Copyright: WIRED, October 2, 2018. With P.W. Singer.
AS THE CONTROVERSY surrounding the Supreme Courtconfirmation for Judge Brett Kavanaugh escalates, the online conversation around it has started to feel less like a debate and more like a war. That’s because it is one.
It’s been more than three decades since the alleged sexual assaults. But in making their case, defenders of both Kavanaugh and Ford have embraced many of the same information warfare tactics favored by terrorist propagandists and foreign militaries, including those infamous Russian trolls. The aim, in this case, is not collusion. Rather, these are the new and necessary means to “win” on the web. If cyberwar is the hacking of networks, these are the tools of what we call the “LikeWar,” the hacking of people. As these methods merge across flame wars and real wars, there’s no escaping them.
One way the sheer scale of online information has transformed discourse is through what is known as OSINT, open-source intelligence. By mobilizing networks in the hunt for digital clues, formerly shrouded secrets can be pieced together. In war, examples have ranged from revealing details of foreign weapons to documenting war crimes to unmasking assassins. Now those same techniques are being deployed in an attempt to answer the mysteries of the Kavanaugh debate. ProPublica, for instance, is running a crowdsourced investigation of the nominee’s $200,000 baseball ticket debt, trying to identify his network of potential connections by cataloging who sat with him.
At the other end of the spectrum was the effort by Kavanaugh defender Ed Whelan, assisted by CRC, a public relations firm previously known for its role in the “Swiftboat” smears of John Kerry in the 2004 election. Drawing on Facebook comments, Google Maps, and even home layouts from Zillow, Whelan posted a Twitter screed that claimed to “prove” that Ford had actually been assaulted by a Kavanaugh look-alike. Instead, the theory was quickly picked apart by a countering online crowd.
The effort to introduce a doppelganger aligned with another key method used in LikeWars around the world: muddying the debate by throwing out alternative theories. Russia has long been the master of this disinformation tactic. After its 2014 shootdown of the MH-17 airliner over Ukraine, for instance, Russia spread over a dozen different theories of what had really happened. Many were contradictory and debunked previous claims. But the goal wasn’t to find the truth—it was to obscure it behind a smokescreen of lies.
Similarly, the Kavanaugh debate has given rise to false claims and ridiculous photoshopped images, often spread under fake identities. There have been debunked rumors that Kavanaugh had ruled against Ford’s parents in a house foreclosure and that Ford’s brother was part of the Russia investigation. There was even a flurry of unsubstantiated sexual assault charges leveled against Kavanaugh in the hours before the hearing. His supporters were outraged; those opposed to Kavanaugh’s nomination speculated that they were placed so that his defenders could point to the media’s unreliability and cast doubt on Ford’s credibility.
Not even history itself is safe—at least the online version of it, which we increasingly depend on. When Kavanaugh testified that Devil’s Triangle, as mentioned on his high school yearbook page, was a drinking game, there was no online evidence to back up his claim. (Other sources asserted it was a known sexual term.) So an anonymous person immediately updated Wikipedia to support Kavanaugh’s definition. It was a near perfect parallel to how Russian operatives repeatedly edited the Wikipedia entry for “MH17” in the hours after the airliner was shot down to try to provide an alternative history.
Yet the most momentous battle in the Kavanaugh saga has been the one fought with keywords and hashtags, as millions of Americans broadcast their thoughts in real time. Ford was either a brave victim or the pawn of a political hit job; Kavanaugh was either a privileged, angry abuser or a noble man who had become the real victim. Even those who steered clear of social media were nonetheless affected, as online tensions shaped the tone and tenor of every news broadcast in the country. (How could it not? An estimated 96 percent of journalists use Twitter for their reporting).
Indeed, the arguments came with such venom and fury that they seemed most reminiscent of the “Twitter Wars” between Israel and Palestine. Supporters engaged in a ceaseless tug-of-war for global opinion online, even as rockets fell on Israeli cities and Palestinian children were killed by the dozens.
In the echo chamber of the Kavanaugh hearing, every word and facial expression became a potential bit of ammunition, wielded by one side in an attempt to discredit the other. Ford’s confessed fear of flying became an instant meme (“But how did she get to the hearing?”), as did her uncertainty about the cost of her polygraph test. This ammunition was later compiled into a memo by Rachel Mitchell, the GOP-hired prosecutor who questioned Ford at the hearing, to highlight perceived discrepancies in her testimony. A single unflattering photo of Kavanaugh was shared hundreds of thousands of times, while his combative answers to Senator Amy Klobuchar (“Have you [blacked out]?”) inspired a furious online response.
The back and forth momentum of these online battles has had very real effects, mirroring how the ebb and flow of the Twitter war has been shown to influence actual battlefield decisions made by the Israeli military. Republicans originally wanted to avoid letting Ford testify at all, but online outrage forced their hand. In turn, as Kavanaugh testified, the wellspring of support that quickly surged among the Republican base online buoyed what had seemed like a flagging nomination.
It is uncertain what will happen in the upcoming vote. But one thing is clear. These kind of LikeWars, deploying the same tactics as the information campaigns of real-world militaries, will become the norm for every future political controversy. The reason is simple: Whoever wins will owe a large part of their victory to the online fight.