What Taylor Swift Teaches Us About Online War

Country music star Taylor Swift helps Mariana Gomes, right, of Brazil, by taking a souvenir photo of them with Gomes' phone as Swift arrives for the Academy of Country Music Honors show on Monday, Sept. 19, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn.

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Country music star Taylor Swift helps Mariana Gomes, right, of Brazil, by taking a souvenir photo of them with Gomes' phone as Swift arrives for the Academy of Country Music Honors show on Monday, Sept. 19, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn.

What is “real” has become what is real online.

Taylor Swift’s Instagram comments fell with the power of precision air strikes.

“You have the prettiest, wildest, most child like eyes,” the superstar wrote to a young fan dealing with boy troubles. “Feel good about being the kind of person who loves selflessly. I think someday you’ll find someone who loves you in that exact way.”

And to another, a 16-year-old fan who’d just gotten her driver’s license: “YES! You passed!!!!!!!! So stoked for you. ‘Don’t text and drive’ is an obvious piece of advice but people usually forget to tell you 1) don’t eat and drive 2) don’t apply mascara and drive 3) never let a small animal such as a cat roam free in your car. I’m not saying any of this from personal experience. I repeat. None of that happened to me.”

Comments like these felt real because they were real. It really was Taylor Swift scrolling through her Instagram feed, learning about the lives of her fans, and tapping out thoughtful comments. She even coined her own hashtag to describe this practice: #Taylurking.

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It also was a conscious strategy designed around Swift’s intuitive grasp of how social media had changed the cultural landscape. Reflecting on her first record-label meetings, Swift explained how she’d wowed the stodgy music executives by “explaining to them that I had been communicating directly with my fans on this new site called Myspace.” She added, “In the future, artists will get record deals because they have fans — not the other way around.”

By recognizing this change, Swift transformed from a young millennial with a smartphone and a great voice into the ruler of a billion-dollar music empire, empowered by millions of “Swifties,” her army of fervent online fans (a name she strategically copyrighted). She sold 40 million albums, shattered digital streaming records, and, at 26 years old, was named the youngest of Forbes magazine’s wealthiest self-made women.

Was her virtual authenticity all an act? It was certainly true that Swift penned her Instagram missives with the knowledge that anyone could read them. All those “candid” shots of her celebrity-studded parties weren’t very candid at all. And whenever Swift fell into a feud that stirred anger online, it was cleverly folded into the marketing for her next album. “Asking whether or not Taylor Swift is genuine is like asking if Kylie Jenner’s had plastic surgery, or if Calvin Harris is a real musician,” mused entertainment reporter Amy Zimmerman. “There’s no simple answer out there — just a whole lot of conflicting opinions.”

Yet Swift’s online success also showed that question didn’t matter. “Authenticity” was becoming as dual in meaning as “fact” or “reality.” It really was her dour white cat featured on her Instagram account; it really was her dropping in on a World War II veteran (and Swift superfan) for an impromptu concert or sending out random Christmas gifts with sweet, handwritten notes. But it was also true that each of these actions fed and expanded her juggernaut brand. Swift had married her fame to a sense of intimacy and openness, to a cascade of endless surprises. As she explained, “I think forming a bond with fans in the future will come in the form of constantly providing them with the element of surprise. No, I did not say ‘shock’; I said ‘surprise.’ I believe couples can stay in love for decades if they just continue to surprise each other, so why can’t this love affair exist between an artist and their fans?”

Swift hadn’t built a fake life; she’d built a performative one. She could approach her fans on their level, and fit the perception of her life into theirs, by uploading a post that spotlighted what made her most relatable: fun with friends, thoughts on the nature of love, and lots of cat pictures. In so doing, Swift harnessed the power of online authenticity and cemented her fame. She also point a path toward viral success that today’s enterprising marketers—be they celebrities, politicians, and warriors— all seek to follow.

If “CyberWar” is about hacking networks, “LikeWar” is about hacking the people on the networks, driving ideas viral through a mix of “likes” and lies. And in these battles for virality, which can generate real world power, generating a sense of authenticity has become an important milestone for any online operation, be it selling an album, a political campaign, or an information warfare operation designed to cause your enemies army to run away (as in the #AllEyesOnISIS operation). In bland corporate jargon, this is called “brand engagement”—extending an organization’s reach by building a facsimile of a relationship between an impersonal brand and its followers. The Islamic State, for instance, expanded its influence not just through some fifty different online media hubs, each pushing out thousands of messages, but also through the wider network of the individual feeds of its tens thousands of followers and online fans. One of the most effective was Junaid Hussain, a failed British rapper who peppered his Twitter feed with a mix of familiar hip-hop patter and challenges to would-be recruits. “You can sit at home and play Call of Duty,” he posted, “or you can come here and respond to the real call of duty … the choice is yours.”

Through this, the organization was able to generate the sense that it was something more, a feeling that the terrorist group was somehow more “real” than its rival militant organizations. ISIS fighters proved this by living their lives online, posting images not just of their battles but also of their birthday parties and (naturally) their cats. Like Taylor Swift’s clever marketing, ISIS’s professionally choreographed videos were complemented by chaotic, seemingly candid footage—albeit taken from Syrian battlefields instead of celebrity-studded Fourth of July parties. And like Swift’s, it was both a strategy, but also generated something else. This mix of carefully curated media promotion and surprisingly roughshod moments eventually merged, becoming part of the same identity.

These qualities lay at the heart of ISIS’s success in online recruiting. Its fighters would talk up the glory of the caliphate but also muse about their sadness over the death of the actor Robin Williams and their childhood love of his character in the movie Jumanji. This authenticity won and inspired followers in a way that government press releases could not. Plenty of radicalized Westerners, pulled back from the brink of recruitment, described online relationships that unspooled over weeks or months. In time, the jihadists living on the other side of the world seemed less like recruiters than friends. Ultimately, some 30,000 recruits, urged on by Junaid Hussain and his team of recruiters, would travel from around the world to join a group that they’d never met in person.

Beyond the self-declared caliphate, a new recruiting pool of lonely and disenchanted people (a third of whom lived with their parents) would be steered toward murdering their own countrymen. Some did so with the help of their new friends online (“remote-control” attacks), while others did so entirely on their own (“lone wolves”). In the United States, one study of the 71 Americans charged with crimes related to ISIS found that nearly all of them had spent time in the online community that the organization had built, as well as sought to build it out further with their own efforts. 29-year-old Omar Mateen called 911 to pledge his allegiance to ISIS in the midst of slaughtering forty-nine people in an Orlando nightclub. As he waited to kill himself, he periodically pulled out his phone, checking to see if his attack had gone viral.

The power of this internet-age authenticity has proven most crucial not just for warring groups, but across the spectrum of politics. Since their very invention in ancient Greece, democracies have been guided by a special class of people discussed in Aristotle’s Politika: politicians, people who seek to rise above their fellow citizens and to lead them. But this created an enduring paradox of democracy. To gain power over their peers, politicians have often had to make themselves seem like their peers. In the United States especially — a nation whose aversion to a ruling class is written into its Constitution — the politician who seems most down-to-earth has long carried the day.

The irony, of course, is that most people who run for political office aren’t very relatable at all. They’re quite often rich, elitist, and sheltered from voters’ daily problems. As a result, American politics has long been a tug-of-war over who seems most authentic. In the nineteenth century, even the wealthiest candidates published newspaper biographies that played up their humble farmer’s roots. The twentieth century saw the birth of “photo ops”— first painfully staged photographs, then even more painfully staged televised campaign stops, taking place in a seemingly limitless number of Iowa diners.

With the rise of social media, however, the fight to be real turned into what it meant to be real online. When Donald Trump first stormed into the 2016 U.S. presidential race, few political analysts took his run seriously. He broke all the cardinal rules of American politics: he didn’t try to be an “everyman”; he bragged about being rich; he violated every social taboo he could find; he made outlandish statements; and he never, ever apologized. As “expert” analysts shook their heads in disgust, however, millions of American voters perked up and paid attention. In polling of voters, it was the attribute of Trump that stood out compared to his GOP nominee rivals and then Hilary Clinton. This was a politician who was well and truly authentic.

At the heart of Trump’s authenticity was his Twitter account. Clearly his own creature, it was unpredictable and hyperbolic and full of id. Even Trump’s most ardent critics found something captivating about a presidential candidate staying up late into the night, tapping out stream-of-consciousness tweets in his bedclothes. “It’s a reason why Trump’s Twitter feed is so effective,” observed NY Times reporter Maggie Haberman. “People feel like he’s talking to them.” This was in stark contrast to his opponent Hillary Clinton, whose tweets were sometimes crafted by a team of eleven staffers. And it was a platform Trump came to love. “My use of social media is not Presidential,” he tweeted in response to negative headlines about his continuing Twitter obsession, “it’s modern day presidential.”

It was both a real sentiment and a planned-out strategy to winning his war online, which Taylor Swift and ISIS members alike would have immediately recognized.

This excerpt from LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by Peter W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 2018) is used with permission.

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