By Noah McThenia. October 23, 2018.
What do Taylor Swift, the Trump campaign, and an ISIS recruiter have in common? This may sound like the set-up for a bad joke, but it may be the key to understanding the 21st century’s newest theatre of war—social media. Peter Singer, author of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, argues that those who succeed on the battlefield of social media employ the same strategies, whether they are trying to spread terror, win the White House, or merely promote their brand.
Peter W. Singer is a strategist and senior fellow at think tank New America and a contributing editor for Popular Science magazine. His past work includes serving on President Obama’s 2008 campaign defense policy task force and being the youngest person ever named senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. Dr. Singer has previously written books on a range of topics including private military companies, child soldiers, cybersecurity, and robotics. His most recent book, LikeWar, came out on October 2.
On Monday, Singer had a conversation moderated by professor Kyle Beardsley as part of Duke’s American Grand Strategy Speaker Series. On social media, Singer explained, countless actors battle for our attention, seeking to elevate their ideas above the noise. We decide who wins with our views, likes, and retweets. In LikeWar, everyone is a target and a combatant at once.
For Singer, the first step in winning any battle of ideas is constructing a narrative. In 2016, Trump told a consistent narrative online and offline with only four words (#MAGA), while Clinton struggled to use social media to promote her message. Stories are how we contextualize the world. Without an effective one, your idea will always get lost in the crowd.
Social media, Singer argues, is different from every previous platform for sharing ideas. Its communication is both mass and personal. Taylor Swift can console individual fans on message boards where the world can see, forging strong personal connections while promoting her wider brand. An ISIS recruiter can do the same, but with far more dangerous consequences. On social media, Buzzfeed spreads hundreds of stories a day, repeats what works, and jettisons what does not in a thoroughly Darwinian process. The Trump campaign did the same thing, creating massive amounts of digital ads and micro-targeting them at specific types of voters.
Singer’s analysis presents two ways of viewing the social media revolution. On one hand, anyone has the power to become what Singer calls a “super-spreader,” someone with a large online following who is therefore capable of influencing a substantial audience. Information and ideas are no longer exclusively channeled through elites; social media presents a democratization of the spread of influence and ideas. This democratization, as Singer points out, comes with a price. It can leave us with widespread disinformation and polarization. The fake news era is the logical extent of this condition, where attention and likes are valued above all else.
Singer ended the conversation with a call to action to his fellow academics—that they should focus more on studying social media and its effects on society. It is a new phenomenon which we are not yet adept at handling, but further study may change this reality. Whenever we interact online, he pointed out, we have a responsibility to protect not just ourselves but also our online circles.
Admittedly, Singer said, his view of social media veers towards pessimism due to his research. But whatever we make of social media’s societal effects so far, it certainly will serve as one of the driving political and cultural forces of the 21st century.
Noah McThenia is a sophomore majoring in public policy and a member of the Duke Cyber team.