Social Media and War: How Facebook and Twitter Are Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century

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Hackers united on November 17 to target ISIS websites, apps and social media channels as part of the #SilenceTheSwords campaign. Di5s3nSi0N

A Russian online troll farm is exposed by a disgruntled former employee: "You may think of yourself as a hero but in reality you're just a little son of a bitch;"

A Ukrainian "Facebook warrior" sources everything from fuel to fruit through social networks: "It's all about networks...People always know other people who can provide what we need;"

Islamic State militants in Raqqa recruit a French convert to their cause over WhatsApp and Viber: "Don't believe the newspapers—here all Muslims live in peace, here we truly serve something."

A young Palestinian girl tweets from Gaza in the middle of an Israeli bombardment: "I AM CRYING AND CAN'T STAND BOMBS SOUND! I'M ABOUT TO LOSE SENSE OF HEARING."

Such are the individuals, both spiky and vivid, who populate David Patrikarakos's thoughtful and immensely enjoyable new book War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century.

Although the book engages with contemporary and classical conflict theory, Patrikarakos wears his intellect lightly—the narrative is character-driven and all the better for it.

Patrikarakos's specimens, however disparate, are representative of a new kind of human that he terms "homo digitalis."

"The hypernetworked individual is above all Manichean, responsible for both good and ill...The networks that stand at social media's heart are inescapably both centripetal and centrifugal, bringing people together and breaking them apart with speeds and scopes previously impossible."

Social media's reach cannot be underestimated, Patrikarakos tells us. Facebook has a larger population than China, while Twitter and Facebook are the platforms that provide Americans with the majority of their news.

Patrikarakos, a seasoned foreign correspondent, was inspired to write the book after arriving in eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014 and realizing "that Twitter contained more up-to-date information than the New York Times or NBC."

That summer was a momentous one for conflict and social media: the Islamic State group (ISIS) made global headlines following the capture of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, in June. A month later, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge following the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teen boys and another war in Gaza began.

Unlike the conflicts that came before them, these wars were fought on two fronts: one on the ground with tanks and artillery and one on social media with tweets and snaps. Moreover, it was the narrative war that reigned supreme. In this telling, sticks and stones will break your bones but words can win—or lose—a war.

Web 2.0 is the starting point of War 2.0, a world where a teenage girl can live-tweet a conflict and galvanize a nation: A world where pictures of young men sailing on the Euphrates can convince an impressionable woman to pack her bags and move to a war zone.

The power of the information and mistruths pumping out of 10,000 Facebook feeds is not only in its abundance—it is also in its spread. The Kremlin, Ukraine, Israeli Defense Forces, Hamas and ISIS took aim at a global audience, rather than the "enemy" population traditionally targeted by wartime propaganda.

In this realm, anyone can be an actor in war. It is not an accident, Patrikarakos says, that of the eight major characters profiled in his work, four are women and three are civilians. Women, children and those excluded from historic warfare can now take center-stage and direct the theater of conflict in ways that would previously be unimaginable.

The old hegemony of hierarchical news media is almost gone. Individuals have replaced institutions, narratives have replaced facts, emoting has replaced debating and algorithms shape what we see and how we see the world. Social media is intimate and personal: it seduces and elides, it cajoles and it lies. Doctored images and hoaxes abound. Conspiracy theories bloom and propagate.

The consequences of this shift, Patrikarakos warns, are as potent as they are dangerous: "Malicious actors understand that, in the social media age, everyone is now a broadcaster or a fund-raiser or a propagandist. … Homo digitalis has been weaponized for the worst of purposes."

The post-truth world, Patrikarakos notes, has also created the post-truth leader—from Vladimir Putin to Donald Trump, the goal of this new leader is "not to twist the truth like politicians of old but to subvert the very notion that an objective truth exists at all." Trump's "Fake News!" mantra could not be so successful in any other age.

As a witness to contemporary trends in conflict, populism and an anti-globalization backlash, Patrikarakos concludes that "frustrated populations and opportunistic demagogues" along with a Middle East "strafed by war and unrest of a degree not seen in almost a century" has created a combustible mix with the potential for global ignition.

But Patrikarakos is no doomsayer. The darkness of homo digitalis is, at least in part, mitigated by the light: "the twenty-first century war correspondent." The tools of social media can be harnessed for elucidation as well as falsification.

This book is a timely reminder that journalism is not the answer but it is a small—and vital—part of the solution.

War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century, by David Patrikarakos, Basic Books RRP£25/$30, 320 pages