What Clausewitz Can Teach Us About War on Social Media

Military Tactics in the Age of Facebook

A Trump supporter at a rally organized by the right-wing group Patriot Prayer in Vancouver, Washington, September 2017. Elijah Nouvelage / REUTERS

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

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