You Can't Fight a War Without Twitter

Journalist David Patrikarakos believes the rise of social media now demands a redefinition of warfare as we understand it.

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Nov 29 2017, 5:00pm

A Palestinian man takes a selfie during clashes with Israeli security forces near Nablus in the occupied West Bank,  October 2017. Image: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP/Getty Images

War, at its most fundamental level, is something as old as time. Two sides, for reasons political or territorial, enter into armed hostilities until one emerges victorious. The winner imposes a political settlement on the loser, and peace—of a sort—resumes.

But while the matter of how these wars are fought has been an area of constant technological evolution, journalist David Patrikarakos believes that it's the rise of social media that is now demanding a redefinition of war as we understand it.

Narratives, rather than sheer military strength, are now the measure by which wars are won and lost. Patrikarakos explores this in his new book War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century, which sees him reporting from the frontlines of this emerging order. I had the chance to chat with Patrikarakos about it recently over Skype.

MOTHERBOARD: What were the events that led you to writing this book?
David Patrikarakos: It all stems from my coverage of the Russo-Ukraine war. In 2014 and 2015 I ended up spending eight months in the country.

I'd covered elements of the war in the Congo in 2010. These were four years apart, but it was like I was covering a war in a different century. The role that social media played was frankly non-existent in the Congo, while in Ukraine the war couldn't have been fought in the same way without it.

You argue that social media has upended our understanding of war. How so?
[Carl von] Clausewitz said that war is politics by other means, but now we're looking at armed politics. That's bad, because politics never ends. Whereas once propaganda operations supported military operations on the ground, we're getting to the situation where on-the-ground military operations are there to support propaganda operations in cyberspace.

The classic example of this is Russia-Ukraine. Putin never had any intention of defeating Ukraine, which he easily could have done. He rolled his troops into Eastern Ukraine to create a space into which he could pump unfiltered propaganda, namely that the Kyiv government was a fascist junta out to persecute ethnic Russians. That goal, to get people to subscribe to a particular narrative, is a political one.

“You cannot fight a war without social media now, and if you do, you're not going to do very well.”

Where there is no desire for military victory—when your desire is actually purely political—this is how we get the situation, unparalleled in history, of seeing people like the Israelis on Hamas win comprehensively on the ground but lose the war.

It was a clash of narratives; Israel saying 'look, we are a democracy under siege from terrorists,' and Hamas saying 'we are an oppressed people being attacked by a bigger, more powerful bully.' Those narratives were played out, and Israel lost.

In your book, that is encapsulated by the teenage Gazan girl Farah Baker, who tweeted from the midsts of Israeli bombings, versus the social media wing of the Israeli Defence Forces.
The Israelis have led the way with this. Britain is now doing something similar, as is the US. You cannot fight a war without social media now, and if you do, you're not going to do very well.

But Farah's narrative was always going to be stronger because it was one of suffering and she was a child, and the Israelis could never match that. They could never match dead children. It's the old journalistic adage: if it bleeds, it leads. Israel is not bleeding, and as long as it doesn't it will never win.

Who, then, is empowered by social media?
What isn't debatable is that power is moving from institutions like governments and big media companies, to individuals and networks of individuals. The whole point of homo digitalis is that empowered individual: networked, globally connected, and all you need is a smartphone. In that sense, it has empowered people.

There's an idea of cyber utopianism—give a man or woman access to the internet and it will set him or her free—but unfortunately it's not the case. The same tools will come to be used by the oppressor as well as the oppressed.

As a whole now, I'm pretty down on social media. I always say that the history of social media is the story of the rise and fall of hope.

You write that we're facing the greatest prospect of wide-scale war since 1945. Why?
We're in a very destabilising period. There's been a systematic discrediting of our institutions since the turn of the century. Every pillar, from finance, to security, to politics, to media has been discredited. Then comes along this destabilising technology, and it's a perfect storm.

I don't think it will be war in the traditional sense, but when you look at Chinese trolling in the South China Sea, when you look at Russian trolling where the people get so angry, there's a chance after all this propaganda that governments get boxed in by their own rhetoric and are forced to do something they don't want to do, or else they'll look stupid.

You breed that kind of anger, and eventually your population is looking for you because you need to do something about it. If you don't, it becomes very dangerous for your own position.

This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

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