Book Review: LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking

Prefacing the conclusion to this riveting and terrifying book is a famous quote by Stewart Brand: “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.” Brand was the editor of the original Whole Earth Catalog, which a primitive attempt at a social network. We’ve come a long way since then. One of the main messages of LikeWar is that modern online social networks are not only the abodes of gods, but also of warring demons. In fact, the authors make a strong case that the demons are wreaking havoc in a domain that was once thought to be a virtual paradise.

Singer and Brooking don’t even bother to list the advantages of the internet and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others. They simply categorize them as addictive and let it go at that. Instead, they launch right into their overwhelming theme, which is that these media have been co-opted by foreign governments and extremist groups as digital battlegrounds for the hearts, spirits, minds, and opinions of the people of the world. Their detailed descriptions of these entities using multiple accounts, sockpuppets, and botnets to confuse populaces and spread propaganda in the form of fabricated stories brings to mind the horror movies with blob-like monsters that I used to watch on Saturday afternoons as a kid. Some of the specific examples they use include the sophisticated social media recruitment network of ISIS, Russia’s elaborate sockpuppet and botnet army, and China’s immense, enclosed, government-controlled social media system.

This book is a dark read. It makes you wonder if there’s any hope of the internet’s reliability as a source of truth now and in the future. According to the authors, Silicon Valley is much more interested in the bottom line of their corporations and the profits of their stockholders than in the morality of what appears on their global websites. Honesty and integrity seem to hold little sway compared to the overwhelming flood of disinformation that threatens to inundate any semblance of truth and thoughtful commentary.

For a time, shortly after its birth and baby steps, the internet was thought to be an intellectual utopia, a place where democracy and free thought would reign supreme. However, it was only a matter of time before terrorists and saboteurs began using it for their own nefarious purposes. The flood of animosity and disinformation caught online communities unprepared, and now governments and tech giants are playing catch-up to try to cope with the cyber-wars that have erupted in tandem with – or sometimes as prelude to – actual physical wars.

Counterattacks have been partially successful, say the authors, but there is still much ground to make up. Governments are attempting to cope, but much of the responsibility of security lies with the social media networks that the bad guys exploit. Singer and Brooking insist that Silicon Valley can no longer remain neutral when faced with the flood of evil that has overwhelmed their services, but must provide better security for the online communities of billions that daily look to social media for news, edification, entertainment, and personal connection.

This book is absorbing and important. Highly recommended.

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