Author Interview: Peter W. Singer on the Weaponization of Social Media

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This week we had the good fortune to interview Peter W. Singer to discuss his recent Atlantic article: “War Goes Viral: How social media is being weaponized across the world.”

A excerpt from the article:

Even the ranking and targeting of enemies has begun to change. Take the case of Junaid Hussain. A British Muslim former “hacktivist” (who went by the handle “Trick”) and wannabe rapper, Hussain went to jail in 2012, at age 18, for hacking the personal information of former Prime Minister Tony Blair. In prison, he was radicalized and, once out, was seduced by the Islamic State’s online appeals. He went to Syria and set to work spreading isis propaganda across social-media platforms. “You can sit at home and play Call of Duty or you can come here and respond to the real call of duty,” his new “Abu Hussain al Britani” persona tweeted to his followers. “The choice is yours.”

By August 2015, Hussain had reportedly become the third-most-important name on the anti-isis coalition’s “kill list”—behind only the Islamic State’s self-declared caliph and its top battlefield commander. Rather than any battlefield skills or strategic brilliance, however, it was his social-media-marketing skills that led military planners to prioritize his killing. Ironically, it was also his nonstop internet use that enabled his execution. Hussain was reportedly tricked into clicking a link in a messaging app that had been compromised by British intelligence, allowing him to be geolocated and killed by a Hellfire missile. (A year later, isis posted new footage of a young, blue-eyed British boy executing a prisoner with a bullet to the back of the head. British media reported him to be the son of Sally Jones, a former punk rocker who had fallen in love with Hussain online, then joined him in Syria, her 10-year-old son in tow.)

The convergence of online speech and physical violence creates new dilemmas not only for nations, but also for the companies that created and are now responsible for the digital landscape. The small start-ups that have blossomed into tech giants must navigate the limits of neutrality in a digital battlefield of their own design.

This is not just a matter of policing social networks for violent, extremist content—a tough enough task already. If terrorists are to be banned from many popular platforms, for instance, who constitutes a terrorist? An isis fighter? An abortion-clinic bomber? An alt-right neo-Nazi? An activist from China’s long-restive Uighur minority? A Black Lives Matter protester? These decisions can carry extraordinary political consequences.

You can access the interview here.

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