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Posted on Jul 9, 2023 in Armchair Reading, Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Enter the (Keyboard) Warrior, The 21st Century Tom Sawyer – Book Review

Enter the (Keyboard) Warrior, The 21st Century Tom Sawyer – Book Review

Ray Garbee

Digital Influence Mercenaries: Profits and Power through Information Warfare Author: James J.F. Forest. Publisher: Naval Institute Press. Price $ 39.95

Use the term ‘mercenary’ and you likely conjure a visage of fourteenth century condottieri contracting with Italian princes or more recently the activities of the Russian-based Wagner group. Outlawed by international convention, the classic view of a mercenary has been supplanted by the verbally awkward, but legally accurate phrase ‘private military contractor’.

But while the traditional role of mercenaries occupying the physical battlespace has been limited by international treaty and convention, the virtual battlespace is condottieri of a different color.  Dr. James J.F. Forest explores the current state of activity in the digital space in his recent book Digital Influence Mercenaries: Profits and Power through Information Warfare (2022, Naval Institute Press).  In defining his terms Dr. Forest draws a boundary around the activities of these modern Tom Sawyer’s, with digital influence mercenaries being concerned with profit above all else. A specific cause or ideology is irrelevant, as long as the activity turns a profit, and the more profit, the better.


 Dr. Forest started by defining what is a digital influence mercenary and examining the current landscape in which these mercenaries operate. From there you’ll get an overview of standard methods of digital influence with a number of use cases. The heart of the book is a break down of how digital influence operations can be effective at both reaching an audience and manipulating that audience into acting to the mercenary’s benefit. Dr. Forest rounds out the book by examining where we are and how to confront the future of digital influence mercenaries.

At the outset, Dr. Forest defines the digital influence mercenary as “individuals…who have particular skills and knowledge that can be applied in a digital influence campaign.” They can be located anywhere with an Internet connection and their targets can be virtually anyone. These mercenaries may be engaged in work for state and non-state actors, or may be engaged in independent operations designed to profit themselves.

Another key factor of a digital influence mercenary is just how…mercenary…their interests are. Dr. Forest explores how – unlike an actor motivated by politics, ideology or religion – our digital influence mercenary is motivated by the money. It’s ‘all about the Benjamins’ and a digital mercenary remembers the Ferengi ninth rule of acquisition “Opportunity plus instinct equals profit”.

Digital Influence Mercenaries coveys a number of timely topics and factoids (including the origin of the word ‘factoid’). These boil down to people are subject to their fears and preconceived opinions and they tend to seek out like minded people and groups that reinforce those beliefs, thus provided a sense a belonging and validation that your beliefs are correct. This breakdown can be a bit harsh as Dr. Forest dissects which groups appear more vulnerable to manipulation.  

As a reader, I had one big take away from Digital Influence Mercenaries. The first is that I now have an even more pronounced view to ‘trust no one’ regarding anything I’ve seen on the internet, unless I know and trust the source. Even then, I need to view those ‘trusted’ sources through a lens of distrust and being open to re-evaluation.  Yes, it’s not a hopeful outlook (in fact it borders on depressing), but reading the book has prompted me to sharpen those tools of skepticism and objective rigor when facing the barrage of digital content that rains down on us every day.

The second take away is to recognize (and share as best I can) that people and groups need to step back and disconnect their sense of self from the shorthand digital group think that acts as a drug on their sense of individual value and sense of belonging. As my friend Keith says “Al Gorythm is not your friend. He’s there to show you things he thinks you already like.” That cycle of self-selection and sorting leads all to quickly to the isolation and false validation of the digital echo chamber. There are a number of factors contributing to this, but as Dr. Forest notes, the cyber validation that the digital influence mercenary peddles is a powerful drug that is a difficult habit for the consumer to kick.

There’s a saying laden with dark humor, ‘war is our business – and business is good.” A similar sentiment applies to the realm of cyber operations. Influencing minds is our business – and business is good’. Digital Influence Mercenaries dives into how from the perspective of a digital influence mercenary, actually influencing someone to change their opinion is generally not the point. Instead, it’s about reinforcing those existing opinions and, in the process, leading those users to engage in behavior that is profitable to the mercenary. It’s a complex outcome as a state or non-state actor may have specific goals to achieve, but at its most base level, it’s about generating the clicks on links that drive advertising revenue as a profit stream. While reading the book, I ventured on the internet and googled a few ideologically shall we say ‘loaded’ terms that led me to a number of videos. A salient take away was the total lack of debate or discussion with many videos being all ‘thumbs up’ with zero thumbs down or dissenting comments. The self-selecting power of the algorithm makes it unlikely that folks will see material that clashes with their digital ‘profile’ unless they intentionally go looking for that type of material.

Digital Influence Mercenaries imparts valuable lessons that all its readers would benefit from. But in a country where perhaps the demographic that most needs to read this book is also the demographic least likely to actually, well read a book, it’s unlikely the message will reach them. As these modern mercenaries get right on to the friction of the day, we should not be surprised if digital influence campaigns continue to be the primary theater in which the battle for ‘hearts and minds’ will be waged.