Book Reviews

The Death of Cyber Utopia

By Paul Rosenzweig
Tuesday, November 6, 2018, 2:12 PM

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A review of P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking's “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media” (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 2018).


Back in the mid-1990s senior leaders in the U.S. Air Force were deeply enmeshed in a debate—one that, as retired Gen. Michael Hayden describes it, was almost Jesuitical in its seeming abstruseness. The Air Force, on the cutting edge of new, computer-enabled capabilities, was trying to decide whether this new domain of activity was one of “cyber” operations or one of “information” operations.

They understood that cyber operations were a subset of information operations. They knew that the two were enmeshed but, in many ways, distinct. And though the debate was couched as theoretical and philosophical, they knew it was one of great practical consequence. The debate concerned the question of how the U.S. military—and, by extension, the entire U.S. government—would organize to engage in this emerging area of competition. What would our military structure be? How would we approach regulation of the domain? What tools would be brought to bear in times of conflict?

By now, of course, we all know the answer. The United States chose option A and organized its approach to computer-enabled competition around operational concepts that focused primarily on the cyber domain. Perhaps this choice was inevitable. As a government, we shied away from the implications of viewing the domain as an area where ideas and information competed. Influenced by social constructs that resonated with our history of First Amendment freedoms, we chose to see the domain through a technical and mechanistic lens (replete with firewalls and malware and the like), rather than with a holistic vision of information in its full scope and scale. Within 10 years, our country had created a cyber czar and assembled a Cyber Command (a.k.a. CYBERCOM).

Most of the rest of the world, on the other hand—most notably authoritarian U.S. adversaries such as Russia but also large swaths of non-state “influencers,” ranging from 4chan to the alt-right—chose option B. Where we saw “cyber,” they saw “information.” They looked at the new domain and saw it as a network where memes and likes and virality were the new measures of power and ways of leveraging it. America is still paying the price for making the wrong philosophical choice.

Peter Singer and Emerson Brooking have written a new book, “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media,” that is an eye-opening indictment of U.S. folly. Tracing the growth of social media from its beginnings just a few short years ago (both Facebook and Twitter are little more than a decade old), they show how social media has become a new weapon of conflict and war.

The book is filled with an astonishing array of anecdotes and exemplars, each more chilling than the last. The authors provide a number of stories ripped from today’s headlines, including:

  • A comprehensive summary of Russia’s influence campaign on the 2016 elections;
  • A reminder of how a viral story about an alleged pedophile ring in a small, local pizzeria mutated from a bit of anti-Clinton fake news into a real-life assault and a four-year prison sentence; and
  • A history of how a rather unassuming green frog became a symbol for racism and hatred.

Perhaps more ominously, Singer and Brooking give the reader a real-world examination of how social media is being mobilized as an adjunct to kinetic combat. We watch as terrorists and irregular armies such as the Islamic State use social media for recruiting, propaganda and even tactical coordination of kinetic activity. The same is true, at an even more sophisticated level, however, with Russian activity. The book tells, for example, how Russia laid the groundwork for its invasion of Crimea by sowing memes of Russian control that were transformed into a casus belli for Russian intervention.

None of this is new. One useful aspect of “LikeWar” is how current information operations are contextualized with historical applications. When the British cut submerged German telegraph cables at the outset of World War I, they were not only conducting an essential military operation; they were also altering the information battlespace in a way that allowed pro-British/anti-German propaganda to flourish outside of Europe unchecked. The equivalent today is authoritarian control of information access on the network—a response as timeless as it is effective.

The difference today lies in the greater effectiveness of information and disinformation campaigns—what we call their superior virality. One of the most engaging and, for this reader, enlightening aspects of “LikeWar” is its attempt to capture what it is precisely that makes social media information campaigns so consequential. The authors’ conclusion—essentially that people are hard-wired to accept some types of information more readily than others—is distressing because it portends, ultimately, a lack of rationality in human information processing.

The picture Singer and Brooking paint of how social media is being weaponized is compelling, and one that ought to give pause to any practitioner in the field of national security. I am reluctant to be so effusive in my praise, but this is truly a must-read book.

The book’s only flaw—such as it is—is that the authors are long on problems but short on solutions. For this they really cannot be blamed. The freedom of discourse in social media is so deeply ingrained in Western culture that it is difficult to conceive of any politically acceptable solutions that could mitigate the threat with a high degree of confidence. As a result, we are left with the authors telling us that we need to take the problem more seriously and act more responsibly as individuals. That conclusion, by itself, is insufficient—but at least it is a start.

What strikes me most forcefully in the book’s analysis is how deeply disruptive the problem of social media weaponization truly is. Several years ago, in his book “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” Evgeny Morozov called the penchant to believe that we would see the emergence of the best of all possible network futures “cyber utopianism.” He derided, even then, the idea that greater connectivity would bring greater harmony and prosperity.

Today, that derision of cyber utopianism is even more justified. What I truly fear Singer and Brooking have shown us is that the very premise of Western democracy and liberal government is built upon a foundation of sand. In the end, freedom and voting and choice are dependent on the collective and individual rationality of the citizens who enable government. What “LikeWar” demonstrates—to our great regret—is that the assumption of rationality is, at least on a collective basis, a false assumption.

Many years ago, Justice Louis Brandeis famously defended the marketplace of ideas, writing: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” He trusted that, in the end, the truth will win out. How horrible a disruption will it be to our notion of a free society if we discover that Brandeis’s premise was wrong—that the transition to a social-media world, filled with Twitter and Facebook and the like, means that more (true) speech is not an effective remedy to even greater volumes of more (false) speech? What if, to put it bluntly, the First Amendment is wrong?

“LikeWar” is an elegant volume that does not come to grips with these fundamental questions in the sense of offering solutions. Perhaps it is asking too much that it do so since, in some ways, they are unanswerable. But in bringing this discussion to the foreground “LikeWar” does us all a great service.

Singer and Brooking close their work by urging an educated citizenry to be more discerning in their social-media choices. As they put it, “you are what you like” and “what you share is who you are.” With that in mind, I am pleased indeed to “like” “LikeWar” and to share it with you. Doing so reflects well on me, but even better on Singer and Brooking, to whom we should all be grateful for their contribution to this important discussion.