Businesses increasingly rely on social media for everything from selling products to collecting customer feedback. Their online brands affect every part of their businesses, from employee recruiting efforts to stock share prices. This means they are also competing for the same precious oxygen as geopolitical conflicts and violent struggles.
In our book, we document how social networks may have started out as a place for fun and then been turned for profit, but have also become a new kind of war zone. The result is a surreal collision of online arguments and information warfare, where events in one domain can have a direct impact on events in the other. If “cyberwar” is the hacking of networks, this phenomenon of “LikeWar” is about the hacking of the people and ideas on the networks. And, just as business executives have had to update their thinking and organizations for cybersecurity, they also need to do so for this new kind of online threat.
Because in the LikeWar, any time a business successfully draws attention, that very notoriety also makes them an irresistible target for information warriors from around the world. Consider three examples of how companies have been drawn into war online.
Toyota joins a terrorist group
Most Americans will not soon forget the image of long columns of black-clad ISIS jihadists, AK-47s in hand, spreading fear as they stormed across Syria and northern Iraq. But in addition to the black robes and machine guns, something else stood out in ISIS propaganda videos: Toyota pickup trucks.
By one measure it should have been a success for the company. A trend was going viral online, viewed by tens of millions, that showed the company’s product. Even more, it showed some of the best attributes of the product. The Toyotas were all over the web because they were relatively inexpensive, but worked well in tough environments and came with ample room (whether it be for luggage or .50-caliber machine guns).
Yet none of these facts compensated for what became a public relations nightmare. The company faced a barrage of online criticism, growing loud enough that the US Treasury Department launched a special inquiry. “Saturday Night Live” soon parodied a popular Toyota commercial: instead of a father dropping his daughter off to join the US Army, he dropped her off to join ISIS militants—and they picked her up in a Toyota truck. It was a silly, bizarre association that nonetheless stuck. Years later, social media users still remind Toyota of this terror connection whenever controversy erupts.
Domino’s takes two sides in a war
In 2014, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Hamas militants plunged into a bloody conflict. Sixty-seven IDF soldiers and three Israeli civilians would perish, as would hundreds of militants and more than a thousand Palestinian civilians. On social media, the angry back-and-forth left nothing untouched—including Domino’s Pizza.
Early in the fighting, Hamas-aligned hackers seized control of the Israeli Domino’s Pizza Facebook page. The goal wasn’t to hack pizza delivery, but to gain access to Domino’s 80,000 followers. Suddenly the Domino’s Pizza Facebook account was gloating about the unguided rockets being fired into Israeli cities. “Today [we] will strike deep in Israel, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Ashdod [sic] more than 200 rockets,” they warned. “We’ll start at 7. Counting back towards the end of Israel…Be warned!”
When Domino’s marketers regained access of the account, they posted a quippy response. “You cannot defeat…The Israeli hunger for pizza!” It was a perfect troll for the social media market within Israel, and went viral. But it also inadvertently aligned the multinational company with the Israeli side, meaning the firm had somehow managed to join online both sides of what was perhaps the most contentious conflict out there in global opinion.
Nike becomes the target
When Nike announced former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as the face of a new ad campaign, it intended to stir political controversy. And it worked. The first ad quickly garnered 80 million views on social media; it resulted in $43 million worth of free media exposure. The debate was furious, yes, but even the angriest Nike detractors still watched the ad. Shareholders rewarded the shoe-maker with all-time high stock prices.
But something else happened. The company was perhaps banking on Donald Trump to take the bait, and hoping to turn anger at him into support for its products. But a number of other unexpected players also ended up joining the fight. For instance, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—who brutally repressed one of the first democratic protests to organize on social media while in power—has since become a noted Internet troll of US politics. While he is not known to be an American football fan, he saw an opening for geopolitics in Nike’s trending campaign. He offered effusive praise for Kaepernick and noted his exclusion from the NFL draft.
In turn, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) then saw this turn of events as a new front for domestic politics. He attacked Ahmadinejad, prompting a war of words between the former Iranian president and sitting US Senator over a sport brand’s support for an out-of-work NFL quarterback. Each had an ulterior motive, to leverage Nike’s marketing for their own battles. Ahmadinejad was using the classic tactic of “what-aboutism” to distract from Iran’s dismal human rights record, while Cruz was trying to use Iran’s support for Nike as a means to win support for his own re-election bid in Texas. Meanwhile, the very network of tens of thousands of Russian government-linked fake sockpuppet accounts and bots that had targeted the US election in 2016 also jumped into the fray, seeking to drive it all more viral with the goal of widening the divide in America.
What to do about it
Tactics like these could hit any company related to almost any controversy. Given the way that these brands found themselves drawn into the muck of online war, is there any way for businesses to steer clear of these issues? In short: no. Just as with cybersecurity, companies no longer have a choice in the matter. Conflict and politics now inhabit every corner of the digital landscape. Indeed, you can see it in your own Facebook feed, where friends and relatives post everything from vacation videos and product reviews alongside ads that turned out to be Russian propaganda. It is the reality of the internet, driven by the very same forces that allow “fake news” and disinformation to spread.
Instead, corporations can best deal with the age of LikeWar by preparing for it, just as they have had to do with “traditional” cybersecurity over the last decade. Business leaders must catch up their understanding of these new threats building beyond their networks, as well as map out their likely responses. This will also require having the difficult conversations that many companies would prefer to avoid: Should questions arise, where does the company stand on prickly political issues that are trending online? Will it ignore the fight or lean into it? What tone will it take, a quippy reply or stern-face condemnation? Will it even deploy the very same tools back, such as using its own army of bots and sockpuppets to steer the debate. Amazon, for example, has set up an effort that is a near mirror of units created by the Israeli and Russian militaries to influence online debate, while Facebook hired a PR company that used the very same disinformation tactics to smear its corporate opponents.
When even the firms that run the networks embrace the tactics of information war that pervade them, the lesson for business is the same as it is for governments: Start planning for the new ways that people fight online, or be the victim of the next “like war.”
P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking are the authors of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media.