social media

War of the “Likes”: How Governments Have Weaponized Social Media

Kylie Jenner, Taylor Swift, Herbal Teas, and ISIS. These 4 entities have more in common than you think; specifically, in their social media tactics.

Of course, the former 3 are just pop stars and businesses trying to get your attention, but in 2014, terrorist organization ISIS leveraged the same platform that hundreds of thousands of other organizations use in the digital world: social media.

During the invasion of Mosul in 2014, largely considered as ISIS’ boldest move, they used the hashtag #AllEyesOnISIS in order to solidify its then-growing online follower base and letting the world know that they’re in control of both digital and physical spaces. Following this, ISIS continued its social media campaign, hosting photos of its members holding adorable cats and doing day-to-day activities, much like how celebrities would do the same.

This is just one of many examples of how terrorist organizations, quasi-governments, and shady interest groups are leveraging social media –and the internet as a whole –in their attempt at convincing people to join their side. At the dawn of the digital age in the 90’s, people predicted that wars would be waged in cyberspace, with hackers destroying critical computer infrastructure and draining banks of cash and information.

But what many people didn’t count on was what some analysts are calling a “Like” War. That is, a deliberate attempt to win over the hearts and minds of millions of online users. In the battlefield of social media, engagement is the currency, while attention is the goal. Virality is the new weapon of mass destruction, and everyone from celebrities to governments are fighting for control of this precious resource which will, ultimately, allow them to dictate the truth in the digital landscape.

“Like” War

A Rapid Change

The internet experienced a rapid change over the course of a decade, from being a technological oddity in the late 90’s, to an absolute necessity by the end of the 2000’s. By the early 2010’s, social media had already positioned itself as the lead producer of cultural capital and, by extension, the lynch-pin of the global zeitgeist.

In order to make sense of this new space, social media sites began creating algorithms to sort and order their platforms, helping users to see and interact only with things and people that they previously liked. That is one of the open secrets of social media: what you see is not necessarily what you wanted; it’s been decided for you by machines.

Leveraging this, shadow groups started trying to manipulate these algorithms. By operating within the user terms and conditions of particular platforms, groups like ISIS, Cambridge Analytica, Crazy Bear, and other tech-savvy organizations infiltrated social media and began to covertly influence people’s feed and publishing their version of the truth. Soon enough, the term “fake news” began to circulate in an attempt to discredit valid journalism, while at the same time promoting the idea that opinions outweighed verifiable facts.

In the end, the social media campaigns of ISIS, and strong-men governments like Orban, Duterte, and Trump, were successful in creating a kind of side-reality, where their version of history, misdirecting at best and outright lies at worst, become the norm.

A Lesson from China

In the mid 2010’s, China deployed a “social credit system”: a score card that ranked people based on their behavior, monitored in both real life and social media. The social credit system was designed to promote “good values” and “civic responsibilities”, while ostensibly quashing any behavior that is deemed to be counter to what the government thinks is beneficial to their society.

The way China deployed this system was brilliant: first, they invested heavily in social media, creating mega apps like WeChat where users can spend all of their time online. This app allowed users to chat with friends, watch and share videos, reserve a seat at restaurants, pay for movie tickets, order groceries, and so, so much more.

Once their citizens were completely dependent on social media (through an internet that is, by and large, controlled and monitored by the government), China then integrated the social credit system that monitored all of their online and real-life activities. Think Big Brother but on a scale that graded you for every action you take: buying “too much” (and that amount is decided by faceless government auditors) alcohol if you live alone might bring your credit score down, while donating to a recognized charity or helping out a neighbor with an online query might make your score go up. The idea is simple: benevolent behavior grants you more points, while selfish and anti-social behavior takes away points.

But before anyone thinks that these are merely virtual points, they have real-world consequences: more points gives you access to better civic services, better loans, mortgages, car deals, and everything else you can imagine. Meanwhile, low credit scores give the exact opposite: stricter loan agreements, and even travel bans.

Ostensibly, this is China’s way of rewarding civic-minded people while ‘punishing’ counter-cultural (which they view as detrimental to society) people. This, of course, goes against the very fabric of American democracy, and one would think that no red-blooded American person, company, or corporation would ever dare use this kind of technology.

The Like War

But we were all of us deceived.

In 2017, it was revealed that policy think-tank Cambridge Analytica had used the information of millions of Facebook subscribers in order to influence the 2016 presidential elections. The think-tank used the data they had mined to deploy targeted ads that shaped the way people viewed the individual presidential candidates.

Cambridge Analytica

Using marketing tactics like creating narratives and emotional connections with their target audience, Cambridge Analytica succeeded where so many political campaign managers could not: win the hearts and minds of millions of Americans using only social media, effectively turning clicks into votes.

Now, the online trend of garnering as much likes as possible for your social media post has extended beyond cute cat videos and funny memes: it has been Weaponized to seize control of the populace and dictate to them a version of truth that isn’t necessarily based on facts. In the middle of this Like war, it bodes well for people to be more aware of what they’re giving their thumbs up and hearts to.

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