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

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

David Patrikarakos, an experienced journalist who has written about foreign affairs for many major publications, decided to write this book while reporting on the conflict in eastern Ukraine (p. 5). Patrikarakos argues that social media—comprising internet applications that allow users to create their own content—has greatly enhanced the power of individuals and networks of individuals, at the expense of institutions such as legacy media and the nation-state (p. 9). The new species of technologically empowered human, which Patrikarakos dubs “Homo Digitalis,” has harnessed social media during conflict and “irretrievably changed the way that wars are fought, reported on, and consumed” (p. 9).

Patrikarakos makes a persuasive case for his thesis by exploring how individuals, both outside of and within governments, used social media to influence three recent conflicts: the 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas, the war between Ukraine and Russian-aided separatists, and the conflict between the Islamic State and the United States. Among the powerful aspects of Patrikarakos’s approach is his profiling of how individuals on both sides of these conflicts employed social media. The reader learns how a Palestinian teenager used Twitter to draw global attention to the impacts on Gaza and its population during the 2014 conflict. Subsequently, Patrikarakos notes how the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) used social media to explain its targeting of Hamas’s rockets and tunnel infrastructure as well as to show Hamas’s placing of military targets close to civilian areas. For the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Patrikarakos profiles how a Ukrainian civilian innovatively used Facebook to crowdsource supplies and raise funds for the country’s army, thereby becoming part of a “virtual state” (p. 129). Examining the other side, Patrikarakos provides a detailed account of a Russian internet troll factory, an outfit that was a “merry-go-round of lies” whose purpose was to bolster support in Russia and eastern Ukraine for the Kremlin’s policies and to sow confusion globally about what was really happening (p. 142). Patrikarakos also profiles a third party to that conflict, offering a fascinating account of how Eliot Higgins, founder of the Bellingcat website, and a team of fellow sleuths used data obtained from social media to illuminate the events leading up to the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17). Finally, Patrikarakos examines the Islamic State’s social media operations as well as the United States’ attempts to counter the group’s efforts in cyberspace.  

All of Patrikarakos’s profiles are detailed, riveting, and enlightening. Collectively, they show how social media has altered warfare in major ways, notably including how it has become a means for battling to control the narrative surrounding conflict, equipping armed forces, analyzing what is happening on the ground, and recruiting fighters and supporters.

Patrikarakos’s argument falls short only on those occasions when he seems to suggest that social media has superseded the physical battlefield as a domain of warfare. For example, Patrikarakos observed during his time in Ukraine that “it mattered more who won the war of words and narratives than who had the most potent weaponry” (p. 4). He suggests that “the narrative dimensions of war are arguably becoming more important than its physical dimensions” (p. 5). Patrikarakos also argues that “in war as traditionally understood, information operations support military action on the battlefield, but today, military operations are increasingly understood to support information operations” (pp. 259–60). Many readers are unlikely to conclude that the virtual battlespace has surpassed the physical one in importance. After all, in all of the conflicts the book examines, physical battles remained critical. During the 2014 Israel-Hamas conflict, although the social media realm became a key arena in which Israel had to defend the proportionality of its actions, tweets and social media posts had minimal impact on Israel’s goals; pressure from social media did not halt Israel’s military campaign (pp. 35, 89–90). Even after reading Patrikarakos’s illuminating account of a Russian internet troll factory, including the details that a former employee shared with Patrikarakos, many readers will likely judge that Russia’s involvement on the physical battlefield was as important as its social media efforts to destabilizing Ukraine. Finally, in the case of Islamic State, its propaganda benefitted considerably because the group “gained global infamy on the back of a series of startling military successes on the ground” (p. 244).

Nevertheless, the vast majority of readers will be persuaded by the more precise statement of the book’s core thesis: social media has changed conflict in significant ways. For that reason, this book should be read by policy practitioners and scholars interested in understanding the nature of modern warfare. Professionals who have responsibility for national security should read it and use it to ask hard questions about whether they and their organizations are doing enough to harness social media to achieve their mission. Additionally, they should ponder whether they are doing everything they can to blunt the advantages that potential adversaries might accrue from the adept use of social media.

One question that David Patrikarakos does not explore is how social media might affect the course of any future interstate war. That is hardly surprising because the era of social media has been an age largely devoid of such conflicts. Nevertheless, that obviously does not guarantee that state-on-state conflict has ended for all time. How might states use social media during any such conflicts in the future and how might social media affect outcomes? It would be fascinating to hear David Patrikarakos’s answers to those questions because, with this book, he shows himself to be an insightful thinker and expert on how social media has altered warfare.  

John-Michael Arnold
Visiting Professor of International Relations
George Washington University