Critical Update: Government’s Not Prepared for the Social Media War

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Social could be as important to the future of war and politics as the telephone and telegraph, Peter Singer writes in his new book “LikeWar.”

The use of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, could mark as fundamental a change to the way we conduct politics and conflict as the telegram, telephone and television did in earlier centuries, Peter Singer writes in his new book “LikeWar.”

Singer, a fellow at the New America think tank, opens his book with the twin tales of Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory and the Islamic State’s 2014 drive into northern Iraq—two feats that would have been impossible absent a masterly use of social media, he argues.

Political and military leaders, however, have been slow to grasp, let alone respond to, this seismic shift, Singer writes.

That slow learning curve has major consequences for federal agencies and executives, he told Nextgov in the most recent episode of our Critical Update podcast.

While social media feeds on urgency and authenticity, Singer told Nextgov, politicians, government executives and federal agencies tend to be slow and bureaucratic.

As one example, he compared the hamburger chain Wendy’s, which runs an extremely popular and puckish Twitter handle with the presidential campaign of 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

“Wendy’s seems more like a person [on social media] than, for example, Hillary Clinton,” he said. “And she is a real person.”

Government policy has also been slow to respond to social media’s outsized influence, Singer said.

The government’s focus on social media disinformation campaigns during the 2016 presidential contest, for example, has been far less significant than its focus on the hacking of election voting equipment, he noted.

That’s despite the fact that there’s no evidence any voting systems were successfully manipulated in 2016 and there is ample evidence of a large-scale Russian social media manipulation campaign.

Government and media have also focused extensively on the threat of terrorist groups launching cyberattacks, he noted, despite the fact no terrorist group has successfully launched a destructive cyberattack to date.

Meanwhile, he said, ISIS has used social media to launch a major recruiting effort that’s drawn as many as 30,000 recruits from dozens of nations.

“We’ve spent the last generation catching up the challenges of cyberwar,” he said. “We have to do the same for the LikeWar side.”

Listen to the full episode here.

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