When P.W. Singer set out to write a book about military use of social media in 2013, he couldn’t have known exactly what kind of rabbit hole he was entering.
The half-decade that followed would see social media power the rise of the Islamic State, elevate white nationalist movements and serve as a tool for a foreign actor seeking to undermine an American presidential election. In LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, Singer and co-author Emerson Brooking fit phenomena like these into a broader narrative about the fast-evolving nexus of propaganda, digital marketing and psychological warfare.
In their conception of weaponized social media, everyone from brand marketers and reality stars to terrorist recruiters and military personnel are now competing with one another in a viral attention battleground where troll armies, misinformation and bot networks are weapons of choice.
Singer spoke with Adweek about how this social media atmosphere evolved, why brands need to pay attention to Russian bots and how artificial intelligence personas could be the future of online propaganda.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
How did this book originally take shape?
Initially it was looking at social media use in war, but very quickly, war becomes melded with terrorism—so you think about the rise of ISIS in 2014. And then we start to see its use by criminal groups—cartels, gangs—and then it morphs into politics, where all the things that we were seeing in, for example, Russia and Ukraine start moving over into Brexit and American politics and the like. It was a pretty extensive journey, and along the way, the project got bigger and bigger.
The challenge of this topic and I think why we all weren’t handling it well is how big it is. So people were looking at just one slice of it, one geographic region or just one target and missing out on the larger trend.
For example, the people interested in terrorism were looking at ISIS’ use of social media but they weren’t aware of, say, how Russia was using it.
The people who were in these political worlds didn’t understand digital marketing or pop culture so they were missing things that anyone with an ad background or who knew what Taylor Swift does would go, ‘Of course.’ The approach was to bring all this together—to bring together all the classic research in history and psychology studies and sociology and digital marketing.
But the second thing about this space is that you can both research it and jump into it. So we joined online armies, both actual ones—you can download apps to join Israeli Defense Forces operations—to competing online tribes.
We set traps, we trolled Russian trolls.
And then the third thing that hadn’t been done that was really striking was talking to key players. So we went out and interviewed an incredibly diverse set of people to learn from them—everyone from the recruiters for extremist groups to tech company executives to the pioneers of online marketing to reality stars to generals.
How do the concepts and tactics you talk about in your book go beyond ordinary digital marketing?
“LikeWar” is a concept that brings together all these different worlds. If cyberwar is the hacking of the networks, LikeWar is the hacking of the people on the networks by driving ideas viral through a mix of likes, lies and the network’s own algorithms. It’s this strange space that brings together Russian military units using digital marketing to influence the outcome of elections to teenagers taking selfies and live-feeding but influencing the outcome of actual battles. You’re seeing some of these techniques from ad companies, marketing and the like. They’re being used for different purposes, but they’re playing out all in the exact same space.