I was blindsided a few weeks ago by a video of the New Zealand mosque massacre showing up on my screen—courtesy of Facebook. I really don’t have language to succinctly describe what it is, filmed by a self-described “fascist” hoping to pull viewers into his deranged hate-ravaged point-of-view, immortalizing the captured images of terror on his victims’ faces at the second their stolen lives flashed before them. The murderer also captured images of his victims and used them as a weaponized meme, which is now forever preserved as a cultural artifact. Making it was likely a driving force behind the massacre. This visual meme brought a white supremacist’s horrific battlefield into my home and the homes of millions of others who either willingly or unwittingly watched this horror. Welcome to World War F.
The weaponization of social media, from Israel to Iraq
In 2014 the two-millennia-old Iraqi city of Mosul, with a multicultural population of almost two million people, defended by approximately 30,000 American-trained and armed Iraqi troops, fell to a disheveled band of about 1,500 poorly armed ISIS fighters sporting a small fleet of stolen Toyota Hilux pickup trucks. But the war was essentially over before they arrived—won on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, aided by a slick viral propaganda video telling a fictitious story of an invincible army. As ISIS fighters advanced on Mosul, they posted gruesome videos from villages on their path, not unlike the New Zealand one, but peppered with beheadings.
Before reaching Mosul, their hashtag #AllEyesOnISIS topped the Arabic language trending charts on Twitter. What ISIS pulled off on social media was a virtual blitzkrieg or shock-and-awe grade terror campaign, projecting an illusion of overwhelming force. The result was as effective as a real bombardment. Iraqi soldiers and civilians in Mosul, glued to the little screens in their palms, thanks to a new cell tower network built with US aid, descended into rabbit holes of fear and terror.
Haunted by images of ISIS winning the battle before it was fought, almost all of the Iraqi soldiers defending Mosul fled before the first Toyota Hilux rolled into town, leaving the bulk of their American weapons, including six Blackhawk helicopters and 2,300 Humvees, behind. Then ISIS arrived, killed the few remaining soldiers and police officers, and posed for selfies with their spoils. The ensuing images proved powerful as visual props spread on social media, enabling ISIS to recruit 15,000 fighters from dozens of countries in the year following the capture of Mosul. War would never be the same again.
ISIS didn’t invent the strategy of weaponizing social media. Perhaps that credit goes to the Israeli military, which had been trolling social media since at least 2008. In 2012, they took their game to the next level, live tweeting and uploading a snuff video to YouTube of a drone assassination against a Hamas leader. Unlike the Iraqi soldiers in Mosul, however, Hamas had responded to the social media campaign in-kind. Both sides enlisted help from their web fans, ultimately generating a pandemic of online hate involving millions of posts. By the end of 2012, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) was running a global social media propaganda unit executing operations on every major platform. Today, hip young Israeli soldiers complete their mandatory military service as part of the IDF’s International Social Media Desk, trolling, for example, American college students supporting Palestinian rights movements such as BDS.
Sockpuppets, botnets, and trolls, oh my…
By 2016, sophisticated propagandists utilizing artificial intelligence algorithms driven by a seemingly limitless trove of data points on damn near every internet user, revolutionized social media-based psych-ops campaigns. And we got some new vocabulary words, like “sockpuppet.” That’s a human internet warrior purporting to be all sorts of folk they ain’t—like the sockpuppet operating out of St. Petersburg, Russia, who formed and facilitated the Twitter group, “@Ten_GOP,” the fake “unofficial Twitter Group of Tennessee Republicans.” At its zenith, it had 10 times the following of the real Tennessee Republican Party’s group. @Ten_GOP spread misinformation memes and incendiary stories, including 3,107 of its own psych-ops messages, while amassing and identifying 136,000 followers to use as viral vectors, retweeting the St. Petersburg messages 1,213,505 times.
One famous sockpuppet persona, the fictitious Jenna Abrams, became an American mainstream media fave. Described by the Guardian as an “all-American, Trump-loving, segregation-supporting, Confederate-defending Twitter star [who] does not really exist,” Jenna appears to be another St. Petersburg creation. As such, “She” was quoted by the New York Times, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, USA Today, BET, the New York Daily News, and a host of others. Once established as a lovable, personable, witty trusted young Twitter star, “her” repertoire turned socially toxic, empowering millions of other racist haters on social media.
Then there are bots, which are robotic versions of sockpuppets. They come complete with fabricated identities, like the John McCain-hating Confederate monument-loving American Trump supporter Angee Dixson, who was exposed by ProPublica as a Russian bot. Powered by artificial intelligence, bots like Angee successfully engaged with human trolls. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump quoted such bots 150 times.
When bots tweet
Since a bot is just an algorithm residing on a computer server, it’s easier to replicate. In fact, they can be tasked with replicating themselves. Once established as a network, or “botnet,” they can almost instantly propel any tweet or post into mega-virality by robotically seeding a seemingly organic viral orgy of reposting—enough to trick social media site algorithms into seeing the messages as naturally trending, and thus, make them actually trend into millions of news and social feeds. So, when ProPublica outed the Angee Dixson bot, a replacement bot’s tweet attacking ProPublica was instantly propelled by Angee’s 60,000-strong bot cell, eventually reaching more readers than the ProPublica exposé of Angee. Welcome to the future. It’s sort of fucked.
State actors on the World War F battlefields—like Russia, Israel and China—tend to dominate our national discussion of online propaganda. They’re the virtual elephants—lumbering giants that you just can’t miss. The Israelis used glossy ads to recruit social media commandos, while the Russians, for all of their sophistication, just didn’t hide themselves well, with a bunch of Russian sockpuppets cluing investigative journalists in to their whereabouts by keeping bankers’ hours in Russian time zones. We certainly can’t claim any moral high ground against the Russians, however, as whatever they’re accused of doing, we did it to them first and exponentially more successfully using old-school tech in the 1980s, then shamelessly gloated for two decades after the USSR came apart. We’ve since meddled in their elections—shortsightedly raising Putin to power through our support of the imbecile Boris Yeltsin.
Major world powers have historically targeted each other with propaganda—and it’s easy to spot. The Russians are also suspected of using their army of sockpuppets to promote the Brexit withdrawal from the European Union, but an Oxford Internet Institute study contends that while they did exploit Twitter and Facebook during the 2016 US election, there’s no strong body of evidence that they did the same with Brexit. And while France wants to tar the popular Yellow Vest movement with accusations of nefarious Russian support, there’s still not much evidence to support that claim.
Researchers at the Oxford University Computational Propaganda Research Project argue that while governments do target the internal politics of other nations, authoritarian regimes primarily focus on targeting their own populations, with bots controlling, for example, 45 percent of Twitter activity in Russia. Mark Zuckerberg’s reaction to complaints about Facebook propaganda is to call for more government control over the internet. Appeasing governments in this way would, not coincidently, keep global markets open for Facebook, while strengthening the propaganda power of governments and preventing anymore nasty outbreaks of democracy, such as the Arab Spring.
While authoritarians use social media propaganda campaigns to target their own populations, the Oxford researchers argue, “almost every democracy in this sample has organized social media campaigns that target foreign publics,” while leaving the targeting of their own populations to “political-party‐supported campaigns.”
Looking back at our concerns over our own 2016 and 2018 elections, while Russian interference was real and documented, its impact paled in comparison to the more effective propaganda campaigns launched by Breitbart and Fox. Our myopic focus on Russia’s obnoxious sockpuppets led us to take our eyes off the larger faster harder ball on the field. World War F is global, but if you really want to fear someone, fear your fellow Americans. Fear yourselves.
State-to-state disinformation battles are not the major threat in World War F. States, almost by definition, are inherently corrupt. They jockey for leverage and advantage and are always willing to compromise their stated values or buy each other off, because they have too much vested in maintaining an orderly status quo of trade and banking. At the end of the day, they generally don’t want to blow the world up. By contrast, the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama-Trump economic policies have hollowed out much of the US, leaving economically disenfranchised communities populated by angry people poisoned by despair, and vulnerable to authoritarian and fascist leaders skilled at deploying precision propaganda to channel such anger. Unfortunately, this is what social media does best.
People are more likely to both share and react viscerally to things that anger or frighten them, as opposed to things that inspire them or give them hope. Propagandists know this. And despite decrying their own roles in spreading hate and fascism, social media executives also understand that their business model is based on clicks—and haters are the most voracious clickers. Social media executives seem remiss to mess with this metric—unless their hands are forced. Perhaps that’s why it took Facebook until March 2019 to ban white nationalism—70 years after the end of the Nuremburg trials.
Techno-utopian fascist dreams
Social media now gives the assholes who used to live in seething isolation the ability create community—online, as futurists promised. Nurtured by community, haters empower each other and make hate part of mainstream discourse. Algorithm-driven social media silos curate customized worlds where hate festers among people who all spend their lives spreading it. From Islamophobes to white supremacists to “incels” (self-described “involuntary celibate” misogynists who believe they have a right to sex with women) to ISIS—social media amplifies the ugliest voices, delivering them to your children’s bedrooms. This is World War F.
But above everything else, World War F is about bullshit. More Americans now claim to get their news on Facebook than from any other venue. During the 2016 election season, fraudulent sites and fascist posts got more Facebook reads than the top 19 news sites reporting verifiable reality put together. Why not? It makes sense. This column would be much easier to write and far more interesting to read if I could just make wild shit up. Meme factories in the business to score clicks, and propagandists wanting to manipulate you, can do just that, while journalists are limited to reporting reality. A story about the Clintons having an island of sex slaves, or running a child sex trafficking ring out of the basement of a basement-less pizzeria is a much more interesting read than me arguing that Hillary Clinton doesn’t represent working people because she was on the board of Wal-Mart.
Falsehoods are the currency of fascism. For corrupt authoritarian regimes, truth is the enemy: Truth is the weapon that, when wielded, will cut them down. For authoritarians, first and foremost, truth has to be destroyed. This is at the core of World War F.
World War F is a war on empirical reality. Unconstrained by any pretenses to accuracy, weaponized memes are engineered to excite and incite while poisoning democracies with disinformation. Algorithmic targeting coupled with data-mining and data analytics allows liars to micro-target individuals with propaganda psycho-engineered just for you. And they can micro-target the people most likely to believe their lies.
Without a shared reality, we can no longer engage in the reasoned discussions and deliberations that sustain democracy. When reason gives way to rage, people navigate solely by emotion, and too many start to speak the language of fascism.
When you promote a lie, no matter your politics, you’ve chosen your side. This is World War F. It’s a false reality fueled by Facebook, fascism and fraud. It’s entered our homes, it’s glowing in our palms, it gave us Donald Trump, Sean Hannity, Sarah Huckabee-Sanders, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán, and Alex Jones, and it tells us we’re fucked. This is World War F. If it conquers reality, we have nowhere left to fight. If you stand up to lies and liars, welcome to the fight.
This column is an expanded version of the original which appears on Truthout.org. An online version of this column is available on dailypublic.com with hyperlinked reference links. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and critical media studies at SUNY Buffalo State College. His previous columns are archived at mediastudy.com.