Review – War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century by David Patrikarakos
The commercial internet changed the world. That much is conventional wisdom.
Similarly, its importance in the contemporary scene, largely in the form of social media, which features in what is termed ‘Web 2.0’, is sacrosanct.
It has altered the way billions of people communicate and has changed the nature of that communication. Its influence on politics is accepted to be vast, with some political figures practically defined by their use of one particular website: Twitter.
Naturally, tools and processes which have an outsized effect on politics will be employed in other areas. The things which shape politics will some day be applied to war. And those who benefit from the possibilities afforded by this revolution in communications are not always the traditionally powerful.
In his book War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century, journalist David Patrikarakos traces the emergence of what he calls ‘homo digitalis’ – people who, outside of traditional state and military structures, have become adept at using the tools social media provides in the service of modern warfare.
The distinction between ordinary war and war by non-military means has never been absolute, but it is becoming more and more artificial. In the internet age, everyone – enlisted or not – is a potential combatant.
Patrikarakos notes that in modern war, the victor is not necessarily the side with the advantage in numbers or technology, or even the combatant who prevails strategically. Instead, war is conducted with an eye to the wider world. Both sides play to the international gallery, attempting to convince the world of the truth their respective narratives.
This is not entirely distinct from previous modes of war. Wartime propaganda has existed, in various forms, for as long as warfare itself.
Previous generations of military strategists emphasised propaganda, which in the past was directed at domestic politics, the citizens of enemy states, and the undeclared – who could be convinced to intervene directly or maintain a favourable neutrality. Patrikarakos makes some grand claims about the uniqueness of warfare in the current century, but acknowledges its continuities as well as its changes.
Semantically, what Patrikarakos details is less a seismic shift in warfare than a notable change in the way war is communicated. He does not entirely prove that this revolution in human communication can counteract the result of conventional warfare, but he does demonstrate that it can affect perceptions of conflict, to a notable and significant degree.
This clash of perceptions, a battle of narratives, is an essential feature of modern warfare. And this book explores the consequences such developments can have.
Patrikarakos’ book is not a dense theoretical one. He does not puzzle over definitions or assess large amounts of data. There is some theoretical engagement with the nature of war – in history and the present moment – but this is not Patrikarakos’ focus. Instead, his attention is given to stories: those of individuals involved in modern war, connected by their use of new media. It is a personal view of contemporary conflict.
Among these stories is that of Eliot Higgins, the founder of investigative website Bellingcat, which focuses on open source information and data analysis of social media to establish concrete facts about contemporary conflicts.
Higgins’ is a rare positive story about warfare in the social media age. In his work, which includes comprehensively documenting the evidence of Russian involvement in the shooting down of a jet airliner, Malaysia Airlines’ flight MH17, over Ukraine in 2014, Higgins exemplifies what Patrikarakos terms an ‘interpreter’ class. Those in this category have the job of sorting through a mess of narratives to provide accurate and verifiable information. Such people have their work cut out of them.
One of the reasons this work is so difficult in the social media age is the tide of disinformation which swashes through social media and which some states actively generate and promote. Patrikarakos interviewed one of the practitioners of this dark art, who worked at the infamous St Petersburg ‘troll farm’ where the Russian state turned producing questionable content into an office job.
His name is Vitaly Bespalov. Once his journalistic ambitions were postponed by unemployment, Bespalov found himself part of the mechanism of state-sponsored deception, writing up news stories and creating pro-Russian and anti-American memes. Happily or not, Bespalov took part in Russia’s war in Ukraine. His story is essential and Patrikarakos tells it well.
This book is best at describing institutional and group responses to new media, how rigid hierarchical structures and more fluid networks respond to change. More than grist for the historical mill, Higgins and people like him actively affect the way significant events are perceived the world over. Patrikarakos’ description of how Higgins began blogging about the Libyan civil war and eventually pulled together a crack team to investigate MH17 is well observed.
Thus the networks. Hierarchies have a harder time, as Patrikarakos’ assessment of the Israeli army’s attempts to stay ahead of new media shows. Social media took the Israeli army by surprise, and they failed to take advantage of its possibilities until Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-9.
Patrikarakos documents their conversion to social media and the creation of a fast-acting spokesman unit. But even this impressive system failed to have the impact of a frightened Palestinian girl, Farah Baker, tweeting from her home in Gaza during the 2014 conflict.
This book ends with a plea to journalists – imploring them to take note of recent worrying developments and to make good of new media while being acutely aware of its pitfalls.
At the core of the book are the journeys Patrikarakos has himself undertaken as a journalist – to Gaza and Ukraine, Siberia and America. The stories these journeys produce are compelling and urgent, written with fluency, poise and an eye for colour.
In chronicling the stories of its participants, Patrikarakos has forged an effective narrative of our social media age, and produced a useful assessment of the present and future of warfare.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.