Donald J. Trump’s first foray on to Twitter was part of a promotional campaign for the season finale of the TV show Celebrity Apprentice. 2,819 days later, @realDonaldTrump would be inaugurated forty-fifth president of the United States. (Donald J. Trump/Twitter)
Social media proved integral to the rise of ISIS and its surprising military successes. Here, in a tweet that went viral during its 2014 invasion of Iraq, an ISIS fighter and flag are superimposed on images of Iraq’s capital city (Twitter via PBS).
On October 29, 1969, computers became communications devices, changing the world as we know it. This BBN Interface Message Processor routed information from a computer at UCLA to one at Stanford, creating ARPANET, the progenitor to the modern internet. Costing $82,200 (about $600,000 today), it had only 12KB memory; 1/10,000th of a first-generation iPhone. (Steve Jurvetson)
Known as the “Godfather of the Internet,” Vint Cerf poses before the calculations for the protocol he helped establish in 1973, which enabled the early computer networks to knit together into a single system. Online communication could now grow to limitless size and complexity. (Jose Mercado/Stanford News Service)
The Millennial generation would grow up with the internet and then transform it. Working from his Harvard dorm room, Mark Zuckerberg registered “TheFacebook.com” on January 11, 2004. Within a decade, Facebook’s users would number one billion, and soon after double again. This image, posted to Zuckerberg’s carefully curated Facebook feed in 2011, would garner nearly 400,000 “likes.” (Mark Zuckerberg/Facebook)
Social media has been used both to foment conflict and reveal new aspects of it. In 2014, Russia launched a “stealth” invasion of Ukraine, sowing false stories online to help spark what became the most significant European conflict in twenty years. Yet the Russian government’s strident denials were undermined by some of the very citizens it sought to “liberate,” who happily snapped photos with the Russian commandos (whom they called “little green men”) and posted them to social media. (Instagram)
Social media platforms have become inextricably linked with the performative violence of gangs and drug cartels. José Rodrigo Aréchiga Gamboa, a hitman and high-ranking member of the Sinaloa Cartel, posted on Instagram everything from poses with his gold-plated guns to a “photo-bomb” of fellow online celebrity Paris Hilton during a trip to Vegas.
Social media has empowered new voices, operating in some of the world’s most dangerous places. “Felina” reported tirelessly from the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, filling the gap left by media that had fled the escalating drug war. Over half a million people would read the Catwoman’s reports before cartel killers captured Maria Del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, the real hero behind the account, and broadcast her murder.
Once considered among the nation’s leading military officers, Lt. General Michael Flynn foresaw how social media would transform the world of war and politics. But after being fired from the Defense Intelligence Agency, he morphed into an adamant internet conspiracy theorist, falling victim to the very same forces he had warned against. (Michael Flynn/Twitter via TIME)
As part of its disinformation campaign during the U.S. presidential election of 2016, Russia flooded American social media with tens of thousands of fake accounts. Among the most successful was “TEN_GOP,” which posed as a hub for Tennessee Republicans. On Election Day 2016, it was the seventh-most-retweeted account across all of Twitter. (Via @Ushadrons and @Toolmarks)
Russian operatives also built popular Facebook groups, buying ads to extend their reach. The overall campaign reached 147 million Americans. Leveraging Facebook’s sophisticated audience engagement tools, this particular ad targeted users whom the algorithms had identified as interested in “Christianity, Jesus, Ron Paul, and Bill O’Reilly.” (U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence)
The network of Russian influence ops often bootstrapped each other, amplifying their reach. Here a fake Russian account on Twitter promotes another fake Russian account, urging Americans to show up for a real event. (Via @Ushadrons and @Toolmarks)
No platform was spared in this wide-ranging Russian disinformation campaign. On Reddit, the fake user “rubinjer,” became a popular presence on pro-Trump discussion boards. It garnered 99,493 “upvotes” from fellow users before being unmasked as a Russian operative.
Illustrating the growing political influence of viral conspiracy theories,“Pizzagate” alleged that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was involved in satanic worship and underage sex trafficking, based out of a Washington, DC pizza parlor. It attracted a large online following, which only grew after the election. It also provided fodder to conspiracy-minded graphic artists, who produced dozens of fake images of children in distress. (@media_nc/Twitter)
On December 4, 2016, 28-year-old part-time firefighter Edgar Welch burst into Comet Pizza with an assault rifle, seeking to rescue the children he believed to be imprisoned in an underground sex dungeon. There were no children, nor even a basement; Welch would be sentenced to four years in prison. (Edgar Welch/Facebook)
Superspreaders, and the marketplace that incentivizes them, play a key role in deciding what goes viral. Former U.S. Navy intelligence [officer Jack Posobiec sought online fame and influence through far-right trolling and conspiracy theories like Pizzagate. A few months later, Posobiec would receive press access to the Trump White House followed by the ultimate reward: a retweet from the President. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
“You can sit at home and play Call of Duty or you can come here and respond to the real call of duty . . . the choice is yours.” Junaid Hussain was a British-Pakistani hacker turned online propagandist for ISIS. From thousands of miles away, “Abu Hussain al-Britani” served as a bizarre mix of leader, recruiter, and life coach for would-be terrorists. He would ultimately rise to number three on the Pentagon’s “kill list,” dying in a 2015 drone strike. (Junaid Hussain/Twitter)
As extremists learned to use social media to greater effect, the self-decided defenders of the web began to fight back. This 2014 video was produced by a member of the Anonymous hacktivist collective, one of numerous declarations of war against the digital forces of the Islamic State. #OpISIS mixed Twitter trolling, content policing, and forum board infiltration. (TheAnonJournal/YouTube)
Mastering the new tools of social media, singer-songwriter Taylor Swift rose to became not just a superstar, but, in her ability to engage and mobilize armies of online fans, a role model for businesses, politicians, and extremist groups alike. Here, she performs in a 2012 concert in Sydney, Australia. (Eva Rinaldi)
Pepe the Frog began life as a simple comic book character, described by its creator Matt Furie as “Drinkin’, stinkin’, and never thinkin.” It soon transformed into one of the internet’s most enduring and politically charged memes. Everyone from weightlifters to Neo-Nazis repurposed the image to their own purposes.
In modern wars, the online fight for attention and influence has become just as important as the physical conflict, sometimes even more so. Militaries have begun to change their organizations and tactics to reflect this new front. Here, the Israeli Defense Forces encourages youth to fulfill their military enlistment requirement by serving as social media proxies and graphic designers. (IDF Recruitment Page)
This widely shared meme released at the height of Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 was designed by the IDF to engage Western audiences, transposing the threat of Hamas-launched missiles and mortars to their own national capitals. (IDF)
In contrast to the centralized approach of the IDF, Hamas propaganda is produced by a global network of proxies and supporters. This grisly image—an anthromorphized knife saying “good morning” and wrapped in the colors of the Palestinian flag—was released amidst a spate of stabbing attacks targeting Israeli civilians in 2015.
A.I. can emulate speech, masquerade as humans, or even stitch together image and video from nothing but its own “imagination.” Here, the “FaceApp” uses neural networks to alter the gender of a person in an online image. In the battles of the future, the line between truth and reality will only grow more blurred. (TudorTulok)