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When it comes to modern warfare, just about the only thing that we can be assured of is that the next major war will look nothing like the major world wars of the previous century. In fact, it won’t even look like the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam. Instead, the future of modern warfare is almost certain to be dominated by cyber warfare of one kind or another. Imagine entire nations being brought to their knees by crippling cyber attacks carried out on a nation’s power grid. Well, one weapon in this modern cyber warfare is no doubt going to be social media.
Facebook, social media and “likewar”
Wait a second, you’re probably saying, how in the world could a social media platform such as Facebook be used as an instrument of war? According to Peter W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, who have co-authored a new book on modern warfare called “Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media,” we’ve already seen early glimpses of how social media can be used for warfare. The Russians, after all, allegedly hacked our election not once but twice. And ISIS has advertised for new recruits on social media. Guerrilla insurrectionists now use social media to crowd-source information about enemy positions. And the U.S. Pentagon has warned its troops and soldiers about using social media platforms like TikTok.
In short, social media is a new type of battle space. If you’re looking to soften up an enemy before a new attack, why wouldn’t you use social media to win over the hearts and minds of your enemy? And why wouldn’t you use end-to-end encryption of the type found in popular social media platforms like WhatsApp to communicate with each other? Why wouldn’t you use LinkedIn to conduct corporate espionage operations against your enemy? And why wouldn’t you use social media back doors to conduct sabotage and reconnaissance missions? One can only imagine, for example, what kinds of back doors can be found in Chinese social media apps like TikTok. Taken together, Singer and Brooking refer to this as a new form of warfare called “likewar” – a new form of low-intensity conflict that is like war, except that it isn’t. And it relies on basic social media features such as the “like” button to work.
Emotional contagions and viral infections
Where social media could be the most effective, say Singer and Brooking, is in the creation of “emotional contagions.” Anger and outrage are easy to manufacture online, and this anger and outrage could lead to violence. Imagine, for example, that you’re a military general just itching to get into the next war. You have a number of options at your disposal, such as a “false flag” operation designed to tip a long-simmering conflict into full-fledged kinetic warfare. But that might be too risky in today’s environment. So why not an “emotional contagion” launched on social media, in which you fan the flames of hatred to such an extent that you suddenly have a great new reason to attack an enemy?
Scary to say, but it could be the case that the United States is experiencing just such an emotional contagion right now. In fact, we could be facing several different emotional contagions at one time, all launched and controlled by various factions within the military-industrial complex. There is the “Russian contagion,” in which we are told the Russians are evil, nasty people trying to rig our elections and take over Ukraine. There is the “China contagion,” in which we are told the Chinese are evil, nasty people trying to take over the global economy and annex Taiwan. And there’s the “Iran contagion,” in which we are told the Iranians are evil, nasty people trying to launch nuclear weapons and take over the Middle East. See how all this works? At one time or another, you have probably thought something along the lines of, “Let’s just bomb the crap out of them before they do it to us.” And that’s exactly what the military-industrial complex wants: a good reason to go to war. (Don’t believe me? Then just think back to the last decision to go to war in Iraq, in which the world had to be convinced over and over again that Saddam Hussein truly had weapons of mass destruction.)
The new arms race
With that in mind, the new “arms race” may not involve nuclear weapons or AI-powered drones or futuristic directed energy weapons. Instead, the arms race of the future, say Singer and Brooking, is in creating better and better viral weapons to fight the information war online. If you can go viral on social media faster than your enemy, then you can shape the way a conflict plays out. And you can certainly tip the scales in favor of one narrative or another, such that social media becomes a not-so-subtle form of propaganda. No doubt about it, social media can be weaponized, and we could already be in a new arms race in which the future of the world could hang in the balance.