2018, Books, Non-Fiction

LikeWar (2018) by PW Singer and Emerson T. Brooking

This is a terrifying and depressing book about the weaponization of the internet, and social media in particular, by countries and other actors, in order to alter what the average person thinks is “true” or “factual”. The good news is that this isn’t necessarily the most rigorous analysis, meaning that some of their most dire conclusions are possibly a little less true.

So this is an analysis of the state of information and misinformation on the internet by two defense analysts. That is valuable for me because I never read anything by defense analysts, but also because their perspective is strategic, but also broad. They do a good job of summarizing the evolution of social media (and the internet, though that is briefer) and how it is changing the way people, organizations and countries think about everything, including war. The book is refreshingly not dominated by discussions of wars and conflicts, but rather includes those things as examples of how social media is changing communication and information.

If I have one criticism of what is otherwise an extremely good summary of the situation and the problem, it’s that the analysis is less rigorous and quantitative than it could or should be. I am familiar with a number of their arguments and I know there is a lot of skepticism around the types of conclusions they make. Though it is true that social media and the internet at large is being used by various actors (countries, terrorist groups, PACs, etc) to distort facts and truths, what is far less clear is how effective these tactics are. It’s one thing to focus on anecdotes showing that, at times, they are very effective. It’s another thing entirely to demonstrate that Russia definitely changed the course of the Brexit vote or the 2016 US presidential election. These guys don’t demonstrate that (or their other conclusions), they merely refer you to others they claim have done so. And my understanding is that these conclusions are a lot less certain than they make out. That’s not to say we shouldn’t take this book seriously, but merely that you don’t need to get as freaked out as you likely will be when you read the book.

On the whole, I think it’s really worth reading. I just wish there was actual quantitative analysis to demonstrate that their conclusions are correct. I think these are big problems, and we need to be aware of them and liberal democratic governments in particular need to spend time and resources thinking about these problems and trying to combat them. I’m just not sure the situation is quite as dire as they make it out to be.


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