Like Wars, Fake News and the Apocalypse

Social Media as a Weapon of Mass Destruction

This past week I started listening to another powerful, and frightening, audiobook called LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking. I’m going to be writing about some of the particulars of this well-researched and well-documented volume, so this blog post is just a warm up.

Here’s from an Amazon review by Jon Foro:

Were you looking for more reasons to worry about the future, or the present? LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media will fuel your nightmares. P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking’s treatise travels well beyond the disinformation and fake news we’re all now familiar with (right?), addressing the ways the internet and our social networks will be deployed in actual war: recruiting terrorists, inflicting sabotage remotely on a vast scale, and even Matrix-grade reality manipulation.

Bottom line: Disruption is coming and we are not ready. Have you been following the Yellow Jackets situation in France? I find it pretty disconcerting, even scary. Have you ever been caught up in a mob where there is total chaos and violence? Who decides what is best for everyone? When multiple forces attempt to bend the energy to their own cross-purposes you begin to realize how volatile this undirected energy can be.

In France, for example, the purpose of the fuel tax is to address Global Warming by penalizing driving. We see it all the time where taxes are used to help modify behavior. If government can’t stop smokers, they can tax it heavily. But the mob, I mean the People, do not want to deal with global warming in this fashion and are rioting, smashing things, flexing their muscles. Like children who get their way by throwing tantrums, what else will they demand that is not in their best interest? (See again my blog post on Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.)

What’s happening in France, and elsewhere, is scary. We are witnessing what these authors are writing about, the power of social media to destabilize, to breed hate, distrust, and stupidity.

The authors take readers on a deep dive into what was really happening during the last presidential election. The Soviet Union was indeed meddling here, but for different reasons than you might expect. The gullibility of extremists on all sides leads to re-Tweets so that incredible (Fake) stories gain traction by being passed along by legitimate “friends.” For example, one story that got millions of shares was about the Pope endorsing Donald Trump. This originated in a Macedonian fake news farm where people were being paid to come up with as many outrageous stories per day as possible. Some stories catch a wave and others don’t. The amount of money devoted to Fake News (or Social Media warfare) in the Soviet Union was 40 million one year and 400 million the next. How much does the U.S. spend on propagation of its own news, fake news, spin doctoring?

Amazon reader/reviewer vickip007 writes:

LikeWar is the manual for warfare in the 21st century, a worthy successor to Singer’s Ghost Fleet, and excellent debut work for Brooking. It belongs on the shelf of anyone who wants to seriously understand how war will be fought and social policy developed in the era of Facebook and Twitter.

There is a particularly urgent need for this book at a time when most tacticians have their eyes firmly fixed on enhancing cybersecurity through the protection of systems and hardware. While this is undeniably important, LikeWar reminds us that the information that is transmitted over that infrastructure is no less, and possibly quite a bit more important than the infrastructure itself. This message has never been more urgent than today when democratic nations struggle with balancing the need for an open civil society against the risks of foreign subversion and influence. This is the next great battle. It will be fought in the trenches of Facebook and the swamps of Twitter — wise commanders will bring LikeWar with them as field guide.

Amazon reader/review Michael Burnam-fink wrote:

Computer networks and smart phones connect billions of people, allowing ideas to flow faster than ever before in history. Sometimes, the results can be impressive. The Chiapas Zapatista movement in 1994 was a dial-up and fax version of a network insurgency that managed to bring enough international opprobrium on Mexico that the government blinked, and reached some kind of political accord (Chiapas is complicated). More recently, Eliot Higgins and a team of open source analysts at Bellingcat managed to track down the exact BUK missile system and Russian soldiers responsible for shooting down MH 17 in 2014.

But there are a lot of dark sides. When people connect, the emotion that spreads most rapidly is anger. Lies spread five times faster than truth. Musicians can use social networks to directly connect with their fans, and ISIS uses it to connect with alienated Muslim youths worldwide. Social networks sort diverse citizens into filter bubbles of people who think alike. Eliot Higgin’s careful open source intelligence has a paranoid fun-house mirror version in the QAnon conspiracy, where Qultist decoders find hidden messages from an alleged ‘senior white house source’…

The future is if anything, darker. Advances in machine learning and AI allow ever more realistic bots, computer generated DeepFakes where a politician can be programmed to say anything, and personalized targeting of people with exactly the propaganda they’ll believe.

One chapter goes into detail about Sock Puppet Accounts. Sock puppet accounts are nicknamed as such because they conceal the hand that moves the mouth. This Ed Gent article about sock puppets in New Scientist begins like this:

“Sock puppets” are the scourge of online discussion . Multiple accounts controlled by the same user can dominate comment forums and spread fake news. But now there’s a way to unmask the puppeteers.

The title of this naked security by Sophos article says it all: Twitter struggles to deal with the sock puppet and bot armies.

I agree with M Wilper’s comments:

A rare book that offers key insights into the history unfolding in front of us. The authors synthesize the widespread manipulation of social media by various powers seeking to skew popular opinion in their favor. The story is very troubling, but I hope that this book and more like it will help us produce the antibodies we need to neutralize the danger.

My only concern about the book is regarding how relevant it will be in five years. I find it to be exceedingly important, however, especially at this current moment in time, for which reason I have asked for it as a Christmas present. I’m currently 2/3s of the way through the audio book and find the information exceedingly informative and accessible. (EdNote: The reader of this Recorded Books presentation is excellent. I recently heard him read a book of stories by Borges. Four Stars.)

Related Links

The online threat that cybersecurity teams don’t cover
A military expert explains why social media is the new battlefield
The Machines That Will Fight the Social Media Wars of Tomorrow

Originally published at on December 16, 2018.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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