Interview Selects 4.10.20
Ep 12 | 4.10.20

Peter W. Singer on his book LikeWar, the Weaponization of Social Media.


Dave Bittner: 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 cyberwarfare 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, D.C.

Peter W. Singer: 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.

Peter W. Singer: 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: 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, you know, checking Twitter on the subway on the way to work is 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 50 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: 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, you know, 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.

Peter W. Singer: You know, again, sort of a seemingly obvious realization, but, you know, this is where we're at. And then finally, you had a policy change in the U.S. military, which allowed deploying service members to Afghanistan to use Facebook and Twitter.

Peter W. Singer: 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, you know, everything from family members, friends, journalists back home. You name it. And so you had this kind of connection point. And so all 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.

Peter W. Singer: But very quickly, that widened. If you're looking at, for instance, Iraq and Syria, the rise of ISIS 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 - hold it - 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: 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 - you know, sort of the classic definition of cyberwar - but rather hacking the people on social networks by driving ideas viral - what we call a like war.

Dave Bittner: Yeah, there's no shortage of, you know, 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, you know, 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: 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, we - this is talking about the rise of the Nazi party. The top propagandist of it said, we couldn't have done it without the radio.

Peter W. Singer: 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, you know, 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: 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 years ago. You know, just a couple years ago, there was this just crazy level of techno-optimism. You know, it was 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.

Peter W. Singer: Now it feels kind of creepy, where they're pushing, quote, "the more we connect, the better it gets." Think about that, you know, now, how that sounds. No, the more we connect, the more we connect. And, you know, we've seen the good and the bad of it.

Peter W. Singer: But you had this kind of crazy level of techno-optimism. And now we're feeling sort of the second side of it. 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, you know, 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.

Peter W. Singer: 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?

Dave Bittner: That's Peter W. Singer. He's author of the book "LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media" along with his co-author Emerson Brooking.