There is a war going on. The war for your mind through the use of social media. Media weapons can be more potent than atomic bombs. Learn how to command and manipulate opinions, and you are capable of reshaping the fabric of the world.
Future conflicts will be won not by physical forces but by the availability and manipulation of information. Cyberwar would be accompanied by something else: “netwar.” Means trying to disrupt, damage, or modify what a target population “knows” or thinks it knows about itself and the world around. A netwar may focus on public or elite opinion or both. It may involve public diplomacy measures, propaganda and psychological campaigns, political and cultural subversion, deception of or interference with the local media.
Today, online battles are no longer just the stuff of science fiction or wonky think tank reports, but an integral part of the global conflict. In a world of LikeWar, internet conflicts now merge seamlessly with those of flesh and blood. The large tech companies are getting a beating. Rightly so. I think it is safe to say that things have gone out of hand. That is before we ask some real existential questions about humanity. Gerd Leonard wrote an excellent book on that particular question.
Concentration of power
Mobile tech, carefully policed app stores, and corporate consolidation had effected massive change in the internet, namely who controlled it. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.
Too big to fail
The web has fallen under the control of a few giant corporations that are essentially too big to fail, or at least too big to fail without taking down vast portions of global business with them. Remember the banks? They were also too big to fail. The fact that power is concentrated among so few companies, has made it possible to weaponise the web at scale.
Silicon Valley as the gatekeepers
Around the world, information had been freed. But so had a countering wave of authoritarianism using social media itself, woven into a pushback of repression, censorship, and even violence by the gatekeepers. Scale allows the most successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to rule like absolute sovereigns over their platforms, and, by extension, over everyone who relies on them.
At the end of the day, the metrics that matter most aren’t the number of violent crimes averted or the number of humans shielded from harm; they are stock price and year-over-year revenue. In turn, for all the transparency these companies have forced upon the world, their most important decisions still originate in closed corporate boardrooms. Ultimately, the greatest challenge that confronts these social media giants has nothing to do with software code. It is a problem of corporate incentives, clashing cultures, and a historic revolution that has left both politics and Silicon Valley reeling.
The internet is hardware controlled
After all, the internet isn’t a formless, digital “cloud.” It is made up of physical things. No one human could hope to control so monumental a creation. However, governments are a different story. For all the immensity of today’s electronic communications network, the system remains under the control of only a few thousand internet service providers (ISPs), the firms that run the backbone, or “pipes,” of the internet. Those pipes can be controlled by governments, companies and authorities. That is why Huawei is so interesting. They control the hardware.
Which means you can be controlled
Through the right balance of infrastructure control and manipulation, digital-age regimes can exert remarkable control over not just computer networks and human bodies, but the minds of their citizens as well. In China, all of these firewalls, surveillance, keyword censorship, arrests, and crowdsourced propagandists are intended to merge the consciousness of 1.4 billion people with the consciousness of the state. China’s “social credit” system as the icing on the cake.
Hardware in other systems
Here is another question for you. Whose microchips are in our infrastructure, military equipment, factories, etc? Read ‘Ghost fleet”.
LikeWar: The Weaponisation of Social Media
“LikeWar: The Weaponisation of Social Media” is a book that anyone active in social media should read. That is everyone. The book gives another (dark) perspective on social media. Similar to books such as “Brandwashed” and ‘Future crimes”. “LikeWar” is a terrifying book about how social media can be applied to not only to manipulate and win elections (in 2017 at least eighteen national-level elections were targeted by such social media manipulation), referenda, public opinion, but also how to win wars and ultimately win your heart and mind.
Addiction to fear
You see, the engineers behind social media had specifically designed their platforms to be addictive. The brain fires of tiny bursts of dopamine as a user posts a message and it receives reactions from others, trapping the brain in a cycle of posts, “likes,” retweets, and “shares.” That cycle is easiest fired up by outrage and fear. The speed, emotional intensity and echo-chamber qualities of social media content make those exposed to it experience more extreme reactions. Social media is particularly suited to worsening political and social polarisation because of its ability to spread violent images and frightening rumours extremely quickly and intensely.
Our bodies are programmed to consume fats and sugars because they’re rare in nature. In the same way, we’re biologically programmed to be attentive to things that stimulate: content that is gross, violent, or sexual and that [sic] gossip which is humiliating, embarrassing, or offensive. If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity. We’ll find ourselves consuming content that is least beneficial for ourselves or society as a whole.
David Bowie was right. Thanks to this combination of internet-accelerated homophily and confirmation bias, civil society can be torn into fragments. You are what you like in your own little echo chamber or filter bubble.
Asymmetric and faceless
The book explains in great detail how Zapatista National Liberation Army, the ISIS, Syria, Russia, local gangs, FARC, China, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sudan, the USA, the Mexican drug cartel, and presidents are using social media to engage what is in effect cyberwar. Asymmetric and faceless.
We are talking cyber militia using AI, message tailoring, sentiment manipulation, machine learning, scripts, words, hashtags, videos, live streaming, memes and images as their weapon of choice. Narrative, emotion, authenticity, community, and inundation are the most effective tools of online battles, and their mastery guides the efforts of most successful information warriors.
These new wars are not won by missiles and bombs, but by those able to shape the storylines that frame our understanding, to provoke the responses that impel us to action, to connect with us at the most personal level, to build a sense of fellowship, and to organise to do it all on a global scale, again and again.
Propaganda on steroids
Like the good old WWI and WWII propaganda wars, but now on steroids, instant and at a global scale. Hitler told his generals, “I will provide a propagandistic casus belli. Its credibility doesn’t matter. The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth.” A completely different use of ‘knowledge is power”. Weaponised information. At light speed. Where any individual can incite a cycle of violence. Attacking an adversary’s most important centre of gravity, the spirit of its people no longer requires massive bombing runs or reams of propaganda. All it takes is a smartphone and a few idle seconds.
Did you know
- That when Trump announced his nationalistically themed presidential campaign in 2015, 58%of his Facebook followers, oddly, hailed from outside the United States.
- That the “Star Wars” botnet, for example, is made up of over 350,000 accounts that pose as real people.
- That when Newt Gingrich’s promise to build a moon base didn’t excite voters in the 2012 U.S. presidential primaries, his campaign reportedly bought more than a million fake followers, to try to create the sense of national support.
- That in South Korea, a massive botnet, operated by military cyber warfare specialists, had transmitted nearly 25 million messages intended to keep the ruling party in power.
- That during Brexit, Britain’s contentious 2016 referendum to leave the European Union, researchers watched as automated Twitter accounts that had long championed Palestinian independence abruptly shifted their attention to British politics.
- That the pro-Brexit bots outnumbered the robotic champions of “Remain” by a ratio of five to one.
- That on Twitter alone, researchers discovered roughly 400,000 bot accounts that fought to sway the outcome of the race—two-thirds of them in favour of Donald Trump.
- That MicroChip could produce more than 30,000 retweets in a single day, each of which could reach orders of magnitude more users.
- That Twitter’s analysis found that bots under the control of the Internet Research Agency (that lovely building in St. Petersburg where our philosophy major worked) generated 2.2 million “election-related tweets” in just the final three months of the election.
- That Facebook’s internal analysis estimated that 126 million users saw Russian disinformation on its platform during the 2016 campaign.
- That botnet contributed between 48% and 73% of the retweets that spread them.
- That Russian-generated propaganda had been delivered to users 454.7 million times. Applying the 4 Ds; dismiss the critic, distort the facts, distract from the main issue, and dismay the audience.
- That by the end of the campaign, the Trump team had run almost 6 million different versions of online ads. Once, the number of variations on a single message approached 200,000.
- That “Jenn” was quoted in articles in the BBC News, BET, Breitbart, Business Insider, BuzzFeed, CNN, The Daily Caller, The Daily Dot, the Daily Mail, Dallas News, Fox News, France24, Gizmodo, HuffPost, IJR, the Independent, Infowars, Mashable, the National Post, the New York Daily News, New York Times, The Observer, Quartz, Refinery29, Sky News, the Times of India, The Telegraph, USA Today, U.S. News and World Report, the Washington Post, Yahoo Sports, and (unsurprisingly) Russia Today and Sputnik. Each of these articles was then read and reacted to, spreading her views even further and wider. In 2017,
- That “Jenn” was outed by Twitter as yet another creation of Russia’s Internet Research Agency (which is a troll factory).
- That the best predictor is not accuracy or even content; it is the number of friends who share the content first.
That people were significantly more likely to believe a headline (“Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President”) if they had seen a similar headline before.
- That the invasion of Ukraine is regarded by NATO as the most amazing information blitzkrieg, they have seen in the history of information warfare.
- That all you see is what you want to see.
Lots of lessons
The book will teach you about troll factories, sockpuppets, homophily, power-law, digital wildfires, military memetics, OSINT, cyber banging, the spiral of silence and self-censorship, presentism, twitter bombs, hacktivists, Bellingcat, Breithart, psychometrics, confirmation bias
Billions of internet-enabled devices, each carrying multiple sensors, are on pace to create a world of almost a trillion sensors and cameras. Each tweet posted on Twitter, for instance, carries with it more than sixty-five different elements of metadata. This plethora of sensors and associated metadata is making real an idea that has long possessed (and frightened) humanity: the possibility of an ever-present watcher. Yep, that sounds like Orwell’s 1984. Alternatively, through the growing synaptic connections the development of a giant electric brain.
For the first time in human history, it is near impossible to be unobserved. Today, a single soldier’s or local civilian’s Facebook account would be enough to give away the whole gambit. Indeed, even their digital silence might be enough to give it away, since a gap in the otherwise all-encompassing social media fabric would be conspicuous. Virtually any event leaves a digital trail that can be captured, shared, and examined by hungry internet users. A world without secrets.
A future in which the most valued secrets wouldn’t come from cracking intricate codes or the whispers of human spies behind enemy lines, the sort of information that only the government could gather. Instead, they would be mined from a vast web of open-source data, to which everyone else in the world had access. The social media accounts of every military organisation, diplomatic envoy, world leader, soldier, and civilian exist in the same digital milieu. Before the rise of social media, 90% of useful intelligence had come from secret sources. Now it was the exact opposite, with 90 coming from open sources that anyone could tap. That is how the Navy Seals found most of their targets.
Battle for attention
In essence, every LikeWar is a battle for attention with a specific objective in mind (promoting a candidate; gaining concessions; winning a war) and challenged by an opponent (other people, groups, or nations). The new reality creates a perfect opportunity for mass disturbances or for initiating mass support or mass disapproval
There’s a war on . . . for your mind
There is just one piece of the puzzle still unaccounted for, perhaps the information battlefield’s most dangerous weapon of all. Our brains. With new technologies such a neural and generative networks, AR, VR, AI, speech recognition, brain scanning, machine-driven communications (MADCOM), etc., we are wide open for further manipulation
- Give a Twitter botnet to a MADCOM and the network might be able to distort the algorithmic prominence of a topic without anyone noticing, simply by creating realistic conversations among its many fake component selves.
- Feed a MADCOM enough arguments and it will never repeat itself.
- Feed it enough information about a target population, such as the hundreds of billions of data points that reside in a voter database like Project Alamo, and it can spin a personalised narrative for every resident in a country.
Social media Terminator
Combine all these pernicious applications of neural networks, mimicked voices, stolen faces, real-time audiovisual editing, artificial image and video generation, and MADCOM manipulation, and it’s tough to shake the conclusion that humanity is teetering at the edge of a cliff. For generations, science fiction writers have been obsessed with the prospect of an AI Armageddon: a Terminator-style takeover in which the robots scour puny human cities, flamethrowers and beam cannons at the ready. The more likely takeover will take place on social media. If machines come to manipulate all we see and how we think online, they’ll already control the world. That is from the “Seventh Sense”. Would we know if an AI has taken over?
We need to be educated
Humans as a species are uniquely ill-equipped to handle both the instantaneity and the immensity of information that defines the social media age. Which means we need to educate ourselves fast.
- For all the sense of flux, the modern information environment is becoming stable. It has also reached a point of maturity whereby most of its key players will remain the same. Like them or hate them, the majority of today’s most prominent social media companies and voices will continue to play a crucial role in public life for years to come.
- The internet is a battlefield.
- This battlefield changes how we must think about information itself. If something happens, we must assume that there’s likely a digital record of it—an image, video, or errant tweet—that will surface seconds or years from now. However, an event only carries power if people also believe that it happened.
- War and politics have never been so intertwined. This also means that the engineers of Silicon Valley, quite unintentionally, have turned into global power brokers. We are all part of the battle. Whatever we notice, whatever we “like,” whatever we share, becomes the next salvo. In this new war of wars, taking place on the network of networks, there is no neutral ground.
Information literacy is no longer merely an education issue but a national security imperative. Therefore for governments, the first and most important step is to take this new battleground seriously. Social media now forms the foundation of commercial, political, and civic life. It is also a conflict space of immense consequence to both national and individual citizens. We need citizen education programs, public tracking and notices of foreign disinformation campaigns, election protections and forced transparency of political campaign activities, and legal action to limit the effect of poisonous super-spreaders.
Also, Silicon Valley has a responsibility to help build public information literacy. The companies must proactively consider the political, social, and moral ramifications of their businesses.
If you are not in doubt, then you’re likely part of the problem
And then there is yourself. You need to leap across multiple other websites as they made a determination of accuracy. If you’re not in doubt, then you’re likely part of the problem! You need to network to out to find the truth. The best way to navigate the internet is one that reflects the very structure of the internet itself. When in doubt, seek a second opinion—then a third, then a fourth.
You are now what you share. And through what you choose, you share who you truly are
So in protecting ourselves online, we all, too, have broader responsibilities to protect others. If people are unwilling to contemplate the world around them in its actuality, they can be easily manipulated. Yet they have only themselves to blame. They, rather than the “ruler,” possess the real power, the power to decide what to believe and what to tell others.