Analysis | Where to go for the best info on disinfo? Part III

Heera Kamboj

This review of P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking’s book LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, is part of a series of reviews of books on the topic of disinformation.

LikeWar (Image: Likewarbook.com)

So often we look at the book jacket or the inside flaps of a hardcover edition to figure out if it is worth the read or purchase. In the case of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, not only is the whole book excellent, but the over 100 pages of footnotes serve as an excellent research list for any person aspiring to learn more about disinformation. LikeWar’s title and cover are attractive enough, but the substance of the book surpasses any preconceptions.

Out of the other books reviewed for this series, LikeWar is the best at connecting the West’s battles against ISIS in the early 2010s, and countering violent extremism to the recent study and policy discussion of disinformation and its onslaught on democracy and society. There is not necessarily a straight line from one to the other, but Singer and Brooking show common tactics being used by democracies’ adversaries, whether Islamists or authoritarian populists. (In this respect, the book continues where Farah Pandith’s How We Win left off.)

The opening chapters provide an excellent background and history of the Internet. The authors note how the Internet’s structure and users’ early optimism eventually gave way to the issues we face today with disinformation and influence operations as a part of war. The book demonstrates how the Internet is value neutral: not just human rights or democracy activists used it to their advantage, but also the bad guys. The authors state that, sadly, the Arab Spring “represented a high-water mark” in “internet-enabled democractic movement.” With time, terrorists, extremists, and attention-seeking trolls would come to exploit those same democratizing principles of the Internet. LikeWar doesn’t just focus on Southwest Asia, North Africa, or Russia, but also shows how terrorists and/or antidemocratic forces have used these tools elsewhere, including the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, drug cartels’ online intimidation in Mexico, and beyond.

The book also briefly describes OSINT (open source intelligence) as a new field of inquiry, and how groups such as Bellingcat have marshaled it for collective analysis and action, such as the downing of flight MH-17 in Ukraine. The authors note that private citizens, such as the so-called Baltic Elves, can work together, marshalling modern technology and crowd-sourcing to solve problems and help increase political transparency. Even if a social media user is not a citizen soldier or “Elf,” there is no such thing as a passive user. Everything we do on the Internet or on social media has an outcome even if it is unintended. LikeWar does a great job of showing readers both the negative and positive uses of the Internet and social media — — it is a tool and not an innocent good. One of the best quotes from the book brings this sentiment home: “Democratic activists had no special claim to the Internet. They’d simply gotten there first.“

[Read Heera’s new case study on disinformation in Estonia for ISD’s library of cases in diplomacy.]

One other aspect LikeWar covers in more depth than other books is the “Balkanization” of the Internet. Closed societies are closing off their “Internet” from criticism or information, response, or alternate opinions, leaving democracies more open to perverted information and influence campaigns. Invariably, LikeWar also discusses China at greater length than other books, including the government’s co-option of influencers, its use of a “social credit system,” its army of human “bots,” and its other tactics for controlling the Internet.

From the book’s strongest chapter — Chapter 5,“The Unreality Machine: The Business of Veracity v Reality” — onwards, LikeWar really begins to shine. The book progresses from recounting recent history, to creating new definitions and trying to make sense of why users and global citizens are so susceptible to influence operations. This chapter weaves several psychological studies and analysis together, including: the filter bubble, homophily, confirmation bias, consensus versus opinion, emotional intensity, echo chambers, and the algorithms that exploit all of these.

The following chapter builds on this by noting how terrorists, authoritarians, and today’s modern villains learned from celebrities, influencers, and politicians on how best to win the battle for attention online. The toolkit to win this “information jihad“ includes mastering narrative, emotion, authenticity, community, and inundation. Chapter 6 goes into each of these in considerable detail and each of these elements also have subcomponents. This chapter hilariously connects all of this to the MTV show The Hills.

Chapter 7 brings the book full circle, and combines the early chapters on the history of modern influence operations with the psychological elements of Chapters 5 and 6, connecting everything to modern politics and what U.S. adversaries are doing.

Chapter 8 covers social media companies, their founders, algorithms, monetization, content moderation, and perverse incentives. This chapter sits a little bit outside of the book’s structure, but still provides a very useful overview of what happened between the beginning of social media, on to Facebook, and all the way through 2018. While other research and more recent book cover social media’s role in propagating misinformation and disinformation, Brooking and Singer do a better job because they lay the foundation of the history of the Internet earlier in the book. They connect the dots of the Internet being unabashedly good, to the naïveté of “apolitical” Silicon Valley. The authors note the companies’ founders are finally beginning to realize that they have great power and influence and therefore more responsibility, but that incentives may keep Zuckerberg et al. from doing what is necessary.

In the final chapter, the authors address what we can do about the “LikeWar.” One of the many recommendations actually concerns information literacy, calling it a “national security imperative.” As for the possible solutions or mitigation techniques, the book does not provide as many options. That being said, P.W. Singer is currently working on societal resilience through the Cyber Citizenship Initiative. Other solutions point to politicians, political discourse, society, and culture collectively holding each other accountable to false information. While these are all absolutely necessary, how does society collectively make this happen? While LikeWar is weaker on this point, it does end with a call to action to the reader: “You are now what you share.”

It would be great to see the final chapter on winning the LikeWar expanded to include some of the authors’ recent work and research. I for one would buy a reissue with an updated prologue and introduction, and perhaps an updated epilogue that analyzes the 2020 elections and COVID disinformation. Emerson T. Brooking has spoken publicly at many events providing this much needed update and context. However, if teaching about disinformation has taught me anything, this is a constantly evolving topic where things can shift week to week — and many books on disinformation will continue to struggle with this landscape.

Heera Kamboj is a career member of the U.S. Foreign Service and a Rusk Fellow at ISD. She taught a course on disinformation at Georgetown in the spring of 2021.

The views expressed in this article are the author’’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.

This series includes several other book reviews, including:

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