Social Media Has Become a Global Battlefield

A new book probes how states and terrorists use the internet to wage war.

A person types on a smartphone.
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About seven years ago, during the Arab Spring, the power of social media to drive major political change burst onto the world stage. The promise of Twitter and Facebook to help democratically minded protesters share information, organize protests, and ultimately free themselves from dictatorships looked tantalizing and almost unstoppable. Soon, however, many democratic gains across the Arab world proved unsustainable or curdled into violence, and another facet of the technology emerged. Within a few years, ISIS was using the internet to mobilize recruits, spread propaganda, and encourage attacks in the United States and elsewhere. Then there came an actual attack on the U.S. conducted via social media itself—the spread of Russian disinformation as part of an effort to sway the 2016 American presidential election.

P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, two national-security experts, started examining the role of social media in conflict for a book project—which along the way, two years ago, yielded a cover story for The Atlantic. The piece noted that the internet wasn’t just connecting people and bringing them together—it was also “reshaping war itself.” Their article was called “War Goes Viral”; it duly went viral itself.

Singer and Brooking have presented findings from their book, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, to leaders in the American military, intelligence agencies, and the U.S. Congress. Ahead of the book’s release today, I spoke to Singer about what these changes in warfare, politics, culture, and communication mean for the rest of us, who are all unwitting participants in this new reality. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Gabby Deutch: Your article in The Atlantic was published a few weeks before Donald Trump was elected and several months before we started to learn more about the role that Russian propaganda and misinformation played in our election. How does this fit into the war that you write about, and what is the next step in the information wars that are being fought online?

P. W. Singer: You can’t say we didn’t warn you! The project started several years ago, looking at how social media was being used in war zones around the world. Very quickly, we saw how not just the definition of those war zones was expanding, but also how the very same tactics, the very same players, were popping up in other realms, from politics to news. What about ISIS using [technology] in battlefield operations, and using it to recruit in the United States and Europe, to spur attacks, to establish its branding? Then you get the example of the players: The same Russian networks that are going after Ukraine are pivoting to Brexit, to the U.S. election. You see the same tactics being repeated. We realized this was not a story of just war. It was not a story of just politics. It was a story of a larger change.

Deutch: In these new online battlefields, as you discuss, one of the main goals is to command people’s attention, to go viral, to convince people that what you’re saying is not necessarily right but the most interesting. Is this something that’s entirely new? Propaganda has existed for a long time. How is this any different?

Singer: We live in a world where attention is power, and not just online power, but real-world power. If you don’t believe that, then you must not know who the president of the United States is; you must not know what a group like ISIS is; you must not know about who the most influential and profitable companies in the world are, who the celebrities in the world are. What’s important is it’s not just the power to affect the outcome of a battle on the ground, the power to affect an election, or the power to shape which product wins out or not—but literally the power to determine truth, or at least what people believe to be true.

There has always been propaganda. But one of the other aspects of this shake-up in power is that we all have power now. Unlike [with] the telegraph, TV, or the newspaper, we individually can be collectors of information, sharers of information, and combatants in the information battle space. Our own individual decisions determine the overall trends that then determine what goes viral or not—what wins.

Deutch: You talk about ISIS as an example of how terrorists weaponize social media. Something that struck me in your writing is your claim that people are drawn to terrorists’ online presence because of their authenticity. You say they take a page from celebrities like Katy Perry, who let their personality show on Twitter. Can you give some examples?

Singer: We explored the lessons of what it takes to win online, whether you are a terrorist group, a celebrity, or a politician. One of those areas is—this sounds like a contradiction—strategic use of authenticity. Whether it is Junaid Hussain, ISIS’s top recruiter, who was a failed British rapper, [or] Taylor Swift, they are authentic. They reach down into their audience and interact in a way that is real. Taylor Swift communicates in a way that is in full knowledge that the rest of the world is also watching, much like how Junaid Hussain is interacting with people online in a manner that’s also performative. He’s doing so in a language that’s not the dry sermons of [the al-Qaeda leader Ayman] Zawahiri, to give an example of a rival, but the hip-hop [language]. He’s saying things like, “You can sit at home and play Call of Duty, or you can come join the real Call of Duty.” This realness is an attribute that helps messages go viral.

Deutch: A lot of the people who are doing this on Twitter and YouTube, in groups like ISIS, don’t need training to weaponize social media. It’s something that comes easily to younger people. How are big, traditional institutions like the military dealing with this change that is probably less intuitive to them?

Singer: There is a catch. While, say, Millennials may have aspects of this that come naturally to them, it has not shielded them from the dangers. We look at studies that show people’s abilities to discern “fake news” and whether they’re being manipulated or not, and age does not help.

Just like any other change in war, the military is studying this and learning from it. We compare how the U.S. military was shocked and stunned by how ISIS deftly uses this approach of [weaponizing social media]. The U.S. military watched, learned, and changed. When they took back Mosul, they used many of the same techniques and tactics, but they’re now churning it through a large bureaucratic organization. Size doesn’t inherently limit you.

Deutch: You address in your book that American intelligence agencies took too long to catch on to the importance of these new technologies. Essentially, they got the internet wrong. Do you think that they are doing any better now? Why do you think they were so wrong in the first place?

Singer: They were looking for what happened in the realm of secrets when it was all out there in the open. That was also the problem for the tech companies. For example, Facebook had one of the world’s top cybersecurity teams, but their focus in 2016 was on hackers cracking individual accounts, not Russian hipsters buying ads and posing as customers. They and the intelligence community were looking in the wrong place. You can see this learning process going on everywhere, from inside the tech companies to the intelligence communities paying more attention. However, there’s a problem for the U.S. government, which is the opinion of the commander in chief. If you’re going to do something about Russian disinformation campaigns, first you have to acknowledge that they exist, and that they matter. That’s something that the intelligence community has concluded, the Defense Department has concluded, the tech companies have concluded, but unfortunately, not the president.

Deutch: There have been modest attempts to fight back by better monitoring social-media activity, specifically regarding terrorist content. The European Union recently created a protocol to require companies to take terrorist content offline within an hour after they’re notified. Will these programs work? Will there be a backlash because of concerns of free speech? And how do these online battles change how we conceptualize and think about free speech?

Singer: A key theme is the power of an incredibly small number of technology creators getting to decide what is allowable or not in these crucial battle spaces of war and politics. You see this in the reforms that have been put in place at Facebook and Twitter over the past several months. This very small number of people is wrestling with it now, yet there’s a pattern going back to the story of Myspace. The consistent pattern is that they’d rather not intervene. They’d rather not make decisions [about] politics. There’s a variety of reasons. It’s everything from their own DNA—this is not what excites them; they’d rather invent cool technology—to the fact that they’re running for-profit businesses. Growth comes first, not political questions.

Political questions are inherently unpopular. You have to take a side. The other side doesn’t like it. Consistently, they’ve tried to dodge these questions, until a cross between customer demand and threatened government intervention forces their hand. They’re going to be stuck with this problem for the long term.

Deutch: Humans play a role in exacerbating this new form of conflict. How much responsibility do we bear for allowing ourselves to be susceptible to misinformation? You write about information literacy as a matter of national security—what does that look like? How can we fight back?

Singer: This is a strange new marketplace and news ecosystem, where we get to decide. We decide what to share. We decide what to click. Each of our decisions then drives overall trends. We bear some responsibility. In many ways, there’s a parallel to public health. The individual decisions that you make on whether you wash your hands or cover your mouth do matter. In turn, your decision to teach your kids digital literacy or not matters. That’s part of the book—to help us understand the history of it, the rules of it, and how to not be taken advantage of in this world of likes and lies.

There are important things that we as individuals can do, but they’re not going to matter unless you also have actions taken by companies and by government. Digital literacy is a glaring example of something that we know can be done because it is being done in other nations. The United States is the home of the internet, but we are now the country that other nations talk about as what they don’t want to happen to them. We can learn from that, and learn from things that they are doing, as well as examples from our own history. Part of this is also how we’ve framed the problem. The focus of the election-security discussion has been on the sexy story of hackers cracking the voting booth. It’s a real risk, but the reality is that that kind of attack has never successfully been done on a national scale. By contrast, we know that attacks on the voter and the ecosystem around the voter have not only been done, but have worked, and are continuing.

Deutch: What’s next?

Singer: On the one hand, we are going to see a rise of new technologies. In particular, we will see the impact of artificial intelligence on both the attacker and the defender sides. As it becomes harder for humans to figure that it’s AI behind something, we’ll turn to AI to help us with that task. You get this science-fiction-like outcome of AI battling AI, with us in the middle. On the other hand, you’ll have this continuity of [online] tactics. Everybody is watching what everybody else is doing. They’re learning from each other and they’re evolving in the same general direction. When you look at the tactics working and you look at the fact that about half the world is yet to come online, we ain’t seen nothing yet. It’s going to continue. That’s why it’s so crucial for us to move from being behind the curve to try and catch up to it.