The Weaponization of Social Media Is Transforming Politics
BigTunaOnline / Shutterstock.com
Oct. 11, 2018
Doppelgängers—the stuff of sci-fi thrillers, 19th-century European novels, and, for a brief, astonishing moment, American political discourse.
When conservative activist Ed Whelan claimed on Twitter that it wasn’t Brett Kavanaugh who had allegedly assaulted Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in 1982, but rather his doppelgänger, very few took him seriously. Yet Whelan’s claim—based on studying the maps of the area where Ford and Kavanaugh attended high school and some floor plans available on Zillow—created a social media firestorm that briefly took over the news cycle.
This doppelgänger debacle is a part of a larger phenomenon. From President Donald Trump’s Twitter rants against prominent public figures to Russian trolls scouring the Internet, technology isn’t only changing the ways in which we consume information—it’s also spreading previously marginal ideas. Tapping into virtual networks allows actors—both benevolent and malicious—to drive their ideas viral through a mix of likes, deceptions, and network algorithms. That, in a nutshell, is the definition of a “like war,” a concept developed by Peter W. Singer and Emerson Brooking in their new book, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, which explores the phenomenon of online wars—and how these wars can have real-world outcomes.
At the book’s New America D.C. launch on October 4, Singer and Brooking discussed the book’s premise and key takeaways with New America President and CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter. The term like war derives from similarities in the tactics used on social media versus those employed in real-world warfare. “The terrain matters, the sides battling back and forth,” Singer explained. “[Actors] engage in like wars to achieve the most likes to not just gain attention but to achieve a real-world goal—whether the real-world goal is [to] influence the outcome of the battle at Mosul, the outcome of an election, [or the outcome] of a Supreme Court nomination.”
Although actors aren’t knowingly adopting and using the term like war to refer to their activities, they’re nonetheless engaging in a shared set of behaviors that characterizes this concept. According to Brooking, it’s at least partly the growing number of Millennials in important positions within government institutions that has brought social media strategies into the spotlight as legitimate tools of influence and policy. “They’re all on social media, they all understand that grabbing and maintaining attention is the best way to accomplish their goals,” Brooking said.
The Kavanaugh confirmation—with its proliferation of astonishing theories, from the doppelgänger to a supposed legal dispute between Ford’s parents that Kavanaugh’s mother ruled on—is a perfect example of groups manipulating information to advance their interests. “This [case] also connects with one of the things in the book, the power of narrative,” Singer explained. “[It] was not really a hunt for the truth, it was to bury the truth under the sea of alternative theories, which is a Russian disinformation model.”
More ominously, terrorists and hackers also rely on—and, increasingly, weaponize—social media to advance their agendas. The idea for Singer and Brooking’s book originated in 2013, during one of the first live-tweeted terrorist attacks: That year, at a shopping center in Nairobi, Kenya, 67 people were killed in a violent siege as al-Shabaab militants narrated their actions in real time on social media. ISIS is an oft-cited example of a tech-savvy organization, one that skillfully adopts various social media strategies that have worked for celebrities to spread its own message and recruit new followers. For example, when it first invaded Iraq, ISIS relied on an actual hashtag—#AllEyesOnISIS—to document its advances.
However, the authors find that the power of social media can also be a force for good. Consider how in a town too small to be serviced by a newspaper, a seven-year-old launched her own online publication, an opportunity she never would’ve had without easy access to digital platforms. In a similar vein, a Muslim-American woman who previously worked for the U.S. government enlisted a network of teenagers to combat ISIS recruitment on social-media platforms by intervening and discrediting its appeals to potential recruits.
“The main thing that we can do is be a lot more discerning about the information we see,” Brooking explained when asked about how to combat social media used for more nefarious purposes. “All it takes is one credulous person in your group sharing information for it to spread among other people you know.”
Ultimately, like war is here to stay. “These kinds of tactics will continue in every political debate moving forward,” Singer said. What’s needed amid policymakers now is a paradigm shift toward an understanding of each individual as an object that can be influenced to advance specific agendas—whether by political parties, terrorist organizations, or hackers.