The battle for digital supremacy

Book author: David Patrikarakos

Published by: Basic Books

Reviewer: per Concordiam Staff

Social media has made a mockery of the old saw that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. Today, thanks to the ubiquitous and instantaneous social media natures of Twitter, Facebook, Google and YouTube, a falsehood can define an event’s narrative before the truth even knows there is a narrative.

David Patrikarakos outlines the disturbing implications of this in War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. Nations, interest groups and even individuals have at their fingertips the technological means to shape how the public perceives a given event as it happens and even before an outcome is decided. In today’s social media climate, people learn immediately on personal devices each element of a battle or campaign, along with reports or commentary from “on the scene” protagonists spinning the fighting favorably to their cause. A weak aggressor can portray his side as victorious, just for surviving a punishing onslaught. One thinks of Saddam Hussein in 1991 and the Palestinians in the 2000s. Patrikarakos quotes Harvard strategist Joseph Nye, who said it is no longer most important whose army wins, but whose story wins.

Patrikarakos views social media in its various machinations as the shaper of conflict this century. Using it to further one’s cause is not propaganda per se, but rather, a “reinvention of reality.” War in 140 Characters is a book about stories, the narratives of conflict and the conflict of narratives. When an individual with a cellphone and Twitter account can provide more up-to-date information than the communication resources available to major national newspapers and broadcast entities, the balance of power has shifted in the individual’s favor. “As social media makes almost every action visible through a share or a tweet (especially in wartime),” Patrikarakos writes, “both governments and the traditional media have seen their role as the gatekeepers of information recede in favor of wildly differing interpretations of events — and the spread of outright falsehoods.” Translation: If one can offer a credible alternative to the government’s storyline, one that places doubts as to the truth in the public’s mind, then one “wins.”

According to Patrikarakos, the meaning of truth itself is changing in contemporary politics and, more dangerously, in conflict, at a number of levels. First, the death of the idea of “objective truth” allows Russia — through the use of its propaganda — to erode trust in all sources of truth, allowing for so-called fake news to infect real news. In addition, social media has catalyzed the forces shaping information: Stories go viral, but you also have endless versions of events and information overflow, both of which stretch truth like an elastic band. In turn, the definition of a story is changing: Now a tweet can itself be the story, not just a means to tell it. Last, social media creates new rules to which the state must adapt or perish. One thinks here of the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State terror group, which Patrikarakos maintains would have been simply impossible to begin and sustain without the wide reach of social media.

Almost as a successor statement to Samuel B. Morse’s first telegraphic message — “What hath God wrought?” — Patrikarakos asks what social media has birthed. His answer is a new type of human, which he dubs “Homo digitalis,” a hyper-empowered, networked, globally connected and exceptionally potent individual whose actions have irretrievably changed the way that wars are fought, reported on and consumed. In the recent armed conflicts he has covered, Patrikarakos said he found himself caught between two types of adversaries — Homo sapiens fighting on the ground with tanks and artillery, and Homo digitalis, fighting an information war largely, though he notes not exclusively, through social media. Almost counterintuitively, he says he discovered that “victory” in the war of words and narratives mattered more than who had the most potent weaponry. “At its center, one thing shone out: the extraordinary ability of social media to endow ordinary individuals, frequently noncombatants, with the power to change the course of both the physical battlefield and the discourse around it.” Recruiting — or simply accepting — social media noncombatants into the fray has evolved into a form of virtual mass enlistment for one side in a conflict.

Patrikarakos asserts that after his experiences covering war in Ukraine and his study of the Gaza conflict, together with the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group, he now perceives a seismic shift in war’s character. Whether social media is prevalent or not, in recent years, most modern conflicts exist between the boundaries of war and peace and are more often a battle between state and nonstate actors. The shift has been not in firepower, but rather in communicative power: Power has swung from hierarchies or institutions to individual citizens and networks of citizens. Through social media waged by such citizens, war narratives are arguably more important than the actual fighting.

The author bolsters these claims with a series of vignettes from 21st century conflict zones. These range from a Palestinian teen providing a myopic heart-tugging view of her family’s and neighbor’s suffering from Israel’s response to Gazan terrorism, to freedom fighters in Ukraine seeking to turn back Russia’s “little green men” infiltration of their eastern provinces, to a British computer techie who crowdsourced his online open-source investigation to show conclusively that, despite Russian claims to the contrary, the anti-aircraft missile that downed a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine had come from Russia. He chronicles how Russia employs young, idealistic writers to man its social media propaganda factory, generating false narratives, not necessarily to persuade, but mainly to confuse the global audience as to what the truth is. He also shows how Israel employs young, idealistic soldiers to use social media to counter Palestinian propaganda tweets.

Of greatest interest to per Concordiam readers is Patrikarakos’ assertion that in Ukraine, Russia could easily have militarily defeated that nation to annex its eastern provinces. Instead, Moscow seemed “most concerned with getting eastern Ukrainians to subscribe to a political narrative” of a government persecuting Russian-speaking Ukrainians, which would create a narrative of a benevolent Russia welcoming its native Russian speakers back into its territorial embrace. Russia used electronic mass media, distributed over social media networks, to achieve its political goal in a war of words, supplemented by a war of arms. “Whereas in war as it is traditionally understood, information operations support military action on the battlefield, in Ukraine it became clear that military operations on the ground were supporting information operations on TV and in cyberspace,” Patrikarakos writes.

A large entity such as Russia having such capability and reach may present a grim picture for democratic nations and free peoples. This great ability cuts against Russia’s own strength, however. “Web 2.0 has endowed people with two crucial abilities to disrupt [authoritarian] power: first, they can actively produce [low or no-cost] content on social media platforms with almost no barriers to entry, and second, through the use of these forums they can form transnational networks,” Patrikarakos writes. “Both of these abilities enable them to fill roles traditionally occupied by nation-states and to shape events around the globe. [Thus] homo digitalis is especially dangerous for authoritarian states, which rely even more than liberal democracies on controlling information flows. Without near monopolies on these flows, it is impossible for states to project power (especially in war or protest situations) the way they once could. And because these new social media forums are structurally more egalitarian, many delight in holding up the internet as the ultimate tool against tyrants.”

Social media effects are neither inherently evil nor good, but as the saying goes, people make them what they are. One can decry the use of social media to shape armed conflict or one can recognize social media is here to stay and it behooves a nation, group or individual to learn its facets and employ them en masse to counter falsehoods. Lies may still travel quickly around the world. Yet, the job of democratic governments and their citizens is to greet the lies when they arrive with a bodyguard of truth that cracks the credibility of fast-talking and fast-walking lies. The tools to do this are sharp and easily used. Anyone who seeks a primer on how they work best should read Patrikarakos’ well-researched and well-argued book — or suffer the consequences of inaction.  

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