In this CyberWire special edition, an extended version of our conversation from earlier this year with Peter W. Singer. We spoke not long after the publication of his book, LikeWar - the Weaponization of Social Media.
Dave Bittner: [00:00:04] Hello everyone, I'm Dave Bittner. Thanks for joining us in this CyberWire special edition, an extended version of my conversation from earlier this year with Peter W. Singer. We spoke not long after the publication of his book, "LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media."
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Dave Bittner: [00:01:36] My guest today is Peter W. Singer. He's a strategist at New America and author of the book "LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media," along with his co-author Emerson Brooking. Mr. Singer is author of a number of books on both conventional and cyber warfare, and was named one of the top 100 most influential people in defense issues by Defense News. He joined us from his office in Washington, DC.
Peter W. Singer: [00:02:02] So we started this project almost five years ago and there was a series of seemingly, you know, kind of new break points. But actually, now in retrospect, they signified a new normal. And they were everything from, for example, you had the first what was called "Twitter war" that played out where Israel and Hamas had one of their sort of regular conflicts, and there was a series of days of airstrikes and the like. And it kind of ended inconclusively on the ground. But alongside it, for the first time, you had these online, what we now call "battles," but basically debates going back and forth as to what was happening, literally millions of messages. And what was interesting about it was not just that you had these messages going back and forth, but that the vast majority of the messages claiming what was happening on the ground, who was in the right and wrong, were being pushed by people physically outside the region.
Peter W. Singer: [00:03:03] And what was even more notable than the fact that, you know, you could, for example, weigh in on this conflict even though you might be checking Twitter on the subway on the way to work – it's that actually the ebb and flow of the conflict had real world consequences. They later found that essentially whichever side was winning, so to speak, in the trends online, it shaped the both pace and location of the airstrikes by over fifty percent. What was essentially happening is that the Israeli generals and politicians were watching the maps, but also watching their Twitter feed, which now, of course, you know, seems normal.
Peter W. Singer: [00:03:45] Another example about five years back was we had a group of terrorists seize a shopping mall in Kenya, and the government tried to shut down communication and reporting about what was happening. And the result was that the terrorists who were on social media became the primary source for the world on their act of terrorism. So actually, we fed into the very goal of terrorism, which is to drive the message and it's to drive fear viral. But what was, again, interesting is the terrorists realized that because they own the narrative, they also didn't have to tell the truth online. You know, again, sort of a seemingly obvious realization but, you know, this is where we are at.
Peter W. Singer: [00:04:32] And then finally, you had a policy change in the US military which allowed deploying service members to Afghanistan to use Facebook and Twitter. And so for the first time, you had people in the battlefield able to "friend" their enemy, and in turn, their enemy, the Taliban, could not just friend and stalk and track and communicate with them, but could equally reach out and connect to everything from family members, friends, journalists back home, you name it. And so you had this kind of connection point.
Peter W. Singer: [00:05:08] So all of these things were a spark for us to start the book project. And then we started to explore essentially how social media was being used in war zones around the world. But very quickly, that widened. If you're looking at, for instance, Iraq and Syria, the rise of ISIS, it becomes a story of terrorism. If you're looking at terrorism, you have a cross with things like the drug war in Mexico, and we started to look at how drug cartels were using it. Then we began to look at all the Chicago gangs. If you're looking at how it was used in places like Russia and Ukraine, very quickly it moved into American domestic politics.
Peter W. Singer: [00:05:45] And so the project was essentially trying to explore just what's going on here in this new form of online conflict that, as we talk about it, is not about hacking of computers on the network – sort of the classic definition of cyber war – but rather hacking the people on social networks by driving ideas viral, what we call a "LikeWar."
Dave Bittner: [00:06:10] Yeah, it's fascinating. And one of the things you dig into is the effect that crowdsourcing has had on politics and war and reporting. It strikes me that, you know, in some ways crowdsourcing sort of – it short-circuits what had previously been gatekeepers when it came to providing information.
Peter W. Singer: [00:06:30] Absolutely. And one of the interesting things is that when we cut across all of these different actors and, you know, we have cases that looked at everything from Donald Trump's very first tweet to then how the Donald Trump campaign utilized social media, to ISIS, to celebrities like Taylor Swift, to corporations, to athletes, to teenagers, criminal groups, you name it. You know what cuts across this is, just as you hit it, this notion of the traditional breakdown of the gatekeepers.
Peter W. Singer: [00:07:05] And, you know, even the very meaning of the word "media" comes from the Latin, "the middle." And the media was the group that was in the middle that would collect the news and then distill it and share it with the rest of the world. It was the gatekeeper. And again, this this meaning dates back centuries. What we have now is essentially we can all be collectors of information, and we can be individual sharers of information. And it breaks down that notion of something in the middle – the gatekeepers, as you talk about it.
Peter W. Singer: [00:07:46] And you know, what was interesting is that people that range from Donald Trump, to NBA players, to terrorists, all have talked about how they love social media because it is the equivalent of them owning their own newspapers, the way they've all described it, that they don't have to go through this media and the middle to push out their message.
Peter W. Singer: [00:08:13] And again, all of this, like every other technology – like, you know, the meaning of the word hacking – it can be for good and bad. We profile, for example, groups that are individuals that sort of illustrate this. And I think a fascinating example is a set of little girls. One was a little girl in Pennsylvania who – the newspaper in her small town goes out of business because of what social media has done to the media business. And so she launches her own online newspaper. Now, the first story, you know, it's about the birth of her baby brother. Not – doesn't go all that viral. But later on, she begins to report on a variety of things in her small town, including she's the first one to break the news of the first murder in her small town in over a generation. And it's a sort of wonderful story of empowerment and news spreading. Actually, she also reports on corruption in the city government, and government officials start to meet in a bar to avoid her. And she's under the age of ten.
Dave Bittner: [00:09:19] (Laughs)
Peter W. Singer: [00:09:19] But then you have the flipside of this – you know, it's a great story – you have the flipside, though, of a little girl named Janna Jihad who, equally under the age of ten, decides to become an online reporter, but she grows up in the Palestinian territories. And she – her life has been shaped by loss, two family members have been killed in violence there. And so she actively seeks out battles to not just report them, but as she describes, her camera is her gun. She sees herself as a new kind of information warrior. And so it shows you kind of this duality of the gathering of information, but also in its spread, it can be weaponized.
Dave Bittner: [00:10:11] And we see just that. I mean, obviously, front and center has been Russian operatives in our recent elections and continuing, and the rise of the trolls. It seems like this new type of warfare that doesn't require a huge investment to get great returns from.
Peter W. Singer: [00:10:32] That's an absolutely essential point in two different ways that you hit on there. One is the essentially low barriers to entry of this space and the proliferation of the tactics. And then the second is to understand trolling and its impact, not just in Internet, but moving beyond to, for instance, our politics.
Peter W. Singer: [00:10:59] So on the first part, we, again, explored all of these different kinds of actors. We also gathered both massive quantitative data, but also did interviews with people who ranged from, for instance, the literal godfather of the Internet itself, to recruiters for extremist groups, to tech company executives, to celebrities, to members of the US military, both active to retired – including one retired three-star who's become quite controversial, Gen. Michael Flynn – you name it, all of these different things.
Peter W. Singer: [00:11:39] And what we found was a consistent set of rules across these actors, a consistent set of tactics. You know, what we call LikeWar – this hacking of people on the networks – it actually follows a particular set of tactics, a particular set of rules, regardless if you are Taylor Swift or Junaid Hussain, who was ISIS's top recruiter. And one of the things is that groups are learning these set of tactics and then they're mimicking each other and they're spreading across.
Peter W. Singer: [00:12:11] So one of the more amusing examples of this, but kind of scary examples of this, is the very same tactics that were used by Russian information warriors to – you know, they've used it everywhere from targeting Ukrainian military units to political campaigns, be it Brexit to the US election, to the upcoming European elections – that's been mimicked by actors that range from a collective of Lady Gaga fans who consciously copied the Russian tactics to try and sabotage the prospect of rival movies when her movie "A Star Is Born" came out. A set of her fans organized to create sockpuppet accounts and false stories and false reviews of the rival movies.
Peter W. Singer: [00:13:05] Most recently, there's been the announcement of an app for twenty-nine dollars where you can plant stories in someone's Facebook feed to try and manipulate them to some end. So, for instance, the company that advertises it talks about how you can manipulate your spouse by, for example, planting different kinds of suggestive imagery. They'll get over two hundred messages and stories that they'll be seeing in their feed to – if you want to manipulate, you know, it's for everything from interpersonal relations, to you want them to buy a puppy, to – a different example is to try and get a girlfriend or boyfriend planting all sorts of different stories about maybe they should marry you. All these sorts of things – it's allowing a kind of targeting that wasn't possible before.
Peter W. Singer: [00:13:58] So this kind of – these tactics, they're proliferating. And that's why we're going to see more and more of them hitting, again, everything from elections – and not just at the national level; we're seeing these tactics swinging down to even the local level – but also all sorts of other enterprises.
Peter W. Singer: [00:14:17] The second thing that you've hit is trolling. And again, the pervasiveness of trolling that's out there. And there's a core lesson of trolling that too many of us aren't aware of. It's basically – the maxim is attack and then play the victim, attack and then play the victim. And again, you can see this in everything from the very origin of Internet trolling. We go back and tell the story of the literal first Internet trolls and where the terminology comes from, to how it's popped up today into American politics, and how it's almost become the essence of American politics today – attack, but then play the victim.
Dave Bittner: [00:14:59] I want to dig into the platforms themselves. They say that, well, there's no way that we can – at the scale we're running, there's no way that we can filter messages, and you wouldn't even want us to anyway. We want to, you know, we want free speech and we want everyone to be able to share their ideas. And a couple things come to mind with me. First of all, is there a government role to play in terms of regulating what can and can't go on these platforms, or guidelines and so forth? But also, it strikes me that really what they're saying when they say we can't filter this stuff, is that we can't filter this stuff and still bring you this product for free. We can't filter this stuff and still operate at the profit margins with which we operate. Does that make any sense?
Peter W. Singer: [00:15:46] Yeah. And it's interesting because what we explore in the book is this evolution. So there's always been a bit of a contradiction where the companies say, you know, there's – even before "we can't," it's that we shouldn't, that's not our job. We don't want to be – as, for example, Mark Zuckerberg put it – the arbiters of truth. Or, for example, you go back to the very origin of YouTube. YouTube is created as a way, in essence, around censorship. Its origin, one of the idea sparks for it is the infamous Super Bowl nip slip, the Janet Jackson episode where, you know, something happens, but there's – it's very difficult – media won't show it afterwards. But people want to find a way to find it, a video sharing service. And that's one of the origins of it.
Peter W. Singer: [00:16:44] But then, as we explore, is that the reality is, is they've always been in this game of deciding what is allowed or not. From the very starting point, it may have begun as a way around censorship. But very quickly, for instance, YouTube gets pulled into everything from, well, we need to censor for intellectual property theft violations, to child pornography. Over time, that initial intervention expands. So it's, well, you can say and do everything except – and initially, it's child porn. Well, we can all agree that's bad.
Dave Bittner: [00:17:24] Right.
Peter W. Singer: [00:17:25] Then, post-9/11, it becomes beheading videos, it becomes extremist imageries of violence. But then you get issues of, well, what about messages that don't show violence but inspire violence? For example, al-Awlaki was a cleric who inspired a series of suicide bombings. And at the time, it's allowed on YouTube. In fact, the algorithms are quite helpful and they actually will steer you to more of his sermons – if you're interested in this experience, here's more of them.
Dave Bittner: [00:18:03] (Laughs) Right.
Peter W. Singer: [00:18:03] And so then we move to, okay, well, if it pushes violence. And then we get Charlottesville. Ooh, now it got kind of complicated because, well, if we could all agree that al-Qaeda and ISIS was bad, well, what about neo-Nazis? Hold it, that starts to cross into the far right. But hold it, I thought these were, quote, very fine people. To, similarly, it's not our job to be the arbiters of truth, to uh, move forward to the 2018 election, if you are pushing false information about the voting – where you can vote or who is allowed to vote – we'll kick you off.
Peter W. Singer: [00:18:47] So the companies, for instance, have decided it is OK for you to push false messages about political policy, but it is not OK for you to push false messages about your political rights. And again, the point is. what I'm getting at is, they've always been at this game. And it's essentially been them deciding when to intervene or not. And going back to the very first issues around child pornography to Internet bullying, the companies' decision has been a reluctant one, because every minute, every dollar that you spend on content moderation is a minute, is a dollar not spent on your bottom line, not spent on growing the business.
Peter W. Singer: [00:19:40] So it's not a job that they want to be in. It's not what they set out to do and it doesn't make them money. But they're drawn into that task by a combined pressure of their own customers saying, you know what, we don't want to see this in the space that we're in, and the fear of government intervention, of politics crossing over into the space. So they've always been at this. They'll always struggle with it.
Peter W. Singer: [00:20:05] There's another consistency, again, going back to, for instance, the very early days of AOL, to today, discussion at Facebook and Google with AI. They face a policy, a political problem, and they always try and find a technology solution to it, which rinse, wash, repeat creates a new set of political problems. And we see that consistency playing out again here with content moderation, where they're never going to be able to police all of it, not just because of the scale, but we have a quote in the book from a leading engineer at one of these companies who says – roughly the quote is, yeah, AI could do it if we could just figure out the First Amendment issues. (Laughs) Like, dude...
Dave Bittner: [00:20:56] (Laughs)
Peter W. Singer: [00:20:56] ...You're always going to have this. Like, that's the very point of it. So, but the final issue to what you raise is, you know, but hold it, isn't there a role for government? There is. And in fact, there has always been this sort of intervention. And what's playing out is essentially where you are physically located in the world, your government is intervening in different ways and it is reshaping the Internet experience.
Peter W. Singer: [00:21:28] So, for instance, in the US, we have mild intervention, but mostly we defer to the marketplace and liability. That's very different than in the democracies of Western Europe, where we see more government intervention on what's allowed or not, more fines towards the companies, et cetera. If you live in Saudi Arabia, there's a different kind of Internet intervention. You might be put in jail for what you personally post. If you are in Russia, there is government intervention. You might be put in jail or you might just happen to fall down an elevator shaft.
Peter W. Singer: [00:22:10] If you live in China, there is control over what is literally technologically allowed on the Internet. There's Web filtering. But then we also have the move towards a different form of Web policing where it uses scoring and incentive systems. We explore what's called the social credit system, where essentially you get a single score, almost like a credit score, but it's not a financial credit score. It's your score in terms of your, quote, trustworthiness in the eyes of the government, and your online behavior determines that. And then that score is used for everything from micro rewards, free charging for your phone at coffee shops, to negative punishments. For example, if you don't have a high enough score, you might not be allowed to fly on an airplane or get a bed on an overnight train, or you might not be allowed to interview for a certain job. It's actually being woven back into internet dating profiles, so if your score is too low in the eyes of the government, you won't get a good date and you might not get married.
Dave Bittner: [00:23:24] Yeah, I remember someone putting out there on Twitter saying that, you know, if you want to get the Nazis off your Twitter feed, tell Twitter that you reside in Germany, and magically, mystically they just disappear, because of the regulations in Germany against messages that have to do with Nazi ideals.
Peter W. Singer: [00:23:47] Yeah, that's this notion of the right to forget. And again, notice the word "right." What are our rights are highly disputed, and they – our notions of what are our rights change over time and where you live.
Peter W. Singer: [00:24:11] And again, you know, even, as we explore in the book, there's this – technology has always had that kind of impact. And it's really fascinating things of, you know, when did we first start to talk about the freedom of the press? Well, first you needed the printing press to happen. And then you needed the rise of the press, which was a profession of publishers who figured out a second way to make money. It was not just publishing books, but publishing the first newspapers, the first newsletters.
Peter W. Singer: [00:24:42] So again, these notions are constantly affected by it. Social media, has brought this into a new way, and it's a technology that combines both the kind of – if you think about the way the telegraph allowed connection from a distance, but also the way the radio or TV allowed broadcast. So what's different about social media is that it allows one to reach many instantaneously, but it also simultaneously allows one to reach one. And the actors that have figured this out, this combination – they're the ones that have been winning, so to speak. And again, you know, we look at these examples, everything from Trump to Taylor Swift to ISIS. They're the ones that have figured out the change this has all brought.
Dave Bittner: [00:25:34] You know, there's no shortage of breathless reporting and headlines that these networks are going to be the end of us, it's going to lead to the downfall of democracy and the way we communicate and our freedoms are at risk. Do you think that there's something to that? I guess what I'm getting at is how accurate do you think those warnings are? How concerned should we be as we head forward?
Peter W. Singer: [00:26:05] It's a technology that can be used for massive good and massive evil. Guess what? Like every other technology in the past. So if you think of, for instance, the radio, Goebbels talked about how – his rough quote was, talking about the rise of the Nazi Party, the top propagandist of it said we couldn't have done it without the radio. Of course, the radio also allowed FDR's famous fireside chats that mobilized the free world against the Nazis. The radio also created new forms of shared entertainment. So we've been through these kind of sea changes before. What we need to recognize is social media is on that level and we've seen it empower new actors who've used it for evil and for good.
Peter W. Singer: [00:27:06] A couple of things, though, that are important about that. The first is I think right now we feel so negative about it, largely because of how positive we felt about it just a couple of years ago. Just a couple years ago, there was this just crazy level of techno-optimism, you know, as everything from the Arab Spring and oh, social media has a, quote, liberating power, and, you know, dictatorships are on their way out to, you know, Facebook has a motto that it's pushing out that back then it's meant as a positive – now it feels kind of creepy – where they're pushing, quote, "the more we connect, the better it gets." Think about that now, how that sounds. No, the more we connect, the more we connect. And, you know, we've seen the good and the bad. But you have this kind of crazy level of techno-optimism. And now we're feeling sort of the second side of it.
Peter W. Singer: [00:28:08] The other aspect is that essentially part of why it feels so bad is that we've not understood these new rules of the game. And so, you know, essentially the bad actors, whether it's Russian disinformation warriors to trolls and conspiracy theorists, they've been the ones that have understood these rules, and so they've been manipulating their way into a level of success that they wouldn't have otherwise achieved. And so it's up to us to learn these new rules, to be able to push back against it. And that's what the book project was about, is trying to help us all understand, you know, what are these rules of the game?
Peter W. Singer: [00:28:48] There's a second thing that links to something of concern to everyone who's listening to this podcast, is essentially understanding the second side of online conflict. About a generation back, we started to recognize that the Internet, that our online connections allowed, you know, not only this wonderful new economy, but allowed new types of threats. And we began to organize and train around that. And that's true whether you're talking about the US military to corporations, all the way down to the individual. So, you know, we're certainly not where we need to be, but basically we've spent a generation building up everything from, you know, the military gets Cyber Command, to kids at schools get taught about passwords, to corporations create departments, get CISOs, you name it. Well, the same thing now is needed when it comes to the LikeWar side of things. The ability to manipulate online trends and create new realities from them.
Peter W. Singer: [00:29:55] And that needs to be recognized, whether you're talking about the military – you know, for instance, we're just finishing up a piece that's looking at NATO and how NATO spent all this time worrying about hacking of infrastructure, and it turns out that the greater threat to it was these viral disinformation campaigns. To corporations – we've seen corporations be hammered by this. You know, companies that range from Toyota to Nike have all faced a greater challenge from online disinformation campaigns than they have from, you know, the classic someone cracking into email and stealing it.
Peter W. Singer: [00:30:39] And so we need to recognize this, and then in turn, just like what happened in cybersecurity, build out everything from new organizations, new training all the way down to our individual digital literacy. Digital literacy is not just about two-factor right now. It's also understanding how you might be manipulated on Twitter or Facebook.
Dave Bittner: [00:31:02] That's Peter W. Singer. The book is "LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media," which he authored along with his co-author Emerson Brooking. Our thanks to McAfee for sponsoring our program. Visit mcafee.com/insights and find out why McAfee is the device to cloud cybersecurity company. For everyone here at the CyberWire, I'm Dave Bittner. Thanks for listening.
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