LikeWars: How business leaders can prepare for this growing threat

Authors of the book LikeWar detail how social media can be weaponized. Read the questions they recommend business leaders ask and answer in preparation for a LikeWar.

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In their book LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, political scientist P.W. Singer and security analyst Emerson T. Brooking warn that the weaponization of social media is changing war and politics, meaning fallout from "LikeWar" activities will likely affect nation states. What may not be as obvious is that businesses are being caught in the crosshairs.

SEE: 2018 Cyberwar and the future of Cybersecurity Report: Weakest links, international concerns, and prevention (Tech Pro Research)

Singer first came to my attention when penning the 2014 TechRepublic article Ignorance is not bliss with cybersecurity, in which he expresses concern about the lack of cybersecurity awareness, stating, "There's probably no issue that has become more crucial, more rapidly, but is less understood, than cybersecurity."

It appears Singer and Brooking are raising a similar red warning flag, this time regarding the seemingly innocuous "like," a programming feature where clicking a button rather than commenting allows users to show support for some form of digital information while remaining publicly anonymous.

Author and teacher Seth Godin offers interesting thoughts on how likes affect us in his blog post The digital swirl is real, it's disconcerting and it's loaded with possibility. "Now, instead of 150 people in our core circle of trusted acquaintances, we're exposed to thousands," writes Godin. "Now, instead of pheromones and handshakes, we've got to find nuance and cues from video images on a Facetime call. It's no wonder we're stressed out of our minds. All the inputs and outputs have been turned upside down in the course of one generation."

What is a LikeWar?

In this 2016 Atlantic article, Singer and Brooking explain how easy it is to weaponize the internet. For examples, all one has to do is pay attention to mainstream news to see how smartphones and social apps are altering everything from recruiting to battlefield reporting. "But the greatest effects may be more fundamental, expanding the causes and possibly the incidence of war, and extending its reach," write the authors. "Social-media platforms reinforce 'us versus them' narratives, expose vulnerable people to virulent ideologies, and inflame long-dormant hatreds."

The key, when it comes to businesses getting involved, is how social-media outlets are able to create and/or alter popular opinion. As Godin alluded to, social-media platforms create a common space where people and businesses can connect, share, and even market information and products on a global scale. And, more importantly, social-media platforms are able to shape opinions.

"The result is a surreal collision of online arguments and information warfare, where events in one domain can have a direct impact on events in the other," write Singer and Brooking in their Quartz at Work article. "If 'cyberwar' is the hacking of networks, the phenomenon of 'LikeWar' is the hacking of the people and ideas on the networks."

SEE: Cyberwar and the future of cybersecurity (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

Singer and Brooking suggest business executives who have updated their thinking and organizations for cybersecurity need to do so for this new kind of online threat, adding, "Because in the LikeWar, any time a business successfully draws attention, that very notoriety also makes them an irresistible target for information warriors from around the world."

A real-world example

To gain insight into what business owners need to consider and prepare for, Singer and Brooking offer what happened to Toyota as an example. From this Business Insider article: "The Toyota Hilux is everywhere," Andrew Exum, a former US Army Ranger and now US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy, is quoted as saying in a 2010 Newsweek article. "It's the vehicular equivalent of the AK-47. It's ubiquitous to insurgent warfare and, recently, counterinsurgent warfare. It kicks the hell out of the Humvee."

In a roundabout way, one might consider the truck's popularity a success for Toyota--however, quite the opposite is true. "The company faced a barrage of online criticism, growing loud enough that the US Treasury Department launched a special inquiry," write Singer and Brooking. "'Saturday Night Live' soon parodied a popular Toyota commercial: instead of a father dropping his daughter off to join the US Army, he dropped her off to join ISIS militants--and they picked her up in a Toyota truck. It was a silly, bizarre association that nonetheless stuck. Years later, social media users still remind Toyota of this terror connection whenever controversy erupts."

How business leaders can prepare for a LikeWar

Singer and Brooking discuss whether there is anything those responsible for a company's media relations can do to offset the sales-wrecking controversy instigated by a LikeWar. Their answer: Not really. Conflict and politics are rampant online, adding that it is the reality of the internet, driven by the very same forces that allow "fake news" and disinformation to spread.

"Corporations can best deal with the age of LikeWar by preparing for it, just as they have had to do with 'traditional' cybersecurity over the last decade," suggest Singer and Brooking. "Business leaders must catch up their understanding of these new threats building beyond their networks, as well as map out their likely responses."

SEE: Can Russian hackers be stopped? Here's why it might take 20 years (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)

The authors suggest that the following questions be asked and answered before it is too late:

  • Should questions arise, where does the company stand on prickly political issues that are trending online?
  • Will it ignore the fight or lean into it?
  • What tone will it take, a quippy reply or stern-face condemnation?

And then there is retaliation. Singer and Brooking explain, "Amazon, for example, has set up an effort that is a near mirror of units created by the Israeli and Russian militaries to influence online debate."

Singer and Brooking conclude their column with the following advice: "Start planning for the new ways that people fight online, or be the victim of the next 'like war.'"

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