The Conflicts That Drive the Web and the World

This is the eleventh post in a series of posts on a book by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking titled “Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media.” The title to this post is identical to the subtitle of the chapter titled “Likewar.” In 1990 two political scientists with the Pentagon’s think tank at the RAND Corporation started to explore the security implications of the internet. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt made their findings public in a revolutionary article titled “Cyberwar Is Coming!” in a 1993 article. They wrote that “information is becoming a strategic resource that may prove as valuable in the post-industrial era as capital and labor have been in the industrial age.” They argued that future conflicts would not be won by physical forces, but by the availability and manipulation of information. They warned of “cyberwar,” battles in which computer hackers might remotely target economies and disable military capabilities.

They went further and predicted that cyberwar would be accompanied by netwar. They explained: It means trying to disrupt, damage, or modify what a target population “knows” or thinks it knows about itself and the world around it. A network may focus on public or elite opinion, or both. It may involve public diplomacy, measures, propaganda and psychological campaigns, political and cultural subversion, deception of or interference with the local media…In other words, netwar represents a new entry on the spectrum of conflict that spans economic, political, and social as well as military forms of ‘war.’

Early netwar became the province of far-left activists undemocratic protesters, beginning with the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Mexico and culminating in the 2011 Arab Spring. In time, terrorists and far-right extremists also began to gravitate toward net war tactics. The balance shifted for disenchanted activists when dictators learned to use the internet to strengthen their regimes. For us, the moment came when we saw how ISIS militants used the internet not just to sow terror across the globe, but to win its battles in the field. For Putin’s government it came when the Russian military reorganized itself to strike back what it perceived as a Western information offensive. For many in American politics and Silicon Valley, it came when the Russian effort poisoned the networks with a flood of disinformation, bots, and hate.

In 2011, DARPA’s research division launched the new Social Media in Strategic Communications program to study online sentiment analysis and manipulation. About the same time, the U.S. military’s Central Command began overseeing Operation Earnest Voice to fight jihadists across the Middle East by distorting Arabic social media conversations. One part of this initiative was the development of an “online persona management service,” which is essentially sockpuppet software, “to allow one U.S. serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world.” Beginning in 2014, the U.S. State Department poured vast amounts of resources into countering violent extremism (CVE) efforts, building an array of online organizations that sought to counter ISIS by launching information offensives of their own.

The authors say national militaries have reoriented themselves to fight global information conflicts, the domestic politics of these countries have also morphed to resemble netwars. The authors write, “Online, there’s little difference in the information tactics required to “win” either a violent conflict or a peaceful campaign. Often, their battles are not just indistinguishable but also directly linked in their activities (such as the alignment of Russian sockpuppets and alt-right activists). The realms of war and politics have begun to merge.”

Memes and memetic warfare also emerged. Pepe the Frog was green and a dumb internet meme. In 2015, Pepe was adopted as the banner of Trump’s vociferous online army. By 2016, he’d also become a symbol of a resurgent timed of white nationalism, declared a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. Trump tweeted a picture of himself as an anthropomorphized Pepe. Pepe was ascendant by 2017. Trump supporters launched a crowdfunding campaign to elect a Pepe billboard “somewhere in the American Midwest.” On Twitter, Russia’s UK embassy used a smug Pepe to taunt the British government in the midst of a diplomatic argument.

Pepe formed an ideological bridge between trolling and the next-generation white nationalist, alt-right movement that had lined up behind Trump. The authors note that Third Reich phrases like “blood and soil” filtered through Pepe memes, fit surprisingly well with Trump’s America First, anti-immigration, anti-Islamic campaign platform. The wink and note of a cartoon frog allowed a rich, but easily deniable, symbolism.

Pepe transformed again when Trump won. Pepe became representative of a successful, hard-fought campaign—one that now controlled all the levers of government. On Inauguration Day in Washington, DC, buttons and printouts of Pepe were visible in the crowd. Online vendors began selling a hat printed in the same style as those worn by military veterans of Vietnam, Korea, and WW II. It proudly pronounced its wearer as a “Meme War Veteran.”

The problem with memes is that by highjacking or chance, a meme can come to contain vastly different ideas than those that inspired it, even as it retains all its old reach and influence. And once a meme has been so redefined, it becomes nearly impossible to reclaim. Making something go viral is hard; co-opting or poisoning something that’s already viral can be remarkable. U.S Marine Corps Major Michael Prosser published a thesis titled: “Memetics—a Growth industry in US Military Operations.. Prosser’s work kicked off a tiny DARPA-Funded industry devoted to “military memetics.”

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