P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, authors of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, have a premise that is at once remarkable and patently obvious: social media rules the world — and not for good. As they put it in their introduction: “This is a book about how a new kind of communications became a new kind of war.”
Their book primarily makes the case that social media has turned politics into an alternative form of war, one that aggravates and inflames our differences and puts democracy itself at risk. But they also show that war itself has been transformed by social media. And more broadly, they document how social media has become the weapon of choice for despots across the globe — whether the strongman dictating to a nation, or the troll spewing venom two doors down. Perhaps we should call it anti-social media.
Not surprisingly, one of the book’s main characters is Donald Trump:
Trump’s quest to rebrand himself and then win the White House wasn’t just a marketing or political campaign; it was also a globe-spanning information conflict, fought by hundreds of millions of people across dozens of social media platforms, none of which had existed just a generation earlier.
And though Russian influence in the 2016 election has been widely discussed elsewhere, Singer and Brooking do a good job of detailing its astonishing sweep. Consider:
- @Ten_GOP called itself the “unofficial Twitter account of Tennessee Republicans” and was followed by ten times as many people as the official Tennessee Republican Party account. Its 3,107 messages were retweeted 1,213,506 times, which spread them to millions more users — especially when the retweets were from prominent Trump campaign figures like Donald Trump Jr., Kellyanne Conway, and Michael Flynn. On Election Day 2016, it was the seventh most retweeted account across all of Twitter. Notably, it was being run out of the Internet Research Agency (IRA) in St. Petersburg, Russia.
- Of course, Russia was not just trying to influence the vote for Donald Trump. It was working just as hard against Hillary Clinton. Another IRA fake account was a purported African American organizer, Blacktivist, who urged those on the left to “choose peace and vote for Jill Stein. Trust me, it’s not a wasted vote.” His Facebook posts would be shared an amazing 103.8 million times before the company shut the account down after the election.
- In 2017, data scientist Jonathan Albright studied a small subset of Russian fake social media accounts. He determined that just these 28 accounts had drawn “an astounding 145 million ‘likes,’ comments, and plays of embedded videos.”
- The ripple effects of Russian social media accounts were equally astounding. @Jenn_Abrams was a supposed sassy American teen who commented on everything from Kim Kardashian’s clothes to the need to support Donald Trump. She became something of a mainstream media darling, getting quoted in the BBC News, Business Insider, BuzzFeed, CNN, the Daily Mail, Dallas News, Fox News, HuffPost, IJR, the New York Daily News, the New York Times, The Observer, Sky News, the Times of India, The Telegraph, USA Today, S. News and World Report, and the Washington Post. But in 2017 “Jenn” was outed by Twitter as another creation of Russia’s Internet Research Agency — providing yet another case of closing the barn door more than a little late.
- Facebook automatically steers people to join groups where they can find new friends who “share their common interests and express their opinion.” During 2016, one of the more successful was Secured Borders, an anti-Hillary Clinton Facebook group totaling over 140,000 subscribers. In actual fact, this was just one of many online ( and sometimes offline) gatherings of Americans created and manipulated by the ubiquitous IRA Russians in St. Petersburg.
- In 2017, under public and political pressure, the social media companies reluctantly began to reveal the full extent of Russian influence. Facebook estimated that 126 million Americans were exposed to Russian disinformation during the 2016 campaign. That figure was probably low, given that Twitter concluded that in just the last month and a half before the election, Russian-generated propaganda had been delivered to users 454.7 million times.
There’s more, but you get the idea.
And it’s contagious. An Oxford University study determined that in 2017 at least eighteen national-level elections were targeted by such social media manipulation, by a variety of participants, not just Russia. “We’re now seeing a new form of [information warfare], perpetrated repeatedly and successfully through social media on the global stage . . . All the while, a new breed of authoritarians tighten their grip on the world.”
But despots aren’t the only bad guys. It’s also us. A study of the top 2016 election news-related stories found that false reports, i.e., fake news, garnered more engagement on Facebook than the top stories from all the major traditional news outlets combined. Indeed, the single most popular news story of the entire election — “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President” — was a lie fabricated by Macedonian teens simply to profit from Americans’ gullibility.
Or, more precisely, from our propensity for “confirmation bias” — our deep-seated impulse to selectively prefer whatever ‘facts’ confirm what we already believe. Not a surprise, then, that three times as many Americans read and shared the Pope Francis story on their social media accounts as they did the top-performing article from the New York Times.
Unfortunately, our bad social media habits don’t stop with confirmation bias. In 2016, researchers were stunned to discover that 59 percent of all the links posted on social media had never been clicked on by the person who shared them. And MIT data scientists found that fake stories on Twitter spread about six times faster than the real ones. “Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information,” they wrote. In the final three months of the 2016 election, in fact, more fake political headlines were shared on Facebook than real ones.
Sadly, young people raised on social media are among its least discriminating users. Studies show that more than half of U.S. middle schoolers — who spend an average of 7.5 hours online each day — cannot discern advertisements from legitimate news, nor tell basic fact from fiction online. “If it’s going viral, it must be true,” one middle schooler patiently explained to a team of Stanford researchers. “My friends wouldn’t post something that’s not true.”
Alexis de Tocqueville (or Shakespeare, or Thomas Jefferson, or Hunter S. Thompson) famously said, “the people get the government they deserve.” Evidently we get the social media we deserve as well.