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: November 21, 2018

David Patrikarakos, a London-based contributing editor at the Daily Beast, contributing writer at Politico, and author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State, offers a shrewd perspective of how the information age has drastically changed conflict. War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century is a swift read; it is easy to understand and provides an even easier way to connect the dots in order to understand the significance of social media in our operating environment. Patrikarakos’s stated premise is that “social media has helped dismantle traditional information and media hierarchies, and in doing so has given birth to a new type of hyperempowered individual, networked, globally connected, and more potent than ever before.” He terms this individual “homo digitalis.”

The book examines the contrasting perspectives of a teenage Palestinian girl and an Israel Defense Force (IDF) military unit during Israel’s incursion into Gaza in 2014. The young Palestinian, Farrah Baker, chronicled on Twitter her daily struggle to survive in a harsh urban combat environment. She did so poignantly, describing her fear for herself and her little sister. As a result, her Twitter following increased from eight hundred to two hundred thousand in just a few weeks. In response to Baker and the many thousands like her, the IDF determined it must fight back using the same communicative forum—social media. That responsibility fell upon the Social Media Department to quickly establish a YouTube channel that directly contradicted with video evidence the indigenous and Hamas narratives of atrocity. Patrikarakos contends that homo digitalis wields significant power in the twenty-fist century. He maintains that the IDF cannot function without its Social Media Department, and that the war between narratives holds as much relevance as the war within the physical domain.

Patrikarakos asserts that social media has the preeminent ability to “amplify messages and mobilize people.” To illustrate this assertion, he describes how Anna Sandalova, incensed with the Ukrainian government’s response to the Euromaidan protest in 2014, effectively used Facebook to mobilize an army of social media warriors. This army raised money to feed and clothe protesters. Sandalova then continued to develop this Facebook army and eventually provided food, uniforms, and body armor to Ukrainian soldiers fighting in eastern Ukraine against pro-Russian separatists.

Patrikarakos describes how Vitaly Bespalov became a disenchanted internet troll for the Internet Research Agency (IRA) in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and how the IRA developed and used trolls and bots to mislead, provoke, and carry various narratives on behalf of the Russian government with an intensity never seen before. Patrikarakos asserts that Vladimir Putin uses social media to mask his totalitarianism with democracy and that the West, hindered by a construct of globalized finance, is powerless to act against him.

Patrikarakos details how Elliot Higgins, an avid World of Warcraft enthusiast, recruited an army of social media experts and did what Western intelligence agencies could not. They proved “almost conclusively” that the Russian government had supplied pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine with the Buk missile that shot down flight MH-17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on 17 July 2014. He also describes how Islamic State operatives recruited Sophie Kasiki to travel to Syria with her child, unbeknownst to her husband, exclusively using social media applications.

War in 140 Characters is a must read for all military professionals. Patrikarakos expertly demonstrates through an effective narrative how social media has forever changed conflict—military or otherwise. He deftly provides a clear picture of how traditional conflicts between easily identifiable adversaries has diminished, and that these conflicts are now an often ambiguous contest of adversarial narratives. This book illustrates the critical need for a clear understanding of the immense power of social media. As stated in the book, “If you are absent in the social media space, you cede that space to your adversary.”

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Robert C. LaPreze, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas