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A half century ago, two computers at UCLA and Stanford were linked together into the first computer network. It was called ARPANET, after the military research lab that funded it. In the years since then, the network of networks that grew out of that lab has developed into the Internet, the nervous system of modern commerce and communication.
With the rise of social media over the last decade, the Internet has changed to allow all of us to become individual collectors and sharers of information. As a result, it has also become something else: a battlefield where information itself is weaponized. The online world is now just as indispensable to governments, militaries, activists, and spies as it is to advertisers and shoppers. And whether the goal is to win an election or a battle, or just to sell an album, everyone uses the same tactics.
This new kind of warfare takes all forms, from battlefield footage on YouTube to a plague of Nazi-sympathizing cartoon frogs. It can seem like a fundamental break with the past. And in some ways—the digital terrain on which the war is fought, the need to grab attention rather than material resources, and the extraordinary power of a few people—it is. Yet not everything about it is new. Efforts to shape how the enemy thinks, to control the flow of information, and to win wars while avoiding actual fighting have been around for centuries. Indeed, the best place to start if you want to understand the weaponization of social media is with the past.
The Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz was born in 1780, some 200 years before the invention of the Internet, but he would have implicitly understood almost everything it is doing to the world today. Raised in Enlightenment Europe, Clausewitz enlisted in the Prussian army at the age of 12. A decade later, when Napoleon unleashed war across Europe and launched a new age of nationalism, Clausewitz decided to dedicate his life to studying war. He wrote essay after essay on the topic, exchanging letters with all the leading thinkers of the day and rising to become head of the Prussian military academy. After Clausewitz died in 1831, his wife, Marie, edited his sprawling library of thoughts into a ten-volume treatise, which she titled On War.
Clausewitz’s (and Marie’s) theories of warfare have become required reading for military officers around the world and have shaped every war fought over the two centuries since they were published. Fundamental military concepts, such as the “fog of war,” the inherent confusion of conflict, and “friction,” the way plans never work out exactly as expected when facing a thinking foe, draw on his monumental work.
Clausewitz’s most famous observation was about the nature of conflict itself. In his view, war is politics by other means. Or, as he put it, “the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means.” War and politics are intertwined, he explained. “War in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. In essentials that intercourse continues, irrespective of the means it employs.”
In other words, Clausewitz thought war was part of the continuum that includes trade, diplomacy, and all the other interactions that take place between peoples and governments. This theory flew in the face of the beliefs of older generations of soldiers and military theorists, who viewed war as a sort of “on-off” switch that pulled combatants into an alternate reality governed by a different set of rules. To Clausewitz, war was simply another way to get something you wanted.
Winning, Clausewitz thought, was a matter of finding and neutralizing an adversary’s “center of gravity.” This often means defeating a rival’s army. But that is not always the most effective path. “The moral elements are among the most important in war,” Clausewitz wrote. “They constitute the spirit that permeates war as a whole. . . . They establish a close affinity with the will that moves and leads the whole mass of force.” Figure out how to shape or shatter your rival’s spirit, and you might win the war while avoiding the enemy army entirely.
That is easier said than done. In the time since Clausewitz wrote On War,successive waves of new technology have seemed to offer the means to drain an enemy’s spirit from afar. Yet they rarely work. During World War II, for example, the United Kingdom endured years of indiscriminate bombing by German planes and then rockets that sought to force the nation to capitulate. But the British turned what Prime Minister Winston Churchill called their “darkest hour” into their finest one. A generation later, the same logic drove the United States’ “Rolling Thunder” bombing campaign against North Vietnam during the late 1960s. U.S. warplanes dropped more than 6.5 million tons of bombs and killed tens of thousands of people. But the North Vietnamese never seriously contemplated surrender.
The same has been true for new tools of communication. A few years after Clausewitz died, governments and companies began to build the first long-distance telegraph wires. They were followed several decades later by radio and then television. Each new technology was used to wage information wars that ran alongside the physical fighting. Yet propaganda was almost universally ineffective. During the Blitz, one of the most popular radio stations in the United Kingdom was an English-language station produced by the Nazis—because the British loved to laugh at it. In the 1960s and 1970s, alongside the millions of tons of bombs U.S. forces dropped on North Vietnam were tens of millions of leaflets, which the North Vietnamese promptly used as toilet paper.
The Internet has changed all that. In the space of a decade, social media has turned almost everyone into a collector and distributor of information. Attacking an adversary’s center of gravity—the minds and spirits of its people—no longer requires massive bombing runs or reams of ineffective propaganda. All it takes is a smartphone and a few idle seconds. Anyone can do it.
Today, it is possible to communicate directly with someone you’re ostensibly at war with—to send them “friend” requests, debate them, or silently stalk their digital lives. Opposing soldiers on a battlefield might find and then troll each other online. Social networks also create new ways to reach out and attack, even from thousands of miles away. Propagandists can identify a few dozen sympathizers out of a faraway population of millions and then groom them to attack their fellow citizens. Voices from around the globe can stir the pot of hatred and resentment between rival peoples, sparking a war or genocide. They can even divide and conquer a country’s politics from afar, realizing the political objective of a war without firing a shot.
None of these scenarios is hypothetical. Each of them has already happened. Each will happen many more times in the years to come.
In homage to Clausewitz, we call this new conflict “LikeWar,” as it displays many of the features of war that he identified but has moved to a place where “likes” are the coin of the realm. If cyberwar is about hacking networks, LikeWar is about hacking the people on the networks. It’s a place where military units, using the techniques of information warfare, change elections and where teenage digital marketers, wielding selfie-taking smartphones, change the course of military battles.
From the world’s most powerful nations to the pettiest flame-war combatants, all of today’s fighters have turned social media into a weapon. They are all trying to bend the global information environment to their will. In this way, LikeWar is just the latest iteration of centuries of warfare. But in other ways, LikeWar marks an abrupt and momentous development in war and international politics.
LikeWar has transformed how fast information spreads, how far it travels, and how easy it is to access it. This has reshaped everything from military operational plans to the news business to political campaigns. Great military surprises, such as D-Day or the “left hook” of Operation Desert Storm, are now impossible to pull off in a world in which even the supposedly top-secret Osama bin Laden raid was live-tweeted by a café owner up late in Abbottabad. Some groups are already adapting to this lack of secrecy. The Islamic State (also known as ISIS) turned this seeming problem into an essential part of its strategy when it announced its invasion of Mosul with a call for the world to put #AllEyesOnISIS.
Yet although the truth is more widely available than ever before, it can be buried in a sea of lies. Perhaps no country has better mastered this than Russia, which invented the concept of disinformation almost a century ago. Unlike the United States, Russia never separated the concepts of military and political influence operations. Today, it is reaping the rewards of being ahead of the game in LikeWar, using its online strength to substitute for declining military power.
Russia’s success highlights one of the hardest truths that Clausewitz expressed in his writing—one he would recognize in politics today. Just as the euphoria of the French Revolution spawned the autocracy of Napoleon, so authoritarians have managed to co-opt the once liberating force of social media and twist it to their own advantage. This is true across the globe, from crackdowns in Turkey (where someone we interviewed was thrown in prison for a single re-tweet) to China’s bold new social credit system, which is priming an entire society for digital control by taking all of a person’s online activity and turning it into a single “trustworthiness” score.
The Internet has granted governments not just new ways to control their own people but also a new kind of global reach through the power of disinformation. In many ways, Russia’s far-reaching campaign to poison its foes’ domestic politics through social media is a form of exported censorship. Russia’s actions don’t limit what people can say but rather help to flood the digital and political ecosystem with division, dissension, and distrust. It does so by pushing its own conspiracy theories and lies and supporting the extremes of any debate through an army of sockpuppets and bots.
Authoritarian governments had an early advantage in manipulating social media, but others are catching up. As everything is out in the open, more and more countries and groups are learning how to wage this new form of digital warfare.
Clausewitz would have intimately grasped this back-and-forth between thinking adversaries, but he would likely have faltered in understanding the battleground’s terrain, which shapes its tactics and strategies. This is not just a nineteenth-century problem. One thing became clear toanyone who watched the 2016 Clinton campaign flail online or members of Congress embarrass themselves during Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony: social media remains difficult to understand even for many policymakers today. The terrain of LikeWar is a human-made environment, run by for-profit companies. Its platforms are designed to reward not morality or veracity but virality. Online battles may be about politics and war, but they are propelled by the financial, psychological, and algorithmic drivers of the attention economy.
The system rewards clicks, interactions, engagement, and immersion time. That changes what it takes to win, whether the fight is a marketing war or a real one, or the new strange forms that meld them. Figure out how to make something go viral and you can overwhelm even the truth itself.
As we examined the tactics of everyone from ISIS’ top recruiter to Taylor Swift to U.S. President Donald Trump to neo-Nazi trolls, we found consistent patterns. For all the seeming complexity, there are rules governing whether and how something goes viral. The most successful information warriors are masters of its new rules to driving your message viral: narrative, emotion, authenticity, community, inundation, and experimentation. Time and again, these wars are won by those able to shape the story lines that frame public understanding, to provoke the responses that impel people to action, to connect with a plurality of followers at the most personal level, to build a sense of fellowship, and to do it all on a global scale, again and again, but using individual reaction to each attack as a moment for mass refinement.
The Internet has brought one other unprecedented change that would have stumped even Clausewitz: its laws of war are set by a mere handful of people. On networks of billions of people, a tiny number of individuals can instantly turn the tide of an information war one way or another. What Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey allow (or ban) in their digital kingdoms can make or break entire companies and change the course of international conflicts.
Unfortunately, as these social media companies belatedly begin to reckon with their growing political power (power they never asked for and have often proved ill equipped to wield), they are repeating past mistakes. Time and again, they have failed to prepare for the political, legal, and moral dimensions of their world-changing technologies, failed to plan for how bad actors might abuse them and good actors might misuse them. At each foreseeable surprise they turn to technology as the answer. This cycle is about to repeat itself as companies develop new forms of artificial intelligence. They believe this might solve their problems of censorship and content moderation, but it is easy to foresee how AI systems will also be weaponized against their users.
Thanks to the rise of the Internet, individuals, companies, and nations have had to spend the last few decades learning to understand digital threats and adapting their structures and strategies to deal with them. Now they will have to do the same for LikeWar. Everyone is part of this new kind of fighting.If you are online, your attention is like a piece of contested territory. States, companies, and people you may never have heard of are fighting for it in conflicts that you may or may not realize are unfolding around you. Everything you watch, like, or share makes a tiny ripple on the information battlefield, offering an infinitesimal advantage to one side or another.
Those who can direct the flow of this swirling tide can accomplish incredible good. They can free people, expose crimes, save lives, and prompt far-reaching reforms. But they can also accomplish astonishing evil. They can foment violence, stoke hate, spread lies, spark wars, and even erode democracy itself. Which side succeeds will depend above all on how much the rest of us learn to recognize this LikeWar for what it is.