The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Trump, ISIS and Russia have mastered the Internet as a weapon

Leigh Giangreco is a reporter in Washington, where she has covered defense for The Capitol Forum, FlightGlobal and Inside Defense.

When lawmakers hauled Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to Capitol Hill for a hearing on privacy and abuse of data in April, the only clear theme to emerge from their line of bizarre questions was the Senate’s complete misunderstanding of social media. Instead of unraveling how Russian disinformation thrived on Facebook and influenced the 2016 election, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) wasted his given time asking basic questions about the platform’s business model, while Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) took a misguided tour of the messaging app WhatsApp.

In a more innocent time, the gang of clueless senators would have made for an amusing montage on “The Daily Show.” But in the age of information warfare, it showed that our leaders had little grasp on the greatest existential threat to American democracy.

Had P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking’s new book, “LikeWar,” come out just a few months earlier, those senators might have had a better grip on Facebook’s role as a weapon in today’s war. Packed with the past five years of news and a brief account of the birth of the Internet, “LikeWar” is a breezy read about modern warfare, with the authors flipping through tales of Russian bots, washed-up reality stars and Silicon Valley magnates like clips on your friend’s Instagram story. That rapid succession of stories makes it a suitable textbook for today’s journalism or political science students looking to understand how the same apps they use to communicate with friends can be amassed as tools in a potent arsenal.

There are points where “LikeWar” is too married to that textbook format, as when it trots out a hackneyed description of the Kennedy-Nixon debate, or may try too hard to frame old mediums in a contemporary lens, calling Benjamin Franklin “the founding father of fake news in America” because he published under the pseudonym “Mrs. Silence Dogood” in the New-England Courant.

But it’s not the young, digital natives that need “LikeWar” the most. When Singer’s novel, “Ghost Fleet,” was published in 2015, Washington’s national security community gripped it as both a cautionary tale and a future battle plan. “LikeWar,” on the other hand, is not a warning about tomorrow’s war — it’s a map for those who don’t understand how the battlefield has already changed.

To ground their readers in familiarity, Emerson and Singer have framed the players in this new kind of war as kings overseeing burgeoning empires. But these monarchs, often clustered in Silicon Valley, could rule in peace only until a powder keg exploded.

“LikeWar” begins with Donald Trump’s first tweet in 2009, announcing, “Be sure to tune in and watch Donald Trump on Late Night with David Letterman as he presents the Top Ten List tonight!” But this is not (thank God) another book about the president. Instead, it revolves around an unholy trinity of those who have mastered the Internet as a weapon: Trump, the Islamic State and Russia.

At times that carousel of deplorables can become dizzying. The three turn up in a journal published by NATO in a piece written by a Trump campaign organizer that links their use of meme warfare and shows how they capitalize on viral content. When Emerson and Singer note the 4Ds — “dismiss the critic, distort the facts, distract from the main issue, and dismay the audience” — it’s hard to tell if it’s a reference to Russia’s new defensive strategy or a wink to Trump’s bizarre dance with the media.

In some cases, the opposing parties even complement each other’s goals. When the Islamic State posts videos that link gruesome acts with Islamic scripture, the website Breitbart seizes on them to fan the flames of its far-right supporters. With each “like,” the Islamic State gets new recruits and Breitbart gets ad dollars.

Beyond recapping the news, “LikeWar” becomes a compelling read as Brookings and Singer give historical context to today’s news to demystify the Internet as a battlefield. The authors liken the stunning capture of Mosul, Iraq, which the Islamic State publicized far outside the Middle East by bombarding social media, to the unyielding tempo of the German blitzkrieg, which paralyzed French fighters with a relentless broadcast of its attacks. Today’s “sockpuppets,” young Russians who masquerade online as Americans, prove to be nothing more than hipster updates to Cold War tactics deployed by the Soviet Union that targeted the extremes of American politics. The contemporary Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who in 2013 published a treatise ranking nonmilitary means above traditional weapons, is, in the authors’ telling, just a fresh take on the early-19th-century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. Just as Clausewitz established war as politics by other means, Gerasimov laid out a radical new approach to conflict by taking advantage of the Internet as the ultimate disinformation weapon.

These historical references are where “LikeWar” will succeed best in educating an older, less digitally literate generation about how the Internet shapes modern warfare. In this way, the Internet will no longer appear a brave new world unfamiliar to baby boomers but another iteration of the same old conflicts.

But if Clausewitz crops up as a motif that grounds the book in staid military doctrine, references to pop stars and reality television celebrities keep the text out of the realm of the typical think tank fare. It may seem a cheap bid for younger readers at first, but the authors draw smart and eerie parallels between terrorist groups and seemingly vapid celebrities. Even Vladi­mir Putin’s longtime media adviser admires the social media savvy of Kim Kardashian, who can direct millions of her supporters without the KGB.

Likewise, pop star Taylor Swift has perfected an authentic voice on Twitter and curated cat photos on Instagram to recruit her army of loyal “Swifties.” The authors point out that the Islamic State has lifted that successful social media strategy, right down to the cat photos, and tweaked it for malicious means. Given that Swift can summon fierce battalions at her whim, at least in her music videos, why not try her tactics in real life?

But the heart of “LikeWar,” and what would have assisted our hapless senators, lies in its explanation of homophily and its role in spreading falsehoods. Online news, true or false, is sustained by the number of people who “like” it. Each successive “like” contributes to an algorithm that generates similar content, guaranteeing an infinite echo chamber.

There’s another danger hidden in what may seem like innocuous clicks. As Singer and Emerson note, a Yale University study found that people are more likely to believe a headline if they have seen a similar one before.

“It didn’t even matter if the story was preceded by a warning that it might be fake,” the authors write. “What counted most was familiarity. The more often you hear a claim, the less likely you are to assess it critically.”

These “likes” don’t just add up to targeted advertisements. These ripples of misinformation soon grow into the tidal waves of fake news that wreak havoc on elections and foment wars. Tweets and Facebook posts may seem superficial, but they play out on the very real battlegrounds of Israel, Ukraine and Syria.

The “LikeWar” isn’t waged by sophisticated hackers but by those who know how to master the narrative with viral memes, slick videos and clickbait headlines. And when the information war is won in this abstract cyberspace, all the metal in our grand fleets and advanced fighter jets will be rendered immaterial.

By P. W. Singer and Emerson Brooking

Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 405 pp. $28