Best of The Month – LikeWar
Editor | On 06, Mar 2019
Here’s one guaranteed to polarize. Doesn’t everything these days. Whatever one person likes, a thousand other will shortly describe as the worst thing ever. In a lot of ways, that’s kind of the premise of the book. Who’s right? The person who tells the truth? Or the person capable of constructing the message that goes viral?
Here’s one of the more negative reviews of our ‘Book of the Month’ choice this month, LikeWar. Just so you can get a flavor of both sides of the argument:
Social media is not just a rancorous gabfest but a literal “battlefield… with real-world consequences,” according to this overwrought jeremiad. Singer (coauthor of Ghost Fleet), a contributing editor for Popular Science, and Brooking, a former research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, rehash alarming internet phenomena, including the Islamic State’s use of social media to recruit followers and post beheading videos, the Russian government’s exploitation of social media to manipulate American politics, and the white nationalist movement’s dissemination of pernicious ideas. The authors’ survey is wide-ranging, but doesn’t really support their argument that “online information itself [is] a kind of weapon” posing dire threats to democracy. Their scattershot brief bundles serious issues, like the Chinese government’s arrests of online dissidents, with trivialities like the “memetic warfare” of Pepe the Frog cartoons; mostly their evidence just illustrates the banal truth that, like every communications technology, social media is used to spread propaganda. Worse, the authors’ militarized rhetoric underpins their calls for “legal action to limit the effects of poisonous super-spreaders” and for companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to “police” the “dangerous speech” on their platforms and act as “the arbiters of truth.” Readers who value free speech may be dismayed at the authors’ conflation of words with warfare.
If these words are an attempt to discredit the book by declaring the authors as scare-mongering, I’d have some sympathy with the view. There’s no doubt in my mind that both P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking have been guilty of considerable confirmation bias. They’ve hypothesized an update of von Clausewitz’s book ‘On War’ and have found lots of evidence to confirm it. They’ve not done nearly enough searching for evidence that fails to confirm the theory. At least not to convincingly. That said, what the authors have done is a lot like what the initial TRIZ researchers did: they examined lots and lots of online conflicts – covering a spectrum from national election to Chicago gang-warfare – to look for patterns. That can only be a good thing. Even if their bias is still left glaring at the reader. Good because, as the authors themselves say, the vast majority of society are still so naïve when it comes to the implications of massive social media connectivity, that what they need to do is wake people up. Forget balance right now, the ‘other side’ – the side of those looking to create havoc – is winning the virality war, and the rest of us need to be able to see the other side of the contradiction.
And let there be no doubt, there is some potent content here. Some compelling pattern-building capability (an early favourite: the rapid rise of ISIS followed the same pattern as Nazi Germany’s rapid defeat of France in the Second World War. ISIS had social media, but that was merely a faster version of the way that the German’s used radio propaganda during their two-month long rout of the French). (On the counter side, the author’s mention that the same basic strategy didn’t work with the Blitz of the UK, but never really got to grips with why it worked in one situation and not the other. A knowledge of TRIZ, one suspects, might well have helped.)
The book overall centres around five core principles:
- The internet has left adolescence – despite its infancy in calendar years, never has a communication technology accommodated so many people so quickly. The rapid rise (up its S-Curve) of social media has happened because so many of the damping forces and delays of previous communication channels have now been eliminated.
- The internet has become a battlefield – ‘every battle seems personal, but every conflict is global’
- The altered battlefield changes how conflicts are fought – ‘social media has rendered secrets of any consequence essentially impossible to keep. Yet, because virality can overwhelm truth, what is known can be re-shaped.’
- The battle changes what ‘war’ means – winning online battles doesn’t just win the web, but wins the war.
- We’re all part of this war – ‘if you’re online, your attention is like a piece of contested territory, being fought over in conflicts that you may or may not realise are unfolding around you’…
..and if that sounds like scaremongering to you, it’s very likely because Singer and Brooking have an inkling that you need to be scared right now. This probably won’t be the best book about the weaponization of Social Media, but until such times as the definitive tome appears, for my money, it makes for a pretty darn good proxy. Essential 2018 reading.