BY MATTHEW HERBERT
In 2016 as Donald Trump’s run for the presidency was picking up steam, three of his top campaigners started retweeting messages from a conservative Tennessee GOP Twitter account, @Ten_GOP. Altogether the pro-Trump messages relayed by Donald Trump Jr., Kellyanne Conway, and (future National Security Advisor) Michael Flynn would be retweeted 1.2 million times, reaching several million Twitter users.
@Ten_GOP was a hit. Despite being an unofficial representative of Tennessee Republicans, it had ten times more followers than the party’s official account. On election day in 2016, it easily outpaced other GOP cheerleaders to become the seventh-most retweeted account across all of Twitter. (And this in the age of the Kardashians.)
After Trump’s election win, Michael Flynn, a career Army intelligence officer, called the victory “an insurgency.” “This was irregular warfare at its finest, in politics,” he effused.
Flynn didn’t know how right he was. Insurgents will use any means necessary to win, and they often have foreign backers, which is exactly what @Ten_GOP was. It was one of dozens of pro-Trump social media accounts created in the Internet Research Agency in Saint Petersburg, Russia to tilt the election in Trump’s favor. In addition to posing as individual social media users (“sock puppets”), the Russians also created automated networks of fake accounts (“bots”) to boost their messages, and they bought ads on Facebook tailored to get out the Republican vote and suppress Democratic turnout.
As Flynn would have known, however, an effective insurgency has to be grounded in a base of domestic support, even if it has solid foreign backing. In Trump’s case, the deepest homeland support came from a network of social media users operating out of the white nationalist image board 4chan.
Brad Parscale, Trump’s digital campaign manager, drew from thousands of 4chan’s posts and sent them to thousands of U.S. Facebook users to see which ones stuck. Essentially the game was to figure out which 4chan messages achieved the right blend of outrage and credibility to take off and go viral in the mainstream. Many of these focus-grouped messages became mainstays of the Trump campaign, luring millions of voters to like, retweet and emojify them. Most Facebookers probably didn’t know the memes they were liking came from the racist bowels of the internet. They just worked.
A few of 4chan’s messages became so popular that Trump retweeted them himself, including the cheeky image below of the future POTUS as the neonazi mascot Pepe the Frog. The subtext of this tweet was clear: even if you traced Trump’s online support base to a network of racist trolls, it wouldn’t harm his chances for winning the presidency. As Singer and Brooking put it, millions of Americans were warming to Trump’s “authenticity,” because, “in the fast-talking, foulmouthed, combative billionaire, they saw someone just like them–a troll.”
LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media is not a book about Trump’s election win, but the Trump campaign does frame the authors’ main motivating question, which comes in the form of a logical puzzle. In the age of Trump, you have to be able to believe the following without contradiction:
(1) Russia successfully used social media to intervene in Trump’s campaign to help him win.
(2) Trump used social media to build his personal brand as a troll and transform underground racist bilge into mainstream populism. In making no effort to disguise his methods, Trump ran a reasonably transparent campaign.
So far, these facts accord with each other. Like them or dislike them, they produce no contradiction. (In fact, it’s a pattern. Russia backs right-wing nationalist parties in several countries across Europe.) But then there’s this:
(3) Civil society and U.S. institutions have accepted Trump’s election victory as fair and defensible, despite (1) and (2). Trump played by the rules and won.
If (3) is true–if Trump indeed played by some set of rules that enabled a large part of the populace and our established political system to acknowledge the legitimacy of his win–we would be well served to discover what these new rules are. LikeWar is the first book to take this issue seriously. It documents the dizzying ways our information environment has changed since the advent of social media and the ways those changes connect up to ordinary habits of mind to shape a frightening new social dynamic of pervasive conflict. This new dynamic threatens to corrupt the practice of democracy from the bottom up.
The social media deluge, Singer and Brooking argue, is just the latest revolution in communications technology, like the telegraph, radio, telephone and TV, innovations which also changed society and politics. But it is different from those earlier revolutions in key ways. The main difference is that we, as social media users, are always on and always attuned to the new media in one way or another. Unlike the earlier technologies, which were (to varying degrees) scarce, and which required deliberate effort to use, today’s ubiquitous smart phones give us a constant, 24/7 interface with, well, everyone else.
The persistent nature of our new interconnectedness means that social media is in one sense not just like war, but is a real war–it is a war for our attention. Can’t put your phone down? Of course not; social media is addictive, and your phone delivers your fix anywhere, any time. We’ll come back to this point in a moment.
Back in the 1990s, computer gurus told us the Internet (which they called the Information Superhighway back then) would usher in a utopian age of global peace and democracy. Information, they said, wanted to be free, and no despot could suppress citizens with free access to so many facts, ideas, and potential ideological allies. Instead, humans have used the Internet to do the same things we did before the revolution, much of which is partisan, narrow-minded, and even dreadful, such as crime, cruelty and war.
Social media hasn’t transformed us; it has intensified who we already were and given us shortcuts to pursue some of our worst instincts.
Eighty percent of fights in Chicago schools originate online. Some of the instigations involve the brandishing of gun images, which in very short order causes real gunfire and death. Where formerly a gang member would have to take a real risk to edge up to his rivals’s turf and issue a threat, the same thing now happens with a mouse click. “The decentralized technology,” Singer and Brooking tell us, “allows any individual to ignite this cycle of violence.” It’s easy to imagine someone thousands of miles away from someone else’s turf, with no stake in gang violence, sparking a lethal fight.
In Myanmar (Burma) since 2013, government-fabricated (and other) rumors of religious violence have sparked real acts of genocide by majority Buddhists against minority Muslims. The Muslims quickly learned the trick and turned it against the Buddhists in reprisals, albeit to lesser effect. (In 2018 Facebook was scrambling to hire scores of Burmese speakers to moderate hate speech and try to prevent new outbreaks of this social media war.)
Violence is often purposefully demonstrative. The terrorist group ISIS made its name spreading increasingly gruesome snuff videos. After a series of online beheadings, it invited fans, through social media, to vote on new, creatively cruel ways to kill its captives. This method is what led to the burning alive of victims in cages.
Such inhumanity is not just the purview of religious fanatics. “Wherever young men gather and clash, social media now alters the calculus of violence,” Singer and Brooking write. “It is no longer enough for Mexican drug cartel [and Central American gang] members to kill rivals and seize turf. They must also show their success.” This is done through multiple social media platforms.
Well, that’s all horrid, you might say, but it has nothing to do with me. Not so fast, say Singer and Brooking. Social media wages a constant battle for everyone’s attention, and what really draws us in is the feeling of being party to a conflict. When someone likes your social media content, it produces a real gush of brain activity that makes you feel good. What’s even more engaging? The thrill of battle when someone flames you and defines themselves as an enemy. And now that we all carry our social media device with us all the time, we can, and do, immerse ourselves in this persistent form of conflict. We are always armed for likewar.
Amplified by social media, we all experience homophily, or fondness for people like us and ideas like our own. Furthermore, we all seek confirmation of our beliefs and attitudes. Social media enables these mutually reinforcing dynamics to play out ad infinitum. Our worlds have become filter bubbles in which we have deep emotional stakes and a strong desire for community building, even if our outreach is only to increase our online support base of allies.
Who is the personality type most capable of winning this war of nonstop us-against-them? Singer and Brooking suss out five key characteristics of social media champions. The thought leaders capable of forming our attitudes and drawing our battle lines all evince (1) an appealing narrative, (2) emotion, (3) authenticity, (4) community, and (5) inundation. They are on all the time, stoking our emotions and engaging us in the stories of who they are–and, by extension, who we are.
Notice something about the five characteristics Singer and Brooking lay out: they are all morally neutral, neither good nor evil in and of themselves. There is not one trait there that implicates a cardinal virtue, such as honesty or justness or bravery, something that would tend to produce socially positive outcomes (of the sort that internet dreamers thought would come automatically back in the 90s). Jesus or Gandhi could conceivably rise to social media stardom today, but just as easily could the devil, or a good used car salesman, or Joseph Stalin.
Indeed Stalin’s successor in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, has done quite well. Russia’s outsized ability to influence events abroad is largely the product of Moscow’s virtuoso manipulation of social media under Putin, a phenomenon that Singer and Brooking document as Russia’s “global information war.”
Posing as real, grassroots supporters of goals that align with the Kremlin’s, Russia’s social media warriors fight a highly effective campaign to shape the beliefs of Putin’s target audiences and draw them into a community of allies. They do this, Singer and Brooking assess, through the five Ds–dismissing, distorting and distracting from their competitors’ messages and dismaying and dividing their adversaries’ societies. Putin’s trolls excel in subverting their competitors’ messages and looking clever and occasionally high-minded in the process–because who doesn’t like seeing established powers chopped down to size?
Whether Moscow is trying to shed blame for the shootdown of a Malaysian airliner by its proxies in eastern Ukraine (as happened in 2014), justify its military intervention in Syria, or get its preferred candidates elected to leadership positions in foreign countries, it has mastered the tactics of meshing state propaganda with spontaneous social media activity that mimics, and in many cases actually produces, support for its positions.
Information warfare is nothing new, of course, and especially in Russia. From the birth of the USSR in 1917, much of the state’s energy was taken up trying to formulate lies credible enough to keep the masses believing in Soviet communism in the face of countervailing evidence. And, just as in those days, it could be hard to tell lies from genuinely held beliefs, even in matters of life and death. For example, did U.S. defense planners really believe in the infamous missile gap with the Soviets (promoted by Soviet propaganda), or did they merely affect belief to secure funding for their own military acquisitions?
The difference today, Singer and Brooking write, is the speed with which such murky beliefs can be formed. In the sphere of social media, beliefs are formed faster than credible evidence pro or contra can accrue.
Were the “little green men” who invaded (Ukrainian) Crimea in 2014 real Russian soldiers, hired mercenaries, Crimean proxies, or something else? It didn’t matter. By the time anyone could evaluate the disputed facts of the matter, Russia had conquered Crimea and passed a law in the Duma to annex it. Singer and Brooking are right to compare this situation to one invoked by Hitler before he invaded Poland in 1939. “I will provide a propagandistic casus belli,” he told his generals. “Its credibility doesn’t matter. The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth.”
The same can be said of the Trump campaign. It played by the rules of social media, which says all content moves faster than truth, and the purpose of that content is to win attention, not to survive the verification of underlying facts. By the time the Mueller report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election emerged, laying out the details of Moscow’s “sweeping and systematic” intervention on Trump’s behalf, the facts no longer mattered. Trump’s supporters were already fixed in their attitudes in a way that made the facts fundamentally irrelevant. They weren’t going back on the vibrant sense of narrative, emotion, authenticity and community that Trump inundated them with. They were too invested in the 24/7 war in which they were all, to some extent, soldiers now.
Trump’s opponents are understandably outraged that a sitting Republican president could all but flaunt the Russian imprimatur of his election. There is, however, a wider lesson to consider. In order for such a con to go global and to become ensconced in the political system of a liberal democracy, the ground had to have been prepared by larger forces.
The larger forces, soberingly, were us. We simply didn’t know, before it began to dawn on us in the late 2010s, how susceptible we are to believing the scandalously stupid and the crassly indecent. In a deeply telling study cited by Singer and Brooking, MIT data scientists discovered in 2018 that fabricated news stories spread six times faster on social media than authentic ones. So, the good news is we seem to have a sense for the scurrilous and fake; the bad news is, we are perversely attracted to it.
Furthermore, some of the worst behavior on social media has given rise to a phenomenon of blanket deniability now known as Poe’s Law. It is . . . :
. . . an internet adage that emerged from troll-infested arguments on the website Christian Forums. The law states, ‘Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a [fundamentalist] in such a way that someone won’t mistake it for the genuine article.’ In other words there is a point at which the most sincere profession of faith becomes indistinguishable from a parody; where a simple, stupid statement might actually be considered an act of profound meta-irony. Taken to its logical conclusion, Poe’s law could lead to a place of profound nihilism, where nothing matters and everything is a joke.
Taken together with our penchant for lies, exaggerations, and outright fake news, Poe’s Law threatens us with a kind of epistemological apocalypse, where the only thing that matters is the war for our attention and the production of feelings of homophily. To take just one real-world example, it was this erasure of factual standards that got Donald Trump off the hook when he very publicly asked Russia to intervene on behalf of his campaign by stealing and exposing Hilary Clinton’s emails.
A real presidential candidate would never do that, so it must have been a joke. Unless it wasn’t. Of course we’ll never know. And now social media has given us a discursive space in which it makes no sense to care about the difference because there are no facts on which to base such distinction between Trump the blatant traitor and Trump the political sophisticate. And even if they were, our loyalty would be decided by feelings of solidarity with one ambiguous interpretation against another. Such are the rules of understanding the real world through the lens of social media–the rules by which Trump won his election. If this new reality constitutes a war, it is a war with much more at stake than whom we elect as president.