LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media


Book written by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking

Book review by Rick Howard


Bottom Line

This is my full throated endorsement that this book should be in the Cybersecurity Canon Hall of Fame.




The authors call the book "LikeWar." They cite RAND researchers from the early 1990s, John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, who coined the term Netwar to describe the phenomena of people and groups that try to "damage, or modify what a target population 'knows' or thinks it knows about itself and the world around it." In other words, this is Gaslighting in volume and at the speed of the internet.


The authors say that, "We’re now seeing a new form of gaslighting, perpetrated repeatedly and successfully through social media on the global stage." They quote Lauren Ducca, “Facts . . . become interchangeable with opinions, blinding us into arguing amongst ourselves, as our very reality is called into question.”


Arquilla and Ronfeldt were writing in the context of a new kind of war that the incipient internet would usher into existence. But Singer and Brooking describe a world that is much bigger than that. It's not just a new tool that militaries and governments can use to bend the political message and shape localized conflicts (which they describe) but LikeWar-Netwar-Internet Gaslighting is at the heart of our current culture wars as well: cancel culture, conspiracy theories, tribalism, white extremism, white nationalism, and homophily.


It is a reality today and eerily reminiscent of the ideas put forth in Orwell's "1984:"


Newspeak: The "official" party language that functions as a devise of extreme control.


Blackwhite: To believe that black is white, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.


Doublethink: The power to hold two completely contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accept both of them. 


And governments have been quick to get on the bandwagon.



: Formalized disinformation goals: dismiss, distort, distract, dismay, and divide.

: After Russia invaded Ukraine (2014), they denied they did it.

: When Ukraine announced the creation of a volunteer “Internet army,” Russian propagandists turned it into a joke.

: When Germany launched the Center of Defense Against Disinformation, Russia ironically relabeled the effort as the “ministry of truth” from Orwell's "1984."

: When U.S. claimed Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Russia twisted it into an alleged plot by the “deep state.”



: Official military information policy: psychological warfare (manipulation of perception and beliefs), legal warfare (manipulation of treaties and international law), and public opinion warfare (manipulation of both Chinese and foreign populations).

: Chinese military strategy: “War is accelerating its evolution to informatization.”



: DARPA launched a Social Media in Strategic Communications program to study online sentiment analysis and manipulation.

: Operation Earnest Voice: Central Command's several-hundred-million-dollar program to fight jihadists across the Middle East by distorting Arabic social media conversations.

: State Department poured vast amounts of resources into CVE (Countering Violent Extremism Efforts) efforts, building an array of online organizations that sought to counter ISIS by launching information offensives of their own.



: 77th Brigade (1,500-soldiers) intended to be an “agent of change through targeted Information Activity and Outreach.”



: launched its Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, focused on “the weaponization of social media.”



: Digital arm of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)



: Growing patriotic troll army



: The burgeoning botnets of the Mexican government


I interviewed both Singer and Brooking as a joint project between the Cyberwire and the Cybersecurity Canon Project. Singer said that he and Brooking discovered four rules of this internet gaslighting phenomena as they were doing the book research looking at everything from ISIS, to the ice bucket challenge, to Taylor swift, to Donald Trump.


1: The truth is out there.

"You have now this incredible wealth of information that was of a scale not out there in the past. Pretty much everything is seen, observed, talked about now, and that can be used for good or bad."


2: The truth may be out there, but it can be buried underneath a sea of lies.

"And that's the essence of everything from Russian information warfare to how we've seen it hit our politics to even the discourse around the pandemic.


3: Virality trumping veracity.

"The key aspect of information's power is not whether it's true or not. It's how viral it goes. How many people are reading it and seeing it."


4: Impact: New powers and new possibilities.

"We are seeing new kinds of leaders emerging, new kinds of celebrities, and new kinds of terrorist groups, but there are also powers behind the throne. Tech company executives determine the rules of the game. Mark Zuckerberg decides whether a Russian information warfare operation is going to be allowed to hit a democracy or not. They decide what is allowed to be set online about everything from an election, the corona virus, to a genocide in Myanmar that's going after 600,000 people.


In terms of solutions, the authors point out that there is no silver bullet that will build resilience in all of us against this sort of internet gaslighting attack. But there is a way forward. They say that there's a role for government, the private sector and for the individual.


For Governments

: Take this new battleground seriously especially for democratic governments who are at a disadvantage.

: Develop a “whole-of-nation” strategy like some successful nations already have: Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Sweden. "All of which face a steady barrage of Russian information attacks, backed by the close proximity of Russian soldiers and tanks. Their inoculation efforts include citizen education programs, public tracking and notices of foreign disinformation campaigns, election protections and forced transparency of political campaign activities, and legal action to limit the effect of poisonous super-spreaders."

: Develop national Information literacy programs:. "This is no longer merely an education issue but a national security imperative. When someone engages in the spread of lies, hate, and other societal poisons, they should be stigmatized accordingly."


For the Private Sector (Social Media Platform Companies)

: "Accept more of the political and social responsibility that the success of its technology has thrust upon it."

: Transparency about how they tackle these issues on their platforms.


For the individual

: "Act less like angry customers and more like concerned constituents."

: Recognize that the intent of most online content is designed to subtly influence and manipulate. In response, we should practice a technique called “lateral thinking.” Get out of your homophily induced thought bubbles. "When in doubt, seek a second opinion—then a third, then a fourth. If you’re not in doubt, then you’re likely part of the problem!"

: While protecting ourselves online, we all must protect others as well. Don't spread information as a fact that you're not sure about.


My one complaint about the book is an old pet peeve of mine. The author's use of "war" for their label is hyperbole. When researchers and news pundits want to highlight how serious some particular issue is, they elevate the talking point to a warfare level: The War on Drugs, the War on poverty, the culture wars, the War on Christmas, etc. I understand the impulse but by doing so it places the subject in a military setting and thus invites all the metaphors of war. The dictionary definition of war includes phrases like "physical hostilities between nation states" and "force of arms." As hateful as cancel culture is, I don't think it rises to the warfare level. There is no good solution for authors trying to elevate the subject material so that people will pay attention to it. I have been using the phrase internet gaslighting in this review but even I realize that doesn't have the same punch as "LikeWar." Also, I don't mean to imply that this internet gaslighting is not as serious as warfare. It is. It perhaps may be more impactful in destabilizing democracy than any future physical war. But it's not warfare. It might be a tool of warfare but it expands way past that into our daily lives.


I'm grateful that Singer and Emerson tackled this subject. It's so complex that even after I've read their book twice now, I'm just beginning to understand the implications. Don't get me wrong. The book is excellent at guiding the reader through the issues. But there are so many entangled ideas here, ideas that have been evolving since the world was young but then supercharged in the internet age, that it is tough to get a bead on them, tough to separate them, tough to understand what is actually going on let alone what to do about it.


Singer and Brooking provide a lighted path that the reader can use to see the issues and even offer some straightforward recommendations about what to do about it. The problem is that their solutions are not quick fixes and will require a sustained effort by individual nations to have an impact. In a world where there is no consensus about basic facts, I fear there might never be any impetus to agree that there is even a problem let alone implement a sustained program designed to build resilience to this new age of gaslighting in our culture.


That is why it is imperative that security practitioners read this book, grok the concepts, and get behind some of these recommendations for governments, the private sector, and for the individual. Our community, this cybersecurity practitioner group, may be in a small subset of groups that are in a unique position; capable of discussing the issues dispassionately and getting behind whatever movements emerge in the future. That is why this book belongs in the Cybersecurity Canon Hall of Fame.