War in 140 Characters Cover

War in 140 Characters

How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century

David Patrikarakos

Basic Books, New York, 2017, 320 pages

Book Review published on: June 26, 2020

In his book War in 140 Characters, David Patrikarakos advances the understanding of revolutions in twenty-first-century warfare by examining a series of recent conflicts through the lens of Homo digitalis. This term is one Patrikarakos created to describe the new phenomenon of highly empowered, networked individuals connected transnationally as a consequence of the proliferation of social media and its ability to subsume traditional information and media organizations and bureaucracies.1 Through an analysis of recent conflicts in Ukraine, Gaza, the Arab Spring, Raqqa, and the establishment and work of Bellingcat and the Department of State’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, Patrikarakos elucidates three salient trends for the twenty-first-century practitioner of war. Homo digitalis revolutionizes current and future warfare by shifting the power from traditional power brokers to a shared power balance with networked individuals, by acting as an inherently destabilizing force, and by elevating the narrative to have parity of effects with traditional kinetic military operations.

Patrikarakos posits that the pervasive, global adoption of social media empowers the traditionally weak, voiceless individual by providing a platform capable of reaching millions through transnational networks.2 Farah, a teenage girl living in Gaza, generated a narrative on Twitter during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict.3 This emotional storytelling evolved to become the dominating narrative within traditional journalism.4 Her narrative, irrespective of her intentions, was weaponized by the Palestinians, thereby forcing Israel to respond, even if ineffectually.5 Ultimately, the actions of this young girl were leveraged in the information domain to tip the scale of victory to Palestine despite Israel’s overwhelming military success.6

The shift in power caused by Homo digitalis has a destabilizing effect on the power status quo. This effect is caused by the rivaling duality of individuals’ ability to circumvent governments’ and large organizations’ traditional hold on information and the latter’s willingness to use the same tools to promulgate propaganda and lies to the masses. On one hand, Russia can establish a series of troll farms to flood the information space with a narrative that obfuscates truth thereby enabling them, among other things, to annex Crimea by sowing discord without firing a shot.7 Concurrently, an Elliot Higgins can form a network through Bellingcat to effectively refute this same state’s narrative of the 2014 downing of a passenger jet causing an international shift in public opinion.8 In effect, this duality enables authoritarian oppressors to be more effective while simultaneously empowering networked individuals to provide effective counternarratives.9 The result is unquestionably destabilizing to traditional international order.

Kinetic military operations no longer singularly determine victory in war. Homo digitalis competes in information war before, during, and after traditional military conflict.10 Patrikarakos asserts that contrary to traditional Western approaches to war, the kinetic fight now often serves as a means to shape information operations to achieve political ends instead of the inverse.11 As the author deftly depicts in his examination of Operation Protective Edge, decisive victory in physical battle is now insufficient if the discursive narrative war is lost.12

Twenty-first-century warfare has been fundamentally changed by Homo digitalis. The shift in power from traditional power brokers to networked individuals, its destabilizing effects on the status quo, and the newfound primacy of the narrative require a different approach to warfare. In effect, social media is the new key terrain on the modern battlefield. National security practitioners who fail to acknowledge this current reality and subsequently adapt their ways and means risk failing to achieve their ends.

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  1. David Patrikarakos, War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 9.
  2. Ibid., 12-13.
  3. Ibid., 24-25.
  4. Ibid., 32-33.
  5. Ibid., 34-35.
  6. Ibid., 38-43.
  7. Ibid., 133, 138-42, 150-51, 153-55.
  8. Ibid., 169-70.
  9. Ibid., 134.
  10. Ibid., 259.
  11. Ibid., 260.
  12. Ibid., 261-62.
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Book Review written by: Maj. Brian Thorson, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas