Who can forget Secretary of State John Kerry confidently denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by “little green men” as outmoded “19th-century behavior”? Or that time President Obama declared that ISIS did not belong in the 21st century, shortly after the gruesome murder of journalist James Foley? This stubborn faith in the directionality of history often animated the Obama Administration. Underneath it all was an abiding trust in the positive transformative power of both technology and globalization. The brutish behavior of ISIS and Vladimir Putin were obsolete remnants of times long-ago transcended, and were necessarily self-defeating, the thinking went.
And yet today it’s as clear as day that our adversaries know exactly in which century they are living. They use new means of communications to mobilize fighters, to push their narrative, and to sow discord in our own democracies.
In his highly readable new book War in 140 Characters, British journalist David Patrikarakos examines how social media has impacted armed conflict in the 21st century. He makes two interconnected points: First, that war is no longer only won on the battlefield—in the physical dimension—but that it needs to be won in what Patrikarakos calls “the narrative dimension.” It is not enough to dominate the opponent’s armed forces if pictures retweeted thousands of times tell a different tale. As a consequence, social media has democratized conflict—Patrikarakos’s second point. Soldiers fight, but they are not alone. Palestinian teenagers tweeting about their neighborhood being bombed, Ukrainian activists crowdsourcing funding to feed and arm militias, a British gamer using geolocation to disprove Syrian and Russian war propaganda: all these online activists fight their own war to amplify their message, mobilize people, and shape the narrative.
This multiplication of narratives feeds into and reinforces distrust of traditional institutions—a hallmark of today’s populist moment. “In a world that mistrusts institutions and privileges narratives—particularly ones deemed ‘sincere’—scarcity of resources can become a virtue, abundance a liability,” Patrikarakos writes. Emotions become a weapon of war: the underdog gets the moral high ground, often at the expense of bigger political realities of the conflict. It’s an age-old dynamic that Palestinian activists were adept at exploiting long before the digital era, but with today’s tools, they have become virtuosos.
Are states completely disarmed in such conflicts? They adapt too. Patrikarakos does not cede ground to a lazy “end of states / the world is flat” defeatism, and instead shows how traditional institutions are regaining their footing. The book is a deeply reported account in three parts, each showing the dialectic relationship between individuals and states: Hamas against Israel, Ukrainian fighters against Russian state-sponsored troll factories, ISIS against its Western enemies. Some of the most interesting material is a description of the internal debates within the Israeli army as it progressively and painfully adapts to the Palestinians’ weaponization of social media during the 2012 and 2014 conflicts with Hamas in Gaza. Should “social media” be used to better communicate with journalists, or to circumvent them altogether? The smartest Israeli soldiers soon found that content is king, and that compelling material was gobbled up by journalists. The Israelis began to “focus on shaping the way the media told its stories about the war, not just tweet[ing] stuff at people.”
In describing the wider debate, Patrikarakos quotes both techno-pessimists like Evgeny Morozov and messianic boosters like Hillary Clinton’s advisor Alec Ross, but he does not pick a side. Ultimately, Patrikarakos seems to be saying, it’s pointless to debate whether this is a good or a bad trend.
But is any of this new, strictly speaking? War has never existed in isolation from the stories told about it. Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, one of the first military memoirs, is first and foremost a book of political propaganda. As Winston Churchill put it while starting his memoir: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” Even leaders like Georges Clemenceau and Abraham Lincoln found it hard to fully stomach unfettered freedom of the press when it contradicted their war messaging.
And does narrative really determine the winner? This debate, too, is as old as conflict itself. One example from very recent history is particularly instructive. Despite its clear military superiority, there was near-unanimity that Israel had lost its 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, as the Iran-backed terrorist militia appeared to be successfully resisting the region’s most powerful military. Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, never recovered from this humiliating narrative. And yet, in the face of the overwhelming devastation dished out by the Israelis, Hassan Nasrallah publicly regretted provoking the war. And subsequent events proved that Israel had successfully reestablished its deterrence: no Hezbollah missile has landed on Israel since 2006.
Still, what Patrikarakos correctly identifies as the “democratization” of conflict introduced by social media has provided an opportunity that, paradoxically, authoritarian actors, be they states like Russia or terrorist organizations like ISIS, have exploited better and more quickly than democracies. This probably has something to do with these regimes’ comfort with what one might call the political contingency of truth—something that our managerial democracies, used to technocratic discourse based on hard facts, find difficult to process. The multiplication of explanations and narratives—of which Russia’s handling of the shoot-down of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine is a master class—is made irresistibly easy in the age of social media. In this context, alongside other recent works on propaganda such as Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, War in 140 Characters is an important effort to understand why the 21stcentury does not look like we had fervently hoped it would.