Since November 2016, a national battle has raged about the role of social media in politics. People bemoaned the viciousness of trolls, the impact of incendiary fake news, the frog memes and Twitter bots and YouTube conspiracy videos. All the stories of manipulation and unintended consequences began igniting angry debates and prompted a long overdue conversation: what is the proper role of social networks in public discourse?
This important question stems from a new paradigm that started roughly a decade ago. That’s when social media turned everyone into a content creator, giving them the tools to not only say their piece but to amplify it, to grow an audience with little to no budget. Citizen journalists, bloggers, and grassroots activists bypassed the editorial old guard, gaining so much influence that they were elevated to an estate of the realm: The Fifth Estate.
The social networks facilitated and enabled this new guard, simultaneously providing a captive user base, a virality engine infrastructure, no editorial oversight, and fairly limited rules. Not unexpectedly, the emergence of a relatively lawless federated system for reaching mass audiences attracted the attention of a bad actor.
Not Russia. ISIS.
The online battle against ISIS was the first skirmish in the Information War, and the earliest indication that the tools for growing and reaching an audience could be gamed to manufacture a crowd.