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.
Social media is revolutionizing warfare.
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.