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LikeWar but Not Quite War

Unliking LikeWar

Review by Brandon Valeriano, PhD

LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media

P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018, 400 pgs.

Every innovation has a fleeting moment when it is hailed as transformative. Steam, electricity, and even balloons were all heralded as revolutionizing warfare. The latest triumphalism of the new is the thesis that social media has changed the conduct of war. In their new book LikeWar, Singer and Brooking portend that the online mobilization of the population around the fall of Mosul in 2014 demonstrates the future of war.

While they highlight the uniqueness of the fall of Mosul and the #AllEyesOnISIS hashtag, the authors also examine fall of France in 1940. This utter failure was brought on by the superior maneuver of the German army enabled by the ability to communicate over long distances with radio. The utility of radio in combat demonstrates that the ideas advanced in LikeWar are nothing new. The book provides an excellent review of the history of media and internet, it is less compelling in its argument that the shape of warfare is changing.

Declaring a new way of modern war without describing even the basic features of difference, similarity, cause, and effect disservices the reader. Those who want to highlight a transformative change must also document the process. Recounting a few stories of the fall of Mosul and Donald Trump’s attention-grabbing antics before the 2016 campaign is not evidence of a transformative change in the features of modern society. If anything, these examples might just be in-depth explorations of outliers, atypical observations. Digital connectivity is certainly is reshaping the nature of modern political warfare, but this is mainly through disinformation, a tactic that does not depend on social media.

Social media serves to highlight some of the features of modern communication; yet, describing a new method of awareness does not allow us to declare that everything has changed. The most central feature of war is its persistence and its cyclical nature, there is no simple way to capture our modern history in one catchy hashtag.

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