessibility, the cyber realm acts as an equalizer, putting transnational criminal organizations at par with nation-states. As the United States retains military superiority over the rest of the world, other states, assessing the high costs of conflict, consider relying on more “flexible” and cost-effective warfare options such as engaging in political warfare. Lucas Kello notes that cyberspace gives momentum to existing actors that may seek to “repudiate the basic goals and principles of the established international order” (Kello, 252) Russia serves as an excellent example. With its inability to unilaterally attack NATO, the country decided to heighten its influence online through disinformation campaigns across Europe. While efforts to influence foreign populations are not new – Alexander the Great’s use of propaganda to win battles and bring the Persian Empire to an end is well documented – the recent expansion of free, unregulated platforms has facilitated attacks by maliciously intended nation-states.

During the course of the book, the authors detail the tactics likely to be most effective in the online battlefields of the future. The nature of social media reflects the classic “marketplace of ideas” where emotions are knowingly manipulated, amplified and distorted to socially condition populations across the world. Ronald Deibert, for example, asserts that social media must be held responsible for the recent resurgence of neo-fascist groups, often driven by Russian influence (Beauchamps). Furthermore, winning in this futuristic battlefield is a matter of finding and neutralizing an adversary’s “center of gravity” (as defined by Clausewitz). The yellow vest protests in France serve as a perfect example. Grievances related to the shrinking labor market in France, fueled by a disinformation campaign started by French Political parties of the far right – traditionally politically closer to Russia- have led to protests across the country in 2018. As French essayist and artificial intelligence (AI) expert, writes, “the ‘yellow’ revolution is caused by AI in two ways: it marginalizes the middle classes and allows the organization of the revolt it leads via social networks. Facebook is like a Molotov cocktail, but we do not know who is launching it” (Alexandre). The U.S. think tank, Alliance for Democracy identified at least 600 Twitter accounts for usurping the hashtag #giletsjaunes (yellow vests) and working on behalf of the Kremlin (Couturier).

Brooking and Singer emphasize the notion that the line between the digital realm and the physical world has become blurred, arguing that winning online battles is like winning the world. Looking to the future, both authors assert that wars will continue to be waged online. The development of AI will likely facilitate future manipulation as “new machine intelligence”, making it “ever harder for humans to discern truth from lies and…possibly reshaping our conception of reality itself (Singer and Brooking). The development of “deep fakes” will continue to blur the line between truth and lies with hyper-realistic forgeries. A report from the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University confirms this claim, stating, “AI is effective at channeling and amplifying sentiments and interests of affinity groups” (Benkler and Farois Media), Furthermore, according to the authors, machines could manipulate all that “we see and think online” and hence “control the world” (Singer and Brookings)” Bharath Ganesh of the Oxford Internet Institute reports that disinformation actors will likely “embed themselves among activist groups critical of U.S. institutions in order to amplify their voices” (Lima).”With these actions, they are likely to reproduce content posted by existing activists, making attribution even more difficult. The efficacy of online information/disinformation campaigns, and of social media as a tool to submerse and coerce, however, remains to be proven. Studies following the disinformation campaign launched by Russia prior to the American election of 2016 show that the average adult American only remembers, on average, 1.14 fake news in the month preceding the presidential election.(Lenoir), Additionally, a Columbia Journalism Review article claims that traditional media is more to blame for the 2016 election of Donald Trump. The article claims that  “the continuing fragmentation of the media and the increasing ability of Americans to self-select into like-minded ‘filter bubbles’: generated a ‘toxic brew of political polarization and skepticism toward traditional sources of authority” (Watts and Rosthschild).

In the future, similar tactics are less likely to dissipate, but rather will expand. The latest estimates state that a staggering 70 countries were the victims of state-sponsored disinformation campaigns (Alba and Satariano). Singer and Brooking’s book offers a warning for democracies that wish to preserve their institutions from un-liberal, malicious actors. The 2020 United States’ Presidential Campaign will offer a testing ground for the effectiveness of these theories.

Works Cited

Singer, Peter Warren, and Emerson T. Brooking. “LikeWar: the Weaponization of Social Media”. Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.

United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “Global Trends: Paradox of Progress [January 2017].” Homeland Security Digital Library, United States. Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Kello, Lucas. “The Virtual Weapon and International Order”. Yale University Press, 2018.

Besnier, Jean-Michel, et al. “La Guerre Des Intelligences : Comment L’intelligence Artificielle Va Révolutionner L’éducation.” France Culture, 2017, http://www.franceculture.fr/oeuvre/la-guerre-des-intelligences-comment-lintelligence-artificielle-va-revolutionner-leducation.

Beauchamp, Zack. “Social Media Is Rotting Democracy from Within.” Vox, Vox, 22 Jan. 2019, www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/1/22/18177076/social-media-facebook-far-right-authoritarian-populism.

Couturier, Brice. “Opération Déstabilisation via Les Réseaux Sociaux.” France Culture, France Culture, 10 Dec. 2018, www.franceculture.fr/emissions/le-tour-du-monde-des-idees/le-tour-du-monde-des-idees-du-lundi-10-decembre-2018.

Yochai Benkler, Rob Faris, Hal Roberts Nikki Bourassa, et al. “Understanding Media and Information Quality in an Age of Artificial Intelligence, Automation, Algorithms and Machine Learning.” Berkman Klein Center, 12 July 2018, cyber.harvard.edu/story/2018-07/understanding-media-and-information-quality-age-artificial-intelligence-automation.

Besnier, Jean-Michel, et al. “La Guerre Des Intelligences : Comment L’intelligence Artificielle Va Révolutionner L’éducation.” France Culture, 2017, www.franceculture.fr/oeuvre/la-guerre-des-intelligences-comment-lintelligence-artificielle-va-revolutionner-leducation.

Lima, Cristiano. “The Future of Russian Disinformation.” POLITICO, 18 Dec. 2018, www.politico.com/newsletters/morning-tech/2018/12/18/the-future-of-russian-disinformation-459107.

Theophile Lenoir, “Désinformation : La Faute (Seulement) Aux Réseaux Sociaux ?” Institut Montaigne, 12 Feb. 2018, www.institutmontaigne.org/blog/desinformation-la-faute-seulement-aux-reseaux-sociaux.

Allcott, Hunt, and Matthew Gentzkow, “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2017.

Duncan J. Watts and David M. Rothschild, “Don’t Blame the Election on Fake News. Blame It on the Media.” Columbia Journalism Review, 5 Dec. 2017, www.cjr.org/analysis/fake-news-media-election-trump.php.

Davey Alba and Adam Satariano,  “At Least 70 Countries Have Had Disinformation Campaigns, Study Finds”, The New York Times, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/26/technology/government-disinformation-cyber-troops.html

[1]Clausewitz was an army general and influential military theorist.

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