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October 19, 2022 30 mins

In Part Three of LikeWar, we explore the real-world dangers of immortalizing online interactions. From the streets of Chicago to top-secret US military bases in the Middle East, the information that we put online stays there forever - and can result in dire consequences for us all. 

This series is adapted from the book LikeWar, written by series narrator Peter Singer and series contributor Emerson Brooking. To learn more about their research and defense work, you can find them on Twitter @peterwsinger and @etbrooking.

Get the book at LikeWarBook.com.

See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:19):
A warning for listeners this episode contains explicit language. Last episode,
we established how warfare and technology go hand in hand,
and we've now seen how regimes can use social media
as increasingly one of the most powerful weapons in their toolkit.
Social media has changed not just the message, but the

(00:41):
dynamics of conflict. If what is online can swing the
course of a battle or eliminate the need for battle entirely,
what exactly could be considered war at all? But it's
important that we acknowledge that these questions are not just
limited to geopolitical disputes. Wherever young men gather and clash,

(01:02):
social media now alters the dynamics, including sparking acts of violence.
The result a cycle of confrontation in which the distinction
between online and offline worlds has become blurred. It happens
in the battlefields of Syria, and it also happens in
the streets of the US. I'm Peter Singer, and this

(01:24):
is like War Part three, the end of Forgetting Welcome
against the Sku The Sky The Sky, uptown Chicago, Chakawan

(01:59):
Thomas had grown up with a loving family and a
talent for music. At the age of four, he started rapping,
taught by his older brother Ryan my face like Chiquan's
little brother. Tavian always remembered Chikwan making music. My brother

(02:20):
been rapping. He was a baby, like reading the dictionary,
just learning new words, and had a little ram dictionary
trying to learn what wards around what he'd been rapping
before the Internet like But the family lived in a
neighborhood in Chicago that was caught between three street gangs,
the Conservative Vice Lords, the Gangster Disciples, and the Black

(02:41):
Peace Stones. Thomas's future would thus be shaped by the
intersection of old geography and new technology. In the eighth grade,
Thomas began slipping away into the streets. He started smoking marijuana,
spending time with members of the Gangster Disciples gang, and
getting locked up and juvenile detention for months at a time.

(03:03):
And by that point, like so many young men, Kwon
Thomas also had an active second life that he lived online.
Those close to him say that he became mesmerized by
how social media sensationalizes not just music, but also crime
and everything that goes with it. I'm Emerson Brooking, the
co author of Like War. This is something I've been

(03:23):
studying for a while now. Gangs started migrating online in
a big way by and by twelve, the superintendent of
Chicago Schools talked about at least half of schoolyard fights
originating because of something that have been said online. And
these schoolyard fights, of course, translated seamlessly into gang violence.

(03:49):
Especially growing up in schools, they were prone to gang recruitment.
Social media was already a battlefield some ten years before
most other people would realize it would become one. Chief
Keep is part of a generation of Chicago rappers who
redefined the Midwest sound with drill music, the trap subgenre

(04:11):
known for its gritty beats and grim lyrics. But the
Chief Ye era definitely affected the whole Chicago. I say
that just that affected Chicago because everybody would get more
disrespectful like after that, Like you know what I'm saying.
That's what I noticed after the Chief Keeping, before they

(04:32):
got into rap Keeps Crew. The Three Hunter started as
a faction of the Black Disciples or b d S,
one of Chicago's main street gangs ever since the nineteen sixties.
In Spring, rabber named Little Jojo, associated with the rival
Gangster Disciples gang, tried to start a rap feud with
Keith in The Three Hunter by releasing a YouTube video
for a song b d K, which stands for Black

(04:54):
Disciple Killers. Hours after the video went up, Little Jojo
was killed in a drive by while writing is bike
in Inglewood. It's believed that JoJo's killers were able to
triangulate his location by following his tweets. In recent years,
cities around the nation have seen record breaking rates of violence.
Police leaders say the murders are often retaliation for insults

(05:17):
made on social media. Chiquan Thomas coined a name for
his online persona Young Pappy. He started using it to
build up that essential new currency of social media. His
personal brand, Young Pappy started to cyber tag and cyber bang,
an update of the old school gang practice of spray

(05:38):
painting graffiti to mark territory or insult arrival. The cyber
version is to promote your gang or to start a
flame war by including another gang's name and a post
or mentioned in a street within a rival gang's territory.
Social media opened up a new frontier where you didn't
have to see someone face to face for gang members,

(06:01):
just like for terrorist organizations or now national militaries, using
social media, is about projecting strength and power, about showing
that you're up to any task, about showing that you're
essentially invincible and that your rivals would be better off
not fighting you. Anyone who posts about a person or

(06:22):
a street belonging to a rival gang is making an
online show of disrespect. You didn't have to risk a
direct confrontation in order to show disrespect in order to
take away that most valuable thing, face and reputation. But
of course, any of these arguments that started online wouldn't

(06:42):
necessarily stay there. In time, these online skirmishes moved to
the bang what was sometimes also called drilling. This is
when a threat is made via social media. It might
be as direct as one gang member posting to a
rival social media wall, I'm going to catch you, I'm
gonna shoot you, or it might be symbolic, like posting

(07:04):
photos of rival gang members but turned upside down. Young
Pappy did plenty of this, and he also started dropping
his music in cadence with his online posts We Do
Not Dead Black. The songs that he wrote and recorded

(07:32):
under his Young Pappy brand would make their way out
into the world through lurid videos posted on YouTube. He
was known as a drill rapper in streets. Lang drill
means to fight or retaliate. Drill lyrics typically reflect life
on the streets and tend to be gritty and violent.
Drill rappers use a grim, dead pan delivery. Young Pappy's

(07:55):
music was all that, and then, of course, his allegiance
to his gang gangster disciples was front and center. Whatever
strategic and creative choices that he was making, it seemed
to work. His song Killa got a half million views
and Homicide pulled in over four hundred thousand. He was
a rapper and a gangster on the rise at the time.

(08:29):
Whether or not Chakawan Thomas actually took part in the
gang glories that his Young Pappy persona rapped about, it
was enough to grab the attention of both cops and
his rivals on the street, and when it reached its
peak on social media, bullets started whizzing by him in
the real world. On two separate occasions, Thomas was shot

(08:50):
at in broad daylight. Police say it began with an
argument between two groups of young people and ended when
a masked gunman ran up an opened fire whites to
say they and about six or seven shots and one
of those shots hit car in the head. He died
here on the scene. Now a source tells w g
N that at least two of the victims have documented

(09:11):
street gang ties. Several innocent bystanders were killed, including a
young man who was waiting at the same bus stop
to go to his first day of a new job.
In the second incident, a photographer who was following Young
Pappy instead caught the fatal straight bullets intended for the rapper.
Thomas fled and survived, but a few days later Young

(09:33):
Pappy took to social media to respond, I'm back, he posted,
and then he did the only logical thing that a
drill rapper could do after two near death incidents, he
dropped another video on YouTube. You don't even know how
to shoot, he taunted those who were after him, And

(09:53):
you don't even know how to see. The ice came
past my name. Because when we talked about game, violent
reputation is so important because if you can command respect,
you're more likely to get what you want. If you
are disrespected, and especially if you allow that disrespect to stand,
then you have much less power. You become more susceptible

(10:16):
to defection, to attack. Two acts of violence and so
the concept of saving face is fundamental to how a
gang can survive because your response would help win and
maintain your own respect. Shooters was a hit, receiving over

(10:40):
two million views. Young Poppy was now a star both
in social media and in gang land. Weeks later, at
Young Poppy's mixtape release party, police rated the celebration. By
this point, they were convinced that his music and social
media posts were fueling more and more violence. Days after

(11:01):
the party and the police raid, Thomas was out late
standing on North Kenmore Avenue. He was just one block
away from where he had recorded the Shooters video. Witnesses
who were out that Friday morning say a shiny black
Ford or car drove past. After passing the spot where
Thomas was standing. The driver hit the brakes and reversed.

(11:27):
Two bullets had gone into Thomas's back. He was taken
to Illinois Masonic Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead
at two oh four am on Friday, one week after
posting a video online in which he makes fun of
a rival gang w ganz. Patrick Elwoods at Area North
police Headquarters joins this line with more on the murder

(11:47):
of a rapper known as Young Happy Thomas had just
turned twenty years old a few minutes. As you mentioned,
he was a young rapper, local rapper who glorified gun
violence and gang live and now he's dead measure bombing.
The social outpouring of grief for Thomas followed a well
tread path. Chiquon's brother Ryan did the only thing that
seemed appropriate. He took to YouTube with a new song,

(12:11):
and of course the lyrics included an accusation about which
rival gang had murdered his brother. But there weren't just
posts of grief or celebration of Young Pappy's life. There
were also disparaging posts from rival gangs, the equivalent of
cyber stomping on Young Pappy's grave. Clifton Fry made one

(12:35):
of those disrespectful posts. Four days later, a seventeen year
old who was a sophomore in high school and a
member of a faction of the Gangster Disciples shot Clifton
Fry over his Facebook comments about Young Pappy. The old
adage sticks and stones may break your bones, but words

(12:55):
will never hurt you was no longer true. Words posted
online had caused people to die for gang members, something
that was said online matter just as much as something
that happened in the real world and there had to
be the same level of aggressive retaliation. And because of

(13:18):
the way my generation has grown up, certainly the way
that a Generation Z has grown up, this online clout
really does matter to people as much as their own lives,
and we see it manifest almost every day in gun
violence across the United States. Those who know the history

(13:39):
of crime and wrap will recognize Echoes and Chakawan Thomas's
story to what it also inspired fame twenty century figures
like Easy or Ice Cube. Countless rappers before have taken
to music to describe street life and build up their
persona along the way. Young Pappy was just doing what
many others have done before him. What's different now is

(14:01):
the combination with the massive social networks that young men
like Chikuan have at their fingertips and the ramifications of
that reach. Police who have witnessed firsthand the effects call
it technological kerosene, and how it makes already smoldering gang
feuds leap into four alarm flames. It's not the rap,

(14:23):
or the drugs or the turf. At the center of
the strife is social media. The very first time YouTube
had to take down a violent video. It wasn't from
al Qaeda or another terrorist organization. It was from a
Mexican cartel who had cut together a music video of

(14:44):
their own recorded executions, which they were using as a
recruiting tool. This was all the way back in two
thousand seven. I've always felt that if you want to
look to the future of how political violence in a
sex with social media, you should look to what the

(15:04):
gangs are doing, because gangs are occupied by young people,
young people who are interested in building and maintaining these
online reputations, in using social media platforms to win clout
at the expense of everything else. Gang members were early
to social media. They were early two more recently snapchat

(15:29):
and now TikTok. And I think for people who follow
these criminal patterns in the United States, if you see
where gang violence migrates next, you have a good sense
of where terrorists and participants in civil wars will come.

(15:49):
A few years later, back in the Middle East, the
viral ity of the Internet that Chikwan Thomas relished in
would become a hindrance to read old military operations. For
those who'd rather not be seen or heard, there are
a few places to hide on the Internet. Uh So,
in a very real way, almost nowhere on Earth can

(16:13):
you be unobserved. And that's the first time really in
human history. Every day, billions of people around the world
willingly carry Internet enabled devices that they know and accept
will keep track of everywhere they go and everything they search.
What we have created is what humans have feared for centuries.

(16:37):
The ancient Greeks imagined it as Argus pat is, a
mythological giant with one hundred eyes of future where freedom
becomes slavery, with privacy is forbidden, the past forgotten, and
where living people simply vanish. The cameras, GPS systems, and

(17:00):
social media updates that we consider to be a necessary
part of everyday life consistently make the possibility of an
ever present watcher less of a nightmare and more of
a reality. In two thousand nine, there was nothing but
optimism and Silicon Valley device manufacturers were thriving as they

(17:20):
found new ways to connect smartphones to wearable technology. Fitbit
is a device and a website, and it constantly senses
your body's motion and tells you things like how intense there,
how long have I been active? And all of this
data is collected on the device. That's great, So people
just attach it to their class. You can just wear

(17:41):
it loosely in your pocket when you're sleeping. We provide
a risk band and you clip it's your risk band.
A risk watch that tracked your steps, linked with a
network power of smartphone software. It turned a simple step
counter into a treasure trove of not just fitness insight,
but data with countless applications where fitness your way with

(18:02):
Fitbit Alta a slim fitness wristband that automatically tracks everything
through sleep, running out the door, and yet it might
be the best purchase for the everyday person. Most people
out there looking to buy a smart watch, this might
be the one to buy in. Fitbit has officially announced
its newest fitness tracker, Fhipbit Charge five. This is the

(18:23):
latest update to their advanced Trekker line and it will
replace the now discontinued Fippit Charge four. Articles began popularizing
the term the quantified self outline in a future where
man and technology are ever more linked. Insurance companies even
began offering them as perks to reduce premiums. This new

(18:44):
blend of software and hardware had created a new way
to turn our actions into insights. But what many didn't
know was just how far and wide these actions were
beaming out into the world. An Australian college student was
at his computer one evening. His name was Nathan Rouser.

(19:06):
He was a student of international security in the Middle
East at Australian National University, and on his screen was
an app called Strava, a GPS tracking company. In two
thousand seventeen, Strava unveiled an exciting new feature, the Strava
Global heat Map. It had started using satellite information to
map the locations and movements of subscribers to the company's

(19:29):
fitness service, a live look at the world of exercising
in real time. Any user could pop under their site
and scan the globe to see thousands upon thousands of
light trails of other exercising individuals anywhere in the world.
Nathan had found out about the heat maps existence from
a blog and was inspired to look more closely. He

(19:52):
was curious after a throwaway comment by his father, who
had observed that the map offered a snapshot of quote
where rich people are. Strava published a map showing tracking
data for twenty seven million users of its app whether
you use the Strava app or a fitbit or other

(20:12):
smart fitness device. Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of Westerners who
use this app. The more the activity, the brighter the light.
Scanning the world map of exercisers, Nathan saw a lot
of things you'd expect to see a flurry of activity
in major metropolitan areas, dozens of trails cutting through world

(20:34):
tourist sites and nature reserves. But then he saw something
that didn't make sense. Illuminated trails appearing in the middle
of nowhere in the Middle East, outside of major cities,
outside of major roadways, even outside places where there should
be connections to the Internet. What appeared on his screen
were dozens of little light beams outlining the perimeter of

(20:56):
what looked to be a small office complex. At first glance,
you might think it was a mistake, but then it clicked.
This wasn't an air This was a secret U. S.
Government facility, a military complex, and just beside it was
a CIA black site. Some of the most classified locations

(21:17):
in the world revealed through an exercise app. Obstrava let's
its users sink their wearables and upload their exercise data,
creating heat maps like this one. Only a twenty year
old student noticed that data uploaded by military users are
lining up U S bases on the maps as well.

(21:38):
So I asked Nathan Rouser, how did these maps catch
his attention? One of the USS partner forces in Syria,
the Kodish the Syrian Democratic Forces have control a large
bit of territory in the northern part of Syria, and
along that there's one major highway that connects the western
part of their territory to the eastern part of their territory.
Along that highway there's four or five U S spaces

(22:00):
that have been built in the last few years, and
each one of those bases lit up very brightly. There's
many members of the US military who are obsessed with
fitness apps. Indeed, the Pentagon ran a program where it
used to give service members fitbits so they could record
their steps in progress. What Strava likely didn't intend when

(22:22):
they released their map was that the U S military
bases around the world lit up like Christmas lights. You
could find bases in Iraq and Syria. In Mogadishu, Somalia,
someone found a Patriot missile battery in the Yemen. Someone
else identified a Special Forces base in the Hell region

(22:43):
of Africa, and you didn't have to stop there. If
you looked at this step data, you can match it
up with higher quality geoimaging services and you could begin
to not only know where the bases were, but you
could see what parts of the military base were more
actively patrolled, more actively occupied and monitored. If you were

(23:11):
an adversary looking at this information, you could begin to
get a sense of potential points of ingress and egress
to consider where maybe there weren't patrols or where the
foot traffic was much less. This is certainly not what
Strava intended, but without meaning to a fitness company provided

(23:36):
one of the best glimpses to date into the full
extent of the American War on Terror and the number
of countries which we had these unlisted and previously undisclosed bases.
But I think to me one of the ones that
stood out the most is possibly the identification of CIA sites.

(23:58):
For example, there's a lot of activity around a building
which has been rumored to be the SI site in Somalia.
Soon after, Rousers started tweeting about his discovery, and the
Internet lit up with activity as data analysts, military experts,
and amateur slews began scouring the map for evidence of
activity in their areas of interest. It wasn't long before

(24:21):
Stravis app became a mothlike light for analysts and civilians
alike looking for one secret facilities, bases, supply routes. It
was a military planners nightmare. Well, it's an incredible find,
and it's an incredibly sensitive find as well. And you know,
before you decided to go ahead and share it with

(24:42):
the world, did you hesitate a bit? I did? I did.
I posted it. I posted it and then after a
minute or so, took it down for a few minutes,
trying to work out if that's the best course of action.
This was a new phenomena, the ubiquity of so called
open source intelligen or o SENT and the previous decades,

(25:03):
open source intelligence was a small sliver of the information available.
Details like housing records, international flight patterns, or census data,
small pieces of information available to anyone willing to dive
into the public records and find patterns they could utilize,
but it was time intensive and largely garnered only basic information.

(25:26):
The real power lay in the top secret spaces the
worlds of human and sigint short for the human intelligence
of spies and the signals intelligence of communication intercepts. So
where the open source revolution means is that the line
between classified and unclassified has become hopelessly blurred. But as

(25:48):
the adoption of social media and smart devices grew, suddenly
the balance shifted dramatically. Some of the most valuable information
was now out in the open, available for anyone with
an inner net connection and a social media account. Those
private Facebook messages you sent where you shared intimate details
about your life with your old friend, Well, Facebook let

(26:09):
people from Netflix have access to them back. He is
the co founder of Facebook, and now he's calling for
the social media giant to be broken up. There was
a moment, I think it was sometime around when a
switch kind of flipped where open source intelligence analysis stopped
being the domain of governments and started being the domain

(26:32):
of anyone with an Internet connection and a basic interest
in geolocation. They could figure out where a particular battle
had taken place, different sides that were involved, the weapons
that had been used. If they had a good image

(26:53):
of those weapons, they could figure out where the weapons
had been purchased. What this means is that virtually any
violent confrontation today produces a stream of images and videos,
and this evidence can be looked at and examined by
anyone who can glean new insights, who can feed their

(27:16):
observations back into a global conversation. And this process happens
so quickly, and you can rest assured that, no matter
how secret your mission, other people are going to find
out about it, often, very very quickly. Dominance in the
world and on the battlefield for century stemmed from a

(27:37):
country's ability to control the information, to keep it secret secret,
and to monitor its foes with tools no one else possessed.
But every minute, technology is undoing the massive advantage of
these larger powers by making information publicly available and cheaper
than ever to exploit. It may be a smart watch today,

(28:00):
but what will be the next unforeseen compromiser of secrets?
How effective is a squadron of black Hawk helicopters if
the enemy is able to pinpoint when and where they
can't and can't fly. How helpful are elite special forces
units embedded around the world when a single camera phone
can expose their presence. Now emerging states resource strap militious.

(28:26):
Even a twenty year old student browsing the web has
the ability to undermine billions of dollars spent to maintain
supremacy in the information space, and now the information space
is also being undermined in other unexpected ways. A new
generation of weapons has risen out of our use of
smartphones in social media, and those weapons are already at

(28:48):
play in major political and even societal battles. That's next
on Like War, how memes have become dangerous tools of influence.
This is a production of I Heeart Podcasts, Graphic Audio,

(29:10):
and Goat Rodeo. Karash Shillen That's Me is the series
lead producer. Special thanks Device Media and Noisy. You can
find out more about their coverage of the drill rap
scene in Chicago in their eight part documentary series sh Iraq,
linked in our show notes. This episode is just one
of a seven part series. Find other episodes wherever you

(29:32):
get your podcasts. If you'd like to dive deeper into
the work of P. W. Singer and Emerson Brooking, you
can access the full audio book Like War, on which
this series is based wherever you get your audio books.
Writing and editing from Karash Shillen, Production assistants from Isabelle Kirby, McGowan.

(29:55):
Senior producers are Ian and Wright and Megan Nadowski. Please
are the series with the hashtag like War to find
other conversations about the series. Thank you for listening. M
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