How ‘likes’ and tweets be­came weapons

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY LEIGH GIANGRECO

When law­mak­ers hauled Face­book founder Mark Zucker­berg to Capi­tol Hill for a hear­ing on pri­vacy and abuse of data in April, the only clear theme to emerge from their line of bizarre ques­tions was the Se­nate’s com­plete mis­un­der­stand­ing of so­cial me­dia. In­stead of un­rav­el­ing how Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion thrived on Face­book and in­flu­enced the 2016 elec­tion, Sen. Or­rin Hatch (R-Utah) wasted his given time ask­ing ba­sic ques­tions about the plat­form’s busi­ness model, while Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) took a mis­guided tour of the mes­sag­ing app What­sApp.

In a more in­no­cent time, the gang of clue­less se­na­tors would have made for an amus­ing mon­tage on “The Daily Show.” But in the age of in­for­ma­tion war­fare, it showed that our lead­ers had lit­tle grasp on the great­est ex­is­ten­tial threat to Amer­i­can democ­racy.

Had P.W. Singer and Emer­son Brook­ing’s new book, “LikeWar,” come out just a few months ear­lier, those se­na­tors might have had a bet­ter grip on Face­book’s role as a weapon in to­day’s war. Packed with the past five years of news and a brief ac­count of the birth of the In­ter­net, “LikeWar” is a breezy read about mod­ern war­fare, with the au­thors flip­ping through tales of Rus­sian bots, washed-up re­al­ity stars and Sil­i­con Val­ley mag­nates like clips on your friend’s In­sta­gram story. That rapid suc­ces­sion of sto­ries makes it a suit­able text­book for to­day’s jour­nal­ism or po­lit­i­cal sci­ence stu­dents look­ing to un­der­stand how the same apps they use to com­mu­ni­cate with friends can be amassed as tools in a po­tent arsenal.

There are points where “LikeWar” is too mar­ried to that text­book for­mat, as when it trots out a hack­neyed de­scrip­tion of the Kennedy-Nixon de­bate, or may try too hard to frame old medi­ums in a con­tem­po­rary lens, call­ing Ben­jamin Franklin “the found­ing fa­ther of fake news in Amer­ica” be­cause he pub­lished un­der the pseu­do­nym “Mrs. Si­lence Do­good” in the New-Eng­land Courant.

But it’s not the young, dig­i­tal na­tives that need “LikeWar” the most. When Singer’s novel, “Ghost Fleet,” was pub­lished in 2015, Wash­ing­ton’s na­tional se­cu­rity com­mu­nity gripped it as both a cau­tion­ary tale and a fu­ture bat­tle plan. “LikeWar,” on the other hand, is not a warn­ing about to­mor­row’s war — it’s a map for those who don’t un­der­stand how the bat­tle­field has al­ready changed.

To ground their read­ers in fa­mil­iar­ity, Emer­son and Singer have framed the play­ers in this new kind of war as kings over­see­ing bur­geon­ing em­pires. But th­ese mon­archs, of­ten clus­tered in Sil­i­con Val­ley, could rule in peace only un­til a pow­der keg ex­ploded.

“LikeWar” be­gins with Don­ald Trump’s first tweet in 2009, an­nounc­ing, “Be sure to tune in and watch Don­ald Trump on Late Night with David Let­ter­man as he presents the Top Ten List tonight!” But this is not (thank God) an­other book about the pres­i­dent. In­stead, it re­volves around an un­holy trin­ity of those who have mas­tered the In­ter­net as a weapon: Trump, the Is­lamic State and Rus­sia.

At times that carousel of de­plorables can be­come dizzy­ing. The three turn up in a jour­nal pub­lished by NATO in a piece writ­ten by a Trump cam­paign or­ga­nizer that links their use of meme war­fare and shows how they cap­i­tal­ize on vi­ral con­tent. When Emer­son and Singer note the 4Ds — “dis­miss the critic, dis­tort the facts, dis­tract from the main is­sue, and dis­may the au­di­ence” — it’s hard to tell if it’s a ref­er­ence to Rus­sia’s new de­fen­sive strat­egy or a wink to Trump’s bizarre dance with the me­dia.

In some cases, the op­pos­ing par­ties even com­ple­ment each other’s goals. When the Is­lamic State posts videos that link grue­some acts with Is­lamic scrip­ture, the web­site Bre­it­bart seizes on them to fan the flames of its far-right sup­port­ers. With each “like,” the Is­lamic State gets new re­cruits and Bre­it­bart gets ad dol­lars.

Be­yond re­cap­ping the news, “LikeWar” be­comes a com­pelling read as Brook­ings and Singer give his­tor­i­cal con­text to to­day’s news to de­mys­tify the In­ter­net as a bat­tle­field. The au­thors liken the stun­ning cap­ture of Mo­sul, Iraq, which the Is­lamic State pub­li­cized far out­side the Mid­dle East by bom­bard­ing so­cial me­dia, to the un­yield­ing tempo of the Ger­man blitzkrieg, which par­a­lyzed French fight­ers with a re­lent­less broad­cast of its at­tacks. To­day’s “sock­pup­pets,” young Rus­sians who mas­quer­ade on­line as Amer­i­cans, prove to be noth­ing more than hip­ster up­dates to Cold War tac­tics de­ployed by the Soviet Union that tar­geted the ex­tremes of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. The con­tem­po­rary Rus­sian Gen. Valery Gerasi­mov, who in 2013 pub­lished a trea­tise rank­ing non­mil­i­tary means above tra­di­tional weapons, is, in the au­thors’ telling, just a fresh take on the early-19th-cen­tury mil­i­tary the­o­rist Carl von Clause­witz. Just as Clause­witz es­tab­lished war as pol­i­tics by other means, Gerasi­mov laid out a rad­i­cal new ap­proach to con­flict by tak­ing ad­van­tage of the In­ter­net as the ul­ti­mate dis­in­for­ma­tion weapon.

Th­ese his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences are where “LikeWar” will suc­ceed best in ed­u­cat­ing an older, less dig­i­tally literate gen­er­a­tion about how the In­ter­net shapes mod­ern war­fare. In this way, the In­ter­net will no longer ap­pear a brave new world un­fa­mil­iar to baby boomers but an­other it­er­a­tion of the same old con­flicts.

But if Clause­witz crops up as a mo­tif that grounds the book in staid mil­i­tary doc­trine, ref­er­ences to pop stars and re­al­ity tele­vi­sion celebri­ties keep the text out of the realm of the typ­i­cal think tank fare. It may seem a cheap bid for younger read­ers at first, but the au­thors draw smart and eerie par­al­lels be­tween ter­ror­ist groups and seem­ingly va­pid celebri­ties. Even Vladimir Putin’s long­time me­dia ad­viser ad­mires the so­cial me­dia savvy of Kim Kar­dashian, who can di­rect mil­lions of her sup­port­ers with­out the KGB.

Like­wise, pop star Tay­lor Swift has per­fected an au­then­tic voice on Twit­ter and cu­rated cat pho­tos on In­sta­gram to re­cruit her army of loyal “Swifties.” The au­thors point out that the Is­lamic State has lifted that suc­cess­ful so­cial me­dia strat­egy, right down to the cat pho­tos, and tweaked it for ma­li­cious means. Given that Swift can sum­mon fierce bat­tal­ions at her whim, at least in her mu­sic videos, why not try her tac­tics in real life?

But the heart of “LikeWar,” and what would have as­sisted our hap­less se­na­tors, lies in its ex­pla­na­tion of ho­mophily and its role in spread­ing false­hoods. On­line news, true or false, is sus­tained by the num­ber of peo­ple who “like” it. Each suc­ces­sive “like” con­trib­utes to an al­go­rithm that gen­er­ates sim­i­lar con­tent, guar­an­tee­ing an in­fi­nite echo cham­ber.

There’s an­other dan­ger hid­den in what may seem like in­nocu­ous clicks. As Singer and Emer­son note, a Yale Univer­sity study found that peo­ple are more likely to be­lieve a head­line if they have seen a sim­i­lar one be­fore.

“It didn’t even mat­ter if the story was pre­ceded by a warn­ing that it might be fake,” the au­thors write. “What counted most was fa­mil­iar­ity. The more of­ten you hear a claim, the less likely you are to as­sess it crit­i­cally.”

Th­ese “likes” don’t just add up to tar­geted ad­ver­tise­ments. Th­ese rip­ples of mis­in­for­ma­tion soon grow into the tidal waves of fake news that wreak havoc on elec­tions and fo­ment wars. Tweets and Face­book posts may seem su­per­fi­cial, but they play out on the very real bat­tle­grounds of Is­rael, Ukraine and Syria.

The “LikeWar” isn’t waged by so­phis­ti­cated hack­ers but by those who know how to mas­ter the nar­ra­tive with vi­ral memes, slick videos and click­bait head­lines. And when the in­for­ma­tion war is won in this ab­stract cy­berspace, all the metal in our grand fleets and ad­vanced fighter jets will be ren­dered im­ma­te­rial. Leigh Giangreco is a re­porter in Wash­ing­ton, where she has cov­ered de­fense for the Capi­tol Fo­rum, FlightGlobal and Inside De­fense.

LIKEWAR The Weaponiza­tion of So­cial Me­dia By P. W. Singer and Emer­son Brook­ing Ea­mon Dolan/ Houghton Mif­flin Har­court. 405 pp. $28

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