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War in 140 characters: How social media has transformed the nature of conflict

It was the reinvention of reality, and the likes of Twitter and Facebook were at its heart. In an extract from his latest book, author and journalist David Patrikarakos says we need a new narrative to understand where battlefield now lies

David Patrikarakos
Tuesday 13 February 2018 17:01
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Since the Arab Spring a new type of hyper-empowered individual has emerged – networked, globally connected and more potent than ever before
Since the Arab Spring a new type of hyper-empowered individual has emerged – networked, globally connected and more potent than ever before

5 July 2014: the occupied city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

I woke up and immediately checked my phone. What I saw astonished me: Twitter was reporting that Ukrainian forces had driven pro-Russia separatists from their stronghold in the nearby town of Slavyansk. The rebels were now fleeing to Donetsk, the self-proclaimed capital of the separatist enclave. Tweeted photos of the escaping convoy taken by passers-by confirmed the story.

I checked the BBC and other traditional news outlets for coverage but found nothing. The truth, however, was plain to see: the city was in lockdown, its streets almost empty. Nobody was enjoying the weekend sunshine. I made my way to the “People’s Republic of Donetsk” (DNR) headquarters, the city’s occupied central administration building. Outside, several tattooed militia guarded the entrance, fiddling listlessly with their Kalashnikovs. After a cursory search of my rucksack, they allowed me to enter. “Don’t be a pig. Clean up after yourself.” The exasperated sign, taped to a pillar, looked over an archipelago of rubbish strewn across the building’s lobby. I made my way to the elevator.

In November 2013, Ukrainians had taken to the streets to protest President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a trade agreement strengthening the country’s ties to the European Union. In what would became known as the “Euromaidan” revolution, Yanukovych eventually fled to Russia in late February 2014, and now the country was on the brink of civil war. Waves of protests rippled across eastern Ukraine after Yanukovych’s fall, both for and against the new government.

In March, Russia took advantage of the instability across the border to annexe the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Galvanised by this act, pro-Russia separatists (backed by Russian forces) proceeded to take control of several eastern cities and towns, including Donetsk, throughout April and May. Now all journalists needed official accreditation from the newly proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk press office to work in the city.

Pro-Russian militants outside the regional state building they seized in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk in May 2014

The press office was housed on the fifth floor of the DNR headquarters and run by Claudia, an efficient woman trying her best to organise interviews with DNR officials for me. Information on the situation, she explained, was scarce. But it was true that several thousand DNR fighters led by Igor Strelkov (the head of the separatist militia) had left Slavyansk in convoy and were on their way here, though she had no idea where they were now or when they would arrive. Reports of the rebel exodus were only just emerging on the BBC and CNN. Twitter had, yet again, beaten mainstream media to the news.

Everyone in the office was discussing worst-case scenarios. In front of Claudia’s desk sat two men in their early twenties – one with tousled dark hair and a slack jaw, and a dirty blond with a partial squint. Their functions remained unclear. “What’s the drill if all electronic communications are cut?” said dark-hair. “We use birds, right?” His friend grunted in agreement. “What were they again?” he continued. “Chickens, swans?”

“Carrier pigeons,” came the reply.⁠

A couple of days later, my interviews done, I filed a piece on the situation. Scrolling through Twitter, I saw pro-Kremlin accounts out in force once again, spinning the loss of Slavyansk as best they could. The rebels hadn’t retreated but were merely “strategically relocating”; the battle against the “Fascist Junta” in Kiev continued.

I saw fellow journalists take abuse for reporting the facts of the retreat, often from anonymous accounts with a strong pro-Russia bent. More striking were the pro-Russia narratives that filled this corner of the internet: stories of Ukrainian atrocities – a three-year-old crucified by the Ukrainian army was a particularly notorious example⁠ – that had no basis in truth. Pro-Russian users were keen to show the so-called fascist nature of the Ukrainian side, uploading false stories of the far-right militia Pravy Sektor terrorising Odessa’s Jewish population⁠ – all were shared and retweeted thousands of times. It wasn’t propaganda I was witnessing; it was the reinvention of reality. And social media was at its heart.

I first became aware that the nature of conflict had changed when I entered eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014 and realised that Twitter had more up to date information than the BBC or CNN. Individuals. not institutions. became my primary source of information on the ground.

As summer drew in, the terrorist group Isis exploded into global headlines when in June it took Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul. Then in July Israel launched Operation Protective Edge and another Gaza war began. As a Middle East specialist, I followed events closely in the region while continuing to report from Ukraine. It didn’t matter that I was in Kiev or Donetsk, far from English-language media. Gaza’s bloody destruction was smeared across my phone and laptop on the dozens of videos and photos that filled my Twitter and Facebook feeds each day.

The ‘People’s Republic of Donetsk’ was very much a city in lockdown during the 2014 conflict

As Isis continued its rampage across Iraq, more horrific images came in, posted by bystanders, participants and state organisations alike. War had never been so close, visceral or ubiquitous. Social media, I understood, had opened up to the individual vital spaces of communication once controlled exclusively by the state.

I began to understand that I was caught up in two wars: one fought on the ground with tanks and artillery, and an information war fought out largely, though not exclusively, on social media. And I realised that the latter’s influence was arguably greater.

At the centre of all this, one thing shone out: the ability of social media to endow ordinary individuals – frequently non-combatants – with the power to change the course of both the physical battlefield and the discourse around it. Everyone, it seemed, could now be an actor in war. I was witnessing, it seemed, a form of virtual mass enlistment.

I have seen war up close and it is clear that the old paradigms of understanding are now insufficient. We are in need of a new narrative that takes into account the way social media has transformed the way that wars are waged, covered and consumed. We need to understand 21st century war.

Today, “if we want peace, don’t prepare for war; rethink it,” says Emile Simpson, author of War from the Ground Up: 21st Century Combat as Politics, and a former British soldier who served three tours in Afghanistan,⁠ Ukraine and Gaza forced me to do exactly that. Under what scholars would call the Clausewitzian paradigm (after the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz) that dominated 20th century thinking on conflict, war was thought of as something like a straight “military” fight between sovereign states. Military victory was easy to determine and, once achieved, the victor imposed a political settlement on the loser.

This form of war still exists today. In Sri Lanka, as Simpson points out, the government militarily crushed its insurgent enemy the Tamil Tigers and forced them to the negotiating table.⁠ But what I was seeing, from Ukraine to Gaza to Iraq, was the gradual erosion of this type of war in favour of loose, more open-ended conflicts.

Putin had no interest in defeating Ukraine militarily and forcing it to accept the annexation of eastern Ukraine. Israel had no intention of defeating Hamas militarily and forcing it to finally accept Israel’s existence. In the Islamic State, too, I observed a new form of conflict. Unlike terror groups of the past, it has no demands that can be met short of Syria and Iraq, and then the rest of the Middle East, dismantling their states and absorbing themselves into its caliphate: demands that are self-evidently impossible to compromise on and can as such never be resolved through negotiation. Without total victory (in this case requiring annihilation) by one side over the other, the conflict will not end.

We live in a post-1945 security system that was designed to regulate war out of existence.⁠ Following the atrocities of the Second World War, there was near unanimous desire among the major powers to create an international order where the use of force between major states was almost impossible. Organisations such as the European Union and United Nations were formed with this intention at their heart.

The emergence of nuclear weapons has also made it harder for states to use force to compel their enemy to do their will for fear of possible escalation. The post-1945 security order has seen a decline in state-on-state conflict, and an almost total absence of (direct) war between two major powers. But the urge to fight predates civilisation itself – it cannot be regulated out of existence. War, like a virus, must mutate to survive.

Members of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation units) in the Iraqi-Syrian border town of al-Qaim take selfies after the announcement of victory over Isis in December last year

Clausewitz observed that war is the continuation of politics through other means but, from what I saw in Ukraine, conflict increasingly appeared to be the practice of politics itself. Rather than militarily defeating Ukraine, Moscow seemed concerned with getting eastern Ukrainians to subscribe to a political narrative: namely that the Kiev government – a “fascist Junta” – was out to persecute Russian-speaking Ukrainians. This was because its ultimate objective was not the defeat of Ukraine but its destabilisation. In essence, its ultimate military goal was political.

The degree of global financial integration that exists today illustrates how the capacity to wage war through non-military means has never been greater. And it is dangerous because this breaking down of the boundaries between war and peace threatens international stability; if war has increasingly become the practise of politics, it has no clear end because politics never ends.

Social media has irretrievably changed the way that wars are fought, reported on and consumed. It has endowed people with two crucial abilities: first, to actively produce content; and second, through the use of social media platforms, to form transnational networks – abilities that enable them to shape events, especially in times of civil strife and conflict. At his home in Baltimore, I met Alec Ross, former Senior Advisor for Innovation to ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who articulated the phenomenon I had witnessed in my study of 2014’s various conflicts. Sitting in his living room he was unequivocal:

“Power is moving from hierarchies to citizens and networks, and connection technologies enable that shift in power. Defining a hierarchy as the nation state, as a large media organisation, or other such things. And the kinds of capabilities that would have once been reserved for large media organisations or for nation states, have suddenly become available to networks of individuals.”⁠

Since the Arab spring we have seen the emergence of a new type of hyper-empowered individual. Networked, globally connected and more potent than ever before: a uniquely 21st-century phenomenon I term Homo Digitalis.

From Ukraine to Gaza to Syria the power of Homo Digitalis is plain to see; he has irrevocably changed the relationship between the individual and the state. The 20th century nation state traditionally held primacy in two areas from which it derived much of its power: first, its monopoly on the use of force; and second, its near total control of information flows.

The emergence of social media platforms has created new forums that allow people to communicate outside traditional state hierarchies of communication such as state or even privately owned but state-permitted newspapers, radio and TV. When this happens, new avenues of power are created that empower the individual and challenge the nation state.

Fighters carrying food supplies run for cover in the Syrian city of Aleppo in July 2012 ahead of violent clashes between government forces and rebels

And because these new forums are structurally more egalitarian many see the internet, specifically social media, as the ultimate tool against tyrants. This idea is what the author Evgeny Morozov terms “cyber-utopianism”, the belief that “the internet favours the oppressed rather than the oppressor”.

He terms it “cyber-utopianism” because, just as Homo Digitalis challenges the state, the state will always fight back. While Ukrainians uploaded photos of Russian military hardware crossing the border, the Russian state used the same platforms to spread its counter-narrative. Social media, wielded by both Homo Digitalis and the state, has unleashed great power into warfare. Who wins this battle will determine who wins many of the wars to come. New media has expanded the arena of conflict into the virtual world, which is becoming every bit as “real” as the fighting on the ground. Whether you are a president, a soldier or a terrorist, if you don’t understand how to effectively deploy the power of media, you may win the odd battle but you will lose the war, or at least a major part of it.

History shows us that with each new major evolution in information technology comes a period of great instability, often leading to conflict. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century brought subsequent wars of religion to Europe. Once it enabled mass publication of the Bible, which was subsequently translated from Latin into the vernacular languages of states, the Catholic Church no longer became the sole mediator between the text and the people.

Everyone could bring their own interpretation to it – and war ensued. The 1920s saw the mass expansion of radio, which, a mere decade later, gave the demagogues of the 1930s platforms on which to flourish, leading ultimately to the second World War. November 2016 saw the election of Donald Trump, arguably the most demagogic US presidential candidate in history, who employed Twitter as one of his primary campaign tools.

Like the printing press, then radio and TV, social media has opened up new venues of communication, but the degree to which it has decentralised the transmission of information means the extent to which the state can impose a single interpretation of events has decreased even further.

The problem we now face is twofold: the boundaries between politics and warfare have never been so blurred, and modern politics has never been so unstable. Alongside these trends has been the rise of postmodernism within our academic institutions and its lack of belief in a knowable “objective truth”, which has allowed the lies of both the Kremlin and Trump to flourish.

We live in a postmodern age that has brought forth postmodern politics – and war.

War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century by David Patrikarakos (Basic Books, £25) is available now

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