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The 'Weaponization' Of Social Media — And Its Real-World Consequences

Oct 9, 2018
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The New York Times just reported that in 2016 Rick Gates, then-deputy campaign manager for Donald Trump, requested proposals from an Israeli company to create fake online identities and use social media manipulation to help defeat Trump's rivals for the Republican nomination in the primary and Hillary Clinton in the general election. The proposals were apparently never acted on, but we know that Russian operatives made effective use of Facebook and Twitter in seeking to influence the 2016 presidential campaign.

Our country is hardly the only one in which political opinions have been manipulated by millions of fake social media accounts promoting messages that are slanted or even made up. Our guests today, P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking, say that social media has also been weaponized in ways that most of us remain unaware of, like fueling popular uprisings and affecting the course of military campaigns. For instance, when the Israeli army moved into Gaza in 2012, the operation was supported by a viral marketing campaign.

P.W. Singer is a strategist at New America, a consultant for the U.S. military and intelligence community and the author of several books. Emerson T. Brooking writes about conflict and social media and was recently a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. FRESH AIR'S Dave Davies spoke to them about their new book, "Like War: The Weaponization Of Social Media."

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, we all know that social media have become a big tool in politics, but you write in this book that it can affect not just opinions and reputations, but the course of war. And you cite a fascinating example, a new, rapid communications medium transforming a military offensive. This was the German invasion of France. What happened?

P W SINGER: So you had this new technology that connected everything from tanks to airplanes to the broader population. It was wireless communication. And radio proved to be the secret sauce, so to speak, for everything from the political changes, the rise of Nazism. Goebbels said that it wouldn't have been possible what they did without the radio. But it also had strategic and tactical military impact.

When the Germans invade France, an invasion that most people didn't - at the time, didn't think would work, it not only allows them to connect all their military units in a new manner, allow them to coordinate and move faster than ever before, but it also connected back into the enemy population, and it spread a contagion of fear. And it's one of these things that the contemporaries described as this strange defeat. They couldn't express what happened until they figured out, really, radio was what caused it all, caused the world to change. And we saw many of the same things play out in the rise of ISIS at a broader level, but also its military operation, its surprise invasion of Iraq that allowed it to defeat a force that was multiple times bigger. It's part of these ways that social media has, in effect, changed the world.

DAVIES: Let's talk about that, the ISIS invasion of Iraq, and particularly when they were advancing on the city of Mosul. How did they use social media to their benefit?

EMERSON BROOKING: There was a column of about 1,500 ISIS fighters who rolled into northern Iraq. And they were equipped with dusty pickup trucks and second hand AK-47s of these militant groups past. But the crucial difference was that they also broadcast their offensive. You know, if you look back into the history of military operations, typically if you're launching an invasion, you don't want the adversary to know about it. They wanted everyone to know about it. You had legions of fans and botnets on Twitter that coalesced around a hashtag, #AllEyesOnISIS.

And they used that to propel their propaganda, images of what they were doing to the towns as they went through them. They broadcast this propaganda such that it rose to the top of Arabic-speaking Twitter and soon became - quickly became a topic of global conversation. And that contributed to the contagion of fear that swept through Mosul and led to something like 30,000 defenders retreating and leaving much of their equipment for ISIS to claim, which then fueled another propaganda victory, as suddenly they could broadcast using all this cast off American equipment.

SINGER: And you had this wonderful double effect where at the local level, Iraqi soldiers are looking down at their smartphones, and they're seeing what seems like an ISIS victory playing out on the screens in their hands. And then it becomes one. It causes them to decide to run away, this army that's much larger, backed by the most powerful military in the world, the U.S. military. It has tanks. It has helicopters and the like. And yet what's playing out on social media changes the dynamics of the battlefield.

But simultaneous to that, it changes the way the rest of us look at the world and fear it. You get this phenomena where more Americans are afraid of terrorism at that point than they were in the weeks after 9/11. And so it shows the power of social media and how it can sort of rewrite the narrative, and then in turn that incident is leveraged into playing out with impact on our own politics as part of the changes in the 2016 election.

DAVIES: You also cite an example from another part of the world where social media can lead and it can affect events on the ground. And this is in Chicago, where social media taunts interact with gang violence in ways that can be deadly. You want to give us an example of that?

BROOKING: Sure. We tell the story of Shaquon Thomas, who had grown up from an early age interested in music and was a very successful emerging rapper in the South Side of Chicago. But, unfortunately, he'd also been drawn into the gang scene. He was a Gangster Disciple, and he wanted everyone to know it. So he often, across Instagram and YouTube, would broadcast his affiliation with the Disciples. And he was the subject of not one or two but three assassination attempts by rival gang members. He survives the first two. And as he survives, rather than, you know, thinking twice or maybe laying low for a bit, he posts bold new videos on YouTube basically challenging these folks to come at him again.

What we've seen in gang violence across this country is that much of it has migrated to social media because so much of being in a gang is about face and it's about fronting. It matters a great deal if someone, say, finds your Facebook account or trolls you or leaves a disrespectful Instagram comment. And something else that's happened as this gang violence moves the social media, is that it also means that violence is no longer about who's feuding for a particular block, but gangs of the same franchise, even if they're many miles apart, might start fighting each other over something that originated online.

DAVIES: So if someone calls you out online, you are going to respond, and it may not - it may be online, but it may also be on the street.

BROOKING: Right.

SINGER: And that's the difference between gang feuds in the past, is if two people yelled words at each other in the street, only the people around them would hear it and the moment would be done. If you post it online, the whole world is watching - at least, in their perception - and it sticks up there until something is done about it. And that's why it's at the origin of so many of these fights. And not just - 80 percent of fights in schools spark from something online but also of course the spate of gang killings.

And what's interesting and a little bit scary is that we see the same phenomena of Internet beefs at the gang level moving up to levels of drug cartels, all the way to how it's changed diplomacy, how it's changed politics. We have this question of, what happens when leaders of nations are interacting in the same way, when they're having these beefs in front of the world? Will it make it harder for them to negotiate if the whole world knows that they've been insulted and they've done nothing about it?

DAVIES: You have an interesting kind of look at the development of mass communications. You say that the Internet is the most consequential communications development since the invention of the written word, and that it really got supercharged when everything could be done on smartphones. And there are many examples where social media have been used to fuel popular uprisings, the most striking example in the Arab Spring. At the time, a lot of people talked about social media as being this powerful, democratizing force. I mean, now, you know, expression is in the hands of everyone. The trouble is the authoritarian regimes also had access to the tool. How did they strike back?

SINGER: The Arab Spring was probably the high point of the techno-optimism about the Internet and social media. You have everything from national media sources describing its liberating power, to people in Egypt are literally naming their kids Facebook, but then authoritarians figure it out. They figure how to fight back. We use this idea of like war to express that there's two sides to it. And so there's always a back and forth.

And so what we've seen is that authoritarians have figured out also how to use social media in a couple of key ways. One is that it gives them a new way of monitoring their population and what they're thinking and what they're saying. For example, there's the question online, does retweet equal endorsement? Well, now we finally have the answer. The example we use is a journalist in Turkey who retweets something just for a couple of minutes before he takes it down, and yet it lands him in a Turkish prison. So governments can use the power of the law to monitor.

Then you have this new model that China is presenting which is this almost perverse incentive system - it's called the social credit system - where essentially all your different online activities, everything from what you say to what you buy, can all be monitored and is brought together into a single score of your social trustworthiness. So for example, if you buy diapers, your score goes up because you're a good parent. If you play video games too long, your score goes down because you're screwing around. That score then is used to give you rewards in society, everything from free charges of your smartphone at coffee shops, to negative side. You can't take planes. It's used in job evaluations. It's even used in dating profiles, so it affects how attractive the person you're going to be able to go on dates or even marry.

And what's notable about this - what goes in a way that Orwell never could have imagined is the network side of it. Your score reflects not only what you do but what everyone else in your network does. So if, for example, your brother is not being positive enough about the regime online, your score will go down. So then you'll go to your brother and say, hey, you know, get it together. And this is this strange way of using technology in essence to steer us to a behavior that at least in China the government wants.

DAVIES: So people who have phones and do a lot of social media will have a social credit score. The aim is so that eventually everyone will get one.

SINGER: The goal of it is to achieve what's known as mass control, to steer an entire population towards a certain direction. It's not just the idea that you will have your online activity but that the government will force you to have this kind of Internet presence. For example, there are certain places in China where there are police checkpoints, physical checkpoints where they will check your smartphone to ensure that you have the app that allows monitoring of you.

DAVIES: Right. And just to get a sense of the reach, does - I mean, do we know how many people now have social credit scores in China? Is it hundreds of thousands, tens of millions?

BROOKING: I believe it's tens of millions. This is a gradually escalating process with a couple different companies that are doing this piecemeal. But it's the stated intent of the Chinese Communist Party that this will be a unitary score in place for every Chinese Internet user, of which there are about 800 million, by the year 2020.

DAVIES: Wow. The other fascinating story you tell about China is they realize how commentary on social media can affect opinion, and so they have a large army of people whose job it is to comment favorably on the government policies, right?

BROOKING: That's right. And it is a very large army. It started out in the tens of thousands, moved to the hundreds of thousands. And now one estimate has it as high as 3 million of these folks who are known as part of the 50 Cent Army. And their job - and it has its own training programs and accreditation systems. Their job is to monitor and infiltrate political conversations on WeChat and other Chinese platforms and basically seed positive things about the Chinese government.

DAVIES: Emerson Brooking writes about conflict and social media. He was recently a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. P.W. Singer is a strategist at New America and a consultant to the U.S. military and intelligence community. Their new book is called "LikeWar: The Weaponization Of Social Media." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with P.W. Singer, a strategist at New America and a consultant to the U.S. military and intelligence community - also with Emerson Brooking. He writes about conflict and social media. Their new book is called "LikeWar: The Weaponization Of Social Media."

You look at the Israeli incursions into the Gaza Strip and its battles with Hamas, and you write that the Israeli military efforts were accompanied by a viral online marketing campaign. They were hip to the importance of this. What did they do?

BROOKING: So it was actually the 2012 Pillar of Defense operation - eight days of Israeli airstrikes - that drew Peter and myself to this subject originally and got us researching it ever since. This military campaign was accompanied by a remarkable online viral marketing campaign. The campaign in 2012 opens with the assassination of a high-level Hamas militant. That's not particularly unusual.

But what is unusual is that the drone strike video was up within a few hours, and the official Twitter account of the Israeli Defense Forces was broadcasting it out again and again. In time, Hamas Twitter proxies respond, threatening war and hellfire. And as the operation commenced, as Israel would strike particular targets, it would put out information about what had been done, about the weapons caches that had been recovered. Then Hamas would respond in a similarly taunting manner.

And what's important is that this wasn't just the social media operatives of these two sides but also millions and millions of Twitter messages exchanged back and forth by the proxies of one side or another, 10 million in all in this first 2012 conflict, 90 percent of which were outside the region. And this was an example of a limited military campaign that nonetheless was a global war for public opinion. And this set a model that we're starting to see in all future conflicts.

SINGER: And two things stand out about it. The first is that we could all participate. It was people outside the region deciding whose message went viral, whose side of the story was winning out. But importantly, it was not just winning out online, but it was also affecting the real battlefield decisions. When you go back and map out the targeting by Israeli airstrikes and the pace of them, essentially they changed by almost half dependent on which side was winning out online. So what was happening is that the politicians and the generals were making battlefield decisions while watching what was playing out on their smartphones, reflecting what you and I were clicking on.

DAVIES: You know, you make the point again that scale matters. If you put up an effective post on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, that's one thing. If you have an army of people organized to retweet it and magnify its effect, that's all the more important. Did the Israelis anticipate this and have their own cadre of social media users ready to give their message more residents?

SINGER: So originally the Israeli military is not ready for this whole space. And they're quite taken aback by how they're losing this battle of narrative but with very real physical and political effects. And like any other military, they learn - they reorganize. And they reorganize in everything from creating new military units. In fact, one of the fun images that you can see online is how they've changed their recruiting to let young Israelis know that you can do your military service by serving in one of these new units that tries to affect the online battle. Instead of, you know, carrying a gun, you can be using Internet memes and the like.

But it's also woven into the broader population. For example, they create organizations within Israeli universities where not only Israeli students but students from around the world can participate in this battle of narrative too. They have created apps that allow you and I to download them and serve the cause and, you know, gain badges and the like. And in many ways, what Israel has done has created a model for other militaries around the world that are looking at this and saying, maybe we need to engage in this kind of reorganization too. And you see it everywhere from Europe to some discussion within the U.S. military.

DAVIES: So you can enlist in an online army and get, you know, badges, promotions?

SINGER: The same way that you can enlist in Taylor Swift's army of Swifties (ph), you can enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces online army. The cause may not be the same, but the tactics are. And by contrast with the Israeli approach, which is fairly centralized - you know, giving you a mission, giving a set of messages to push - the Hamas one pulls from the world. It crowd sources, so to speak.

And one of the other tools of the trade - one of the tricks that is used in these, but also in political campaigns to marketing, is basically to find out what's trending elsewhere and try and layer on to it. So for example, you had the ice bucket challenge a couple of years ago where we were all, you know, drawing attention to ourselves as a way to fundraise for disease research. This was woven into this battlefield where people were doing the ice bucket challenge but using rubble after Israeli airstrikes.

DAVIES: You would pour rubble on your head?

SINGER: You would pour rubble on your head, and then the image would go viral. And it was a way of kind of hijacking one discussion to drive it to your own ends - the same way that ISIS, for example, would hijack discussion about #WorldCup and jump into it - the same way that Trump's online army would try and hijack discussion that was trending for Hillary or the like.

GROSS: Were listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking, authors of the new book "LikeWar: The Weaponization Of Social Media." They'll talk about social media and political campaigns after a break. And John Powers will review the new film "22 July," based on the story of a terrorist attack on a summer camp in Norway in 2011. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking about their new book "LikeWar: The Weaponization Of Social Media." It's about how social media has been weaponized for political campaigns, uprisings and wars.

DAVIES: Let's talk about social media in political campaigns. There's been a lot of attention paid to the Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 elections. And you describe the appearance in 2017 of somebody on social media named Angie Dixon (ph). She establishes a Twitter account. What was her agenda? What do we know about her?

SINGER: So Angie Dixon presents herself to the world as a Christian American who's mad about the direction that our country has taken, and she wants her country back. Make America great again. And she's pushing out messaging to that effect. And particularly around the period of Charlottesville, she is so angry that right-wingers are being blamed for this. And she says it's this Internet conspiracy and the like. And, of course, Angie is a fake. And how do we know that Angie is a fake? Angie is presenting herself with imagery that is actually Leonardo DiCaprio's German girlfriend.

And what's interesting is that when reports then circulate online that Angie is a fake, she then attacks the people going after her - basically to say that they're part of this conspiracy theory. And you get this strange outcome where her fake messages get greater traction than the messages debunking her fakeness.

DAVIES: So Angie Dixon was a fake, but she attracted a lot of - quite a following on social media. Was that because she was so compelling? Or was it because there were many, many other fake accounts or robotic accounts that were retweeting her stuff?

SINGER: So Angie was a bot. She was a machine voice masquerading as a human online. And each of those is powerful in and of themselves. But where they gain their true power is creating what are known as bot nets. So for example, Angie was only one of at least 60,000 Russian accounts in a single bot net that infects Twitter almost like a cancer. And it's warping and twisting the American political dialogue. But what's fascinating is that it's not just about persuading the targets. It's about hijacking the network's own algorithms.

So these bot nets drive viral different points of view that then push that up into the news feed. It makes them trend, so people even outside those networks begin to see them. And the impact of this can be seen in examples that range from Brexit - about one-third of the online conversation related to Brexit were these artificial voices - to even just a couple of months ago, the Mexican election - same percentage. One-third were these artificial voices. And, of course, they played a huge impact in the American 2016 election. Many people think it's going to do the same in the upcoming vote.

DAVIES: Right. So just to be sure we understand this. We all know that you can establish a fake account, make up a name and get on a social media platform like Twitter. And there are a lot of those. But you're saying this 60,000 were actually robotically generated accounts generating their messages. Is that right?

SINGER: Yes. One of the challenges of this space is that we don't have a good handle on the lingo. So you'll hear a lot of discussion of Russian trolls. Well, trolls are basically, you know, people online who are trying to provoke some kind of emotional response - usually to make you angry. But when we're talking about the Russian operations, they broke into two parts. There were sock puppets. Those are real humans behind the account who are posing as something they're not. So it's some Russian hipster in St. Petersburg who is acting like they are an American veteran, a grandmother from Texas.

But then you have also bots. These are machines. These are algorithms that are basically pushing out messages automatically. The combination of the two can be incredibly powerful because the sock puppet can say one thing, and then the bots can drive that message viral by having thousands or tens of thousands of voices echo it out further.

BROOKING: You know, repeatedly these social media platforms, like Twitter, get rid of these accounts, but they have ways to automatically regenerate. And what's worrying, as we look ahead, is that these bots don't necessarily need to be active now. Something that these Russian operatives - but anyone who wants to manipulate social media conversation - something they're increasingly doing is creating accounts and having them lie dormant and have a history of messages that seem authentic and benign and not related to a hot political event. So when they activate them months or years down the road, it will be much harder to detect them as something other than a real person.

DAVIES: You said an amazing number here. You say that when Donald Trump announced for president in 2015, 58 percent of his Facebook followers were from outside the United States, right? How do we know this?

SINGER: So you're able to detect the origin of accounts. One of the new rules of the game when everything is online is that it's out in the open. So you can follow it. You can see the patterns of behavior. Maybe one of the more notable aspects of Donald Trump's follower count is that at that point in time about 4 percent supposedly lived in Mexico. Now, of course, these were not real Mexican citizens behind these accounts. These were in essence fake followers created to give the semblance of a massive online following that can then be turned into a real online following by driving your message viral.

DAVIES: Right. But if 58 percent of the followers from outside the U.S., can we infer that a lot of them are fake?

SINGER: Yes, a vast majority of them were. They were basically bought accounts generated out of what are known as click farms. These are almost - you think of like a sweatshop factory. It's the same thing for people that are essentially being paid to click on accounts in places like the Philippines or Bangladesh. And then you combine these physical people with bots, and it can give you a much greater power in politics.

DAVIES: You know, a lot's been written about the Russian efforts to interfere in the American 2016 election. We've seen indictments. Give us your sense of the scale and impact of this effort.

SINGER: The challenge with this is that the information about it came out in little dribs and drabs and the result is that the scale of it is not appreciated by most people - just how big in number but in extent the campaign was. So, for example, if you're looking at Facebook, it now belatedly says, you know, roughly over 140 million Americans, about half the population, saw some aspect of Russian information - misinformation pushed online. You move over to other platforms, like, for example, Twitter, where it's literally hundreds of millions of messages being retweeted back and forth.

A great illustration of this would be one single account - Tennessee GOP that was posing as if it was the hub for Tennessee Republicans. We now know that it was one of these Russians sitting in St. Petersburg. It was the seventh most read account on election day - not the seventh most read of the thousands of Russian accounts but the seventh most read overall. You saw similar campaigns playing out on Instagram too. There's actually one that was just detected a couple of weeks ago on Reddit.

And the impact that this was not just what the Russians were pushing but the echo effect and to the broader population, including the media itself. One of the accounts that was posing as a young American woman, she was actually quoted in everything from Washington Post to New York Times to USA Today and the like as if she was a real young American woman. And actually, again, it was one of these Russians behind it. And so, you know, it's up for the historians to, you know, argue about whether it swung the election or not in such a close election. What we can say is the scale of that was immense and that the Russians believe it worked because they're coming back for more. They're doing it in the election right now.

DAVIES: Emerson Brooking writes about conflict and social media. P.W. Singer is a strategist at New America. Their new book is called "LikeWar: The Weaponization Of Social Media." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Emerson Brooking. He writes about conflict and social media, was recently a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Also with us, P.W. Singer, a strategist at New America and a consultant to the U.S. military and intelligence community. Their new book is called "LikeWar: The Weaponization Of Social Media."

I'm interested in your sense of how social media wars affected opinions about the Kavanaugh confirmation controversy. I mean, this was a case where there were facts in dispute, a lot of strongly held opinions. Do you have any sense of - I mean, there must've been social media campaigns - what kind of impact they had on how this was perceived and, you know, the enduring impact it'll have on our discourse?

SINGER: If you were watching your social media feed during the Kavanaugh hearings, in many ways it felt like a war going back and forth. And it was in a certain way. You had both sides using the exact same tactics of, you know, what we call LikeWar that militaries were using all around the world. You could see everything from open-source intelligence gathering campaigns where they were enlisting the online crowd to find bits of information to bring it together that wouldn't have previously been possible.

So for example, on one side, you had a crowdsource hunt using images from Washington Nationals' baseball games to try and figure out who sat next to Kavanaugh to unpack this strange story of his $200,000 in baseball ticket debt. Then you add the other side, this combination of Google Earth images and Zillow real estate data to basically push this narrative, the doppelganger narrative, that Dr. Ford - the claim was, well, she's not a liar, but she's confused about who it was.

Now, that narrative that was pushed online points to a second thing that played out - the spread of disinformation, the spread of alternative theories, the idea of burying the truth underneath a sea of lies. It's something that, for example, Russia is specialized in. And again, you saw both sides engaging in this in the Kavanaugh debate, pushing out all sorts of different false stories, false personas and the like in the battle to have their own narrative win out and the other side's narrative be buried underneath this. You even saw attempts to change not just your point of view but history itself for at least the online place that we go to establish and learn about history, Wikipedia. So for example in the book, we had the story of how after the Russian shoot-down of the airliner over Ukraine, Russian actors go onto Wikipedia very quickly to change the story to make it seem like they weren't involved.

The same thing played out during the Kavanaugh hearing where he used a term in his - a high school yearbook that was a sexual term. And during his hearing, he says no, no, no. It's not a sexual term. It's about a drinking game. The problem for him is that there's literally no evidence on the entire Internet of that being a drinking game until someone within the House of Representatives - again, everything is out in the open so we can geolocate it to that.

During the middle of the hearing, someone in the House of Representatives goes to create the evidence on Wikipedia to make it seem as if he is telling the truth. So you have this back-and-forth, back-and-forth. And it's our contention that every single political debate moving forward is going to see these kind of tactics utilized again because both sides not only use them but believe that they were the key to their effort, including in winning.

DAVIES: You write that the social media platforms are private companies. And they're now coming to terms with the fact that they play, like it or not, a very powerful role in elections, in the national discourse and have to take some responsibility for dealing with this content - which is a huge challenge just because of the sheer volume, billions of posts a day and, you know, the subtle task of figuring out what is acceptable and what is not and that there is a developing tool called neural networks. Explain what they are, what they can do.

SINGER: So neural networks is part of this larger area of research that people will talk about as - essentially artificial intelligence, using machines to not just mimic but maybe in some ways surpass human intelligence and thinking. And so neural networks can be used, like any other technology, for both good and bad.

So for example, they can create wonderful imagery and scenes, images of a volcano that doesn't exist in the real world. And it's very powerful in use of, for example, the future of marketing. It's going to move into areas like customer service. The companies see this also as a way to save money, for example, if you're interacting with a machine rather than someone behind a help desk. But like everything else, it's also going to be weaponized. And so those very same chat bots, for example, that might be trying to persuade you to buy a product might be trying to persuade you to vote in a certain way or convince someone to take a certain position on a war a certain way.

The challenge also moves into visual imagery. There's an area known as deep fakes. These are hyper-realistic images - videos, for example, of speeches that politicians never made, scenes that never happened. And so with humans finding it harder and harder to figure out what is real or not, the companies in turn are looking to artificial intelligence to help find it, to help police their networks.

And so you get this strange but yet kind of wonderfully appropriate outcome. The origin of social networks online were a bunch of scientists talking about science fiction. That's where this all came from. And now we have this science fiction-like outcome emerging where you have two AI battling back and forth with us humans caught in the middle.

DAVIES: Right. So these neural networks, like, could be good at subtly detecting what a robotic Twitter account might be in a way that would be hard for humans.

SINGER: Exactly.

DAVIES: But they can also produce a picture of - you know, name somebody - Joe Biden, you know, uttering some, you know, profane comment at something.

SINGER: To give real-world examples of this, there have already been creations of speeches that Barack Obama never gave, or there's other ones where you can layer real and fake imagery together where, for example, it can be your facial expressions, but you're controlling an online image of everything from - and the example's Arnold Schwarzenegger to George W. Bush.

Basically anyone that you have enough data points on what their face looks like, which, oh, by the way you can get off of Facebook, you can take that and meld it together to allow you to in essence create a fake scene of them saying or doing something. And so just like everything else in this space, it's going to be used for good, for jokes, for laughs. It's going to be monetized for profit. And it's also going to be weaponized.

DAVIES: Emerson Brooking, P.W. Singer, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SINGER: Appreciate it. Thank you.

BROOKING: Thank you.

GROSS: P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking are the authors of "LikeWar: The Weaponization Of Social Media." They spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. After a break, John Powers will review the new film "22 July" based on the story of a terrorist attack on a summer camp in Norway in 2011. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEFON HARRIS' "UNTIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.