War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century

  • Published

War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century by David Patrikarakos. New York Basic Books, 2017, 301 pp. 

In his compelling work War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century, veteran journalist David Patrikarakos discusses the rise of social media platforms and the effects they have had on the battle space.

Patrikarakos, who has written for major publications including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and published Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State, examines the roles that internet-based social media platforms have in leveling the playing field. This leveling effect moves the power to narrate away from governments and governmental agencies to the common citizen equipped with a computer and a curious desire to explore the bowels of the internet. He notes that this transition in power has resulted in a nonkinetic approach to warfare that goes beyond the realm of armed conflict. He illustrates how civilians, with their curiosity and computers, can delve into the vast amounts of material considered open source to develop a narrative that supersedes the ability of government intelligence agencies. Patrikarakos coins the term homo digitalis to refer to individuals who use their keyboards and smartphones to accomplish this task. He argues that the hierarchies composing  governments and military organizations inherently render them inflexible. This inflexibility facilitates the ability of the individual blogger or tweeter to move seamlessly to provide a different narrative. 

In examining the new way social media has played a role in leveling the playing field, the author views the Israeli/Hamas problems of 2014 through the eyes of citizen journalist Farah Baker who used Twitter to expose what was happening in the Gaza Strip to the outside world. From there, he explains the efforts by the Israeli Defense Force, militia digitalis, to counter the stream of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram videos coming out of the Gaza Strip.

From the Middle East, Patrikarakos moves to eastern Ukraine where he examines the efforts of locals using social media, especially Facebook, to counter Russia’s aid to Ukrainian troops. He also documents the Russian government’s influence over the opinions of its own citizens living in Ukraine via the internet and Russian state television. He reveals a rise of Russian troll farms to influence them. Patrikarakos also refers to the downing of Malaysia Airway Flight MH17, demonstrating the ability of nonstate actors using the previously mentioned open-source material to bypass compartmentalized intelligence. He chronicles three individuals who separately were able to determine exactly what brought the airliner down and where it originated from, causing the Russian government’s attempt to backtrack and reinvent the narrative.

Lastly, Patrikarakos examines the technological abilities of the Islamic State, which in American government circles had been labeled the “digital caliphate.” Although technically astute, the caliphate’s actions occasionally backfired and forced its members to become increasingly violent during videos to get across its message.

The conclusion states that these new technologies offer great opportunities but pose great risks. Patrikarakos argues that experience shows those on both sides often unleashed forces they would eventually have to confront in the future. That said, the flattening of hierarchies, along with the accompanying move of power centers to individuals, has happened. Governments must change into a more flexible system to take advantage of the technologies and keep ahead of the individuals who comprise homo digitalis.

Patrikarakos has provided an excellent work that should be read by policy makers and planners in the government as well as the military. The example of changing the minds of people in Ukraine demonstrates just how effective social media can be. Future policy decisions and military planning should be accomplished with this new dynamic in mind.

Dennis H. Berger, PhD
Texas Tech University Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) Historian in Residence

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."