New York City has seen dark times, but in the spring and early summer of 1776 the outlook was especially grim. The Revolutionary War was in its early, chaotic days, the British fleet sailed en masse toward the city, and in a desperate defensive measure, General George Washington ordered thousands of his Continental troops into lower Manhattan. Almost a third of the city's citizens fled, and Washington's filthy, untrained and undisciplined soldiers quartered themselves in the elegant houses left behind. They were hungry, cold and scared, and they numbed their fear with drink, gambling and prostitutes. They were about to face the greatest military force in the world, outgunned and outmanned, fighting for a country that hadn't been created yet.
In hindsight, America's victory against the British seems like one of history's inevitabilities, but in the beginning it was anything but. And had a small group of pro-British conspirators had their way, the Glorious Cause might have lost its essential leader — George Washington — to imprisonment, execution or assassination.
Every day, millions of young people swap selfies on Snapchat, update their status on Facebook, and swipe right on love interests on Tinder. For millennials, social media is essential for a 21st Century social life — but for 62-year-old political scientist Eliot A. Cohen, it apparently means the end of the human civilization as we know it. For malevolent actors ranging from the government of Vladimir Putin to the recruiters of the Islamic State, social media is a weapon which can undermine American democracy and even topple entire governments.
Clint Watts’s engaging new book, Messing With the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News, is about forms of engagement. Watts’s experiences as an Army officer and FBI agent are important to his background. He begins the book with his interactions, through his blog and Twitter feed, with an American-born member of al-Shabaab, Omar Hammami, and then shares his observations about the Syrian Electronic Army’s insistent Twitter presence before examining Russian influence operations in the 2016 election.