The Weaponization of Social Media

The impact of technology, the internet and social media on every aspect of society today is a topic of great debate. P.W. Singer, Author of LikeWar: The Weaponization of social media joins Hari Sreenivasan via google hangout to discuss the changes in technology and politics with the rising power of Social Media.


The impact of technology, the Internet and social media on every aspect of society today is a topic of great debate.

P.W. Singer, author of 'LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media,' joins me now via Google Hangout to discuss the changes in technology and politics with the rising power of social media.

Thanks for joining us.

So first, let's talk a little bit about how'd you come up with this name, 'LikeWar.'

What's a like war?

So LikeWar is, like so much else here, a play on words.

It's about how social media has changed news politics and war, and news politics and war has changed social media for the rest of us.

And what social media has become is the nervous system of the modern world.

It's where we engage in everything from posting our photos of family birthday parties to dating to business, but it's also become like a war zone, and a war zone that the combatants range from actual terrorist groups to digital marketers to political campaigns, you name it.

And what they're all trying to do is hack not the network itself the way you might think of cyber war, but rather hack the people on the network through a mix of likes and lies, driving ideas viral to achieve their goal.

And their goal isn't just to win power on the Internet.

It's to use it to win power in the real world, whether it's to win a presidential election or if it's a story of ISIS to use social media to recruit people to join it, to help it seize an Iraqi city.

Or if it's Taylor Swift, to win power at the game of celebrity.

So how does this roll out?

I mean, is there a pattern?

Is there a formula for... or are there necessary preconditions where some of these campaigns are more successful than others?

That's actually one of the most surprising things that came out of the research is when we were looking at these wildly diverse groups, when something went viral, when they achieved their goal, it had the same kind of attributes, the same characteristics.

So for example, the winners of the Internet are those that have mastered the power of narrative, the power of emotion.

They'd figured out that the Internet allows both mass communication, but also one-on-one.

So they were doing both inundation, but simultaneously experimentation.

There's also a feature known as planned authenticity, which sounds like a little bit of a contradiction, but it's a tactic that both Taylor Swift and ISIS's top recruiter used.

They would... It really was them, and they would interact directly with their targets, be it a fan who is sad because her boyfriend broke up with her, or it's someone who feels disconnected and is searching for a new identity.

But they would do it in full knowledge that the rest of the world was watching.

So it allows them to individually communicate, but mass scale because these rules are out in the open for everyone to watch, everyone know is learning, and so they're copycatting each other.

Not only are the early winners, you know, a extremist group recruiter are copying what a celebrity does, but now, for example, the US military that was once behind is now copycatting the Russian troll tactics that worked against the US in 2016.

How does all of this impact our notion of what a fact is or what truth is?

That's maybe one of the scariest parts of this in that the networks were created not to reward veracity but virality.

That's how they were designed.

They are for-profit mechanisms.

They're run by companies that want to make money and have shareholders that judge them in that way, and so they're designed to draw us in and to make us want to click more and share more.

And unfortunately, lies spread further and faster for a variety of reasons.

One is that they can be designed for that network in a way that the truth cannot, but also there is our own mentality that we bring into this space.

There are certain things that we kind of mentally react to, and again, lies touch on that.

For example, the power of emotion is very strong, but the strongest emotion online is anger.

There's also a phenomenon known as a homophily, which is love of self, and it plays out online.

It's one of the reasons we kind of cluster into communities, and then what become almost like tribes where we judge our identity, and we judge the truth itself by being exposed to other people that think like us.

It used to be that politicians or people who justified their actions would look to social movements and say, you know, there's a groundswell of opinion.

There are people taking to the streets.

There's such clear public support for, let's say, a Supreme Court nominee or an ad campaign, but what you're saying is that even those things can be manipulated so that we're seeing a distorted, well, reality on the ground, but what we thought was real was actually manufactured.

We live in a world where attention is power online, and online power can be turned into real-world power.

Whether it is shaping the election of a president to shaping the emergence of a terrorist group to shaping the marketing of what movie you want to go see.

And in that space, that online attention can be manipulated.

It can be steered.

It can be created, and there are all sorts of different means to do it, whether it is false accounts, sock puppets, which have been used by everything from disinformation warriors based in Russia to political campaigns to a movie, trying to sell movies.

I'm giving you real-world examples of all of this.

Or it might be bots, which are artificial voices.

They're machines that, on scale, help drive the algorithms that steer things into your news feed.

They make something appear more popular than they are not.

These false accounts can measure not just in terms of the ones, the tens, the hundreds, but in some cases, the hundreds of thousands.

And so you can see -- this is often known as astroturfing -- where you create the appearance of a grassroots movement out of nothing.

But again, what's important is if it takes on online power, it can then become real, and we've seen example after example of that.

And that's where we have to understand the shifts that come out of this, if we want to deal with it.

The book is called the 'LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media.'

P.W. Singer, thanks for joining us.

Appreciate it.

Thank you.