According to P.W. Singer & Emerson T. Brooking’s LikeWar, Social Media’s Primary Role Has Become a Weaponized Battlefield of Misinformation
Back in 2010 to 2012, I had the privilege of hiking with a half dozen United States Marines on the Palos Verdes trail every Sunday morning for a two-hour hike. Some of these Marines were my students, and they invited me to have a two-hour hike for strength, conditioning, and therapeutic conversation.
The Marines were my students, and they liked me because I was their critical thinking professor. I was making critical thinking part of a better democracy, and by making a stronger democracy I was making a stronger America. That was the narrative of 2010. And I needed to believe in this narrative because I had just had twin girls. My daughters were born in an ever strengthening democracy. Thank you, very much.
The hike was grueling and exhausting, but nothing to the Marines, many who walked 14 hours a day through rugged terrain in Afghanistan and Iraq with with an 80-pound backpack.
Driving home to Torrance all sweaty and exhausted in my car, I’d listen to the “Tech Guy” Leo Laporte on KFI 640 radio praise the ascent of social media, like Twitter, as he saw social media as a force for positive social change in the context of Arab Spring.
Overthrowing dictators in favor of democratic rule such as Arab Spring was evidence that social media would bring peace, freedom, and democracy to the world.
I was listening to Leo Laporte sing Kumbaya over the airwaves, and I was hopeful that he was right: Democracy will blossom all over the world. I was thinking, “Oh, happy day! I’m a critical thinking teacher helping propel democracy in my own small way. I’m on the Winning Team.”
So here we are, eight years later: How are things going?
Now over half the world is on social media, all my students have smartphones, and is the world a better place?
Is democracy spreading throughout the planet?
Are Americans of different tribes coming to together for shared understanding?
Are politicians of different persuasions working together for a common goal to make America stronger?
Just the opposite is true. We’re in chaos, we’re divided, and we can’t even agree on what facts are anymore as political pundits speak of “alternative facts” and “alternative realities.”
Instead of peace and understanding, we live in the Age of Gaslighting, bullying people with a twisted version of reality to beat them down and tire them out so they’re too exhausted to question lies and distortions.
I didn’t have a clear answer until recently I had the privilege of reading an advanced copy of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking.
The main premise of the book is that even though social media has many functions--showing cat videos, posting photos of your kids so grandma can see them, posting selfies of your six-pack torso shot at the gym on Instagram, promoting your brand--the dominant role of social media has become clear: Totalitarian and extremist trolls taken over social media and turned it into a battlefield of weaponized misinformation and authoritarian propaganda.
Totalitarians and extremists throughout the world are using social media to wage war against democracy, and right now they’re winning: That is the very persuasive thesis of LikeWar.
Here are my Four Takeaways from the book:
One. The Internet has gone through its evolutionary process and is now in its adult stage. It’s stopped evolving. We know what it is now. So what is social media. It’s a vector for false information. Why? Because information on social media is algorithmically tailored to conform to your cognitive biases so that you become isolated in your false information bubble.
Two. Social media is foremost a battlefield with no borders, and instant misinformation attack can happen without notice; faster than bombs, misinformation can affect political opinion.
Emotionally manipulating masses of people by disseminating misinformation in a viral saturation bomb is the new warfare.
Three. We have to see information as a weapon when three things happen.
One, the information sticks because it pulls emotional heartstrings by giving people a story they want to believe in.
Two, the information gains mass appeal and becomes the dominant narrative to explain an event or a policy.
Three, the information has the power to affect the behavior and beliefs of mass populations.
The American military is deeply concerned about these totalitarian trolls. For example, the United States Army has a Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk where they engage in Social Media Environment and Internet Replication, known as SMEIR; it simulates social media scenarios where misinformation is weaponized and unbridled chaos ensues. You can cause more chaos with less retaliation and less expense through social media weaponization than you can through traditional warfare.
Four. Finally, there is no escaping this battlefield. We can’t turn back the clock, we can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube; we can’t put the Genie back in the bottle.
Don’t count on the Tech Bros who are making billions of dollars off their social media platforms to protect us. They’ve proven inept in controlling the misinformation flow. In fact, their platforms are allies in this misinformation.
Meanwhile, they’re allowing authoritarian governments to take over social media for the purpose of dismantling democratic governments.
We have to know how this war works; otherwise, the trolls, terrorists, and foreign enemies will take us over. Look how divided our country is. The trolls are already winning.
Think about that next time you distract yourself with a cat video.