LikeWar by P.W. Singer & Emerson T. Brooking

LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media
by P.W. Singer & Emerson T. Brooking
HMH, 2018

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Authors P. W. Singer and Emerson Brooking, in their vital new book LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, have an unnerving and totally effective way of letting the numbers speak for themselves.

“By 2013, there were some 2 billion mobile broadband subscriptions worldwide; by 2018, 6 billion,” they write at one typical point. “By 2020, that number is expected to reach 8 billion.”

Those 8 billion people – pretty much the entire reported human population of the world – are not entering code into those ubiquitous broadband devices; they're using apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and their usage is being carefully monitored, monetized, and massaged. The enormous majority of those 8 billion people check their cellphones with near-constant frequency – it's the first thing they do upon waking (70% or more use their phones as alarm clocks), it's something they do hundreds of times during any given day, it's the primary thing they do to relax (although it does not relax them, and they know this, and they do it anyway), and it's the last thing they do before going to sleep every night. They are not paid for all this time, even though the apps and websites filling that time have required them to hand over vast amounts of personal data and then profited off using and trading that data. Those 8 billion people come together to create the extremely detailed and terrifyingly pervasive world of social media, and in LikeWar that world receives a thorough and grabbingly written cartography. None of it makes pleasant reading, mainly because there are no uninterested parties.

Singer and Brooking talk to dozens of the most fascinating and colorful parties, from government officials to company executives to the street warriors like the “hapless Russian philosophy major” in St. Petersburg whose day job was to do his best to flood the Internet with lies designed to aid Russia by driving Americans to hate each other:

The job was writing hundred of social media posts per day, with the goal of hijacking conversations and spreading lies, all to the benefit of the Russian government. For this work, our philosophy major was paid the equivalent of $1,500 per month. (Those who worked on the “Facebook desk” targeting foreign audiences received double those targeting domestic audiences.) “I really only stayed in the job for that,” he explained. “I bought myself a Mazda Six during my time there.”

Our authors likewise profile equally guilty Americans, people like “Pizzagate” conspiracy advocate Jack Posobiec, whose subsequent fate was shaped and then amplified by another actor in this story:

Yet Posobiec suffered little for his falsehoods. Indeed, they only increased his online fame and influence. They also brought rewards. Just a few months after he'd trolled a pizza parlor into near tragedy, he was livestreaming from the White House press briefing room, as a specially invited guest. And then came the ultimate vindication. Posobiec and his messages were retweeted multiple times by the most powerful social media platform in the world, that of President Donald Trump.

Relentlessly, the book hammers at all the ways weaponized social media platforms shape the daily lives of every human on Earth (the ones who think they're not touched by such platforms are so drastically wrong that they should be the first to read LikeWar), and the cumulative picture is chokingly overwhelming. The picture painted is of a building eaten through almost to the point of collapse, and the picture hardly improves when Singer and Brooking point out that the building is not a cloud-creation: it's almost entirely composed of physical elements like billions of computers and smartphones, offices and sprawling server farms and a million miles of fiber-optic cables and over 2000 satellites.

“No one human could hope to dismantle so monumental a creation,” readers are told at one point in the book. “But governments are a different story.” And that thread – government involvement in this vast and predatory world of “LikeWar” – manages to be even more depressing than the rest. LikeWar is a crucial dispatch from the frontier of a world that's changing radically on an almost daily basis, where the most desperate and powerful actors are the innocent, the opportunistic, and the authoritarian – and the rest of us.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.