Paul Rosenzweig reviews P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Booking, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 2018) at Lawfare.
Back in the mid-1990s senior leaders in the U.S. Air Force were deeply enmeshed in a debate—one that, as General (Ret.) 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. [...]
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. [...] Within ten years, our country had created a Cyber Czar and assembled a Cyber Command (aka CYBERCOM).
Most of the rest of the world, on the other hand—most notably our authoritarian adversaries like 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.
There is precedent in the past, of course, however:
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 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 we are hard-wired to accept some types of information more readily that others—is distressing because it portends, ultimately, a lack of rationality in human information processing.
The picture Singer and Booking 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.
Cyber utopianism is gone:
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’ 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?