“LikeWar” is a lively user’s guide for today’s virtual battlefield

If you’re online, especially on social media, you should know: you’re on a battlefield.

This is the urgent case that P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking make in LikeWar. The authors, a “pairing of digital immigrant digital native,” as they put it, bring their combined expertise in technology, security, and digital communications to lay out the landscape of this new battlefield to equip readers to be able to navigate this new environment responsibly and with skill.

Much of the book is taken up by a lively survey of the development of the internet and the emergence of social media. We learn the story of the US military’s creation of the internet, how the internet works, and how mobile devices and social media have democratized this new technology and transformed it into the global platform we know today.

A central theme of the book is the ways the internet has changed conflict, and how conflict, in turn, has shaped the internet. For example, states’ ability to keep secrets has long been critical for defense and security. But with social media, it is now almost impossible for anyone to keep any secret for long. The authors illustrate this point with one of the book’s many astonishing and often terrifying anecdotes: the story of a young man sitting in his apartment in Abbottabad who took to Twitter to complain about the roar of the helicopters above, and in doing so unwittingly blew the lid on the US SEAL Team 6 operation to capture Osama bin Laden. This is one of the numerous fascinating examples that show how the modern internet and social media have fundamentally transformed the landscape of conflict and competition among nations and non-state actors.

One of the most consequential features of this new landscape, say Singer and Brooking, is the advantage to be gained by those who can most effectively command attention and drive a narrative. The authors agree with ISIS propagandists that “media weapons [can] actually be more potent than atomic bombs.” In their chapter on the battle for attention, Singer and Brooking analyze at length the way ISIS employed social media to spread its message and recruit fighters, comparing this to the viral marketing genius of Taylor Swift. The authors devote several pages to the Trump 2016 campaign’s astonishingly effective use of Facebook’s algorithms to drive attention and make content go viral.

Though they draw on their own original research, Singer and Brooking are not sharing much that is new, and this is one of the impressive things about the book. They cite a whole raft of technology and military experts who many years and, in some cases, decades ago predicted many of these changes. To take one example: a 1990 study by RAND made this strikingly prescient claim: “Future conflict would be won not by physical forces … but by the availability and manipulation of information.”

The authors survey the LikeWar landscape ably, but they don’t stop at exposition: they’re also concerned about what if any responsibility leaders in tech and government, as well as citizens, now have. While they don’t offer very specific recommendations (for example, they don’t take a position on whether tech giants should be broken up), they make a compelling moral and pragmatic case that tech giants like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey must take on more responsibility, much as they understandably want to resist doing so. These giants are “accidental emperors” who must take on a role that neither they nor their employees signed up for: content moderators. Public officials need to step up too, say Singer and Brooking. For example, they should fund and support programs to increase information literacy, the same way government seeks to support various other public goods. And of course, each of us who regularly uses the internet and social media is responsible too, not only for ourselves but also for others, motivated by the same “ethic of responsibility”—similar to the neighborly love Christians must follow—that makes us cover our mouths when we cough in public places.

Unlike many conflicts and wars of the past, where the responsible parties were chiefly government and military leaders, LikeWar has the capacity to involve each person individually in the strongest sense of this term: manipulative, if not malicious, actors prey on our likes, hates, loves, and attachments, and are able to make us think what and how they want and, in some cases, to do what they want. In the face of this new reality, it is incumbent on everyone who has regular access to the internet, especially a smartphone, to understand and know how to navigate these challenges. To this end, LikeWar is an illuminating primer and helpful guide. The authors may be further commended for making it a lively and interesting read.