war on the rocks

The Once and Future InfoWars

March 27, 2018

David Patrikarakos, War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (Basic Books, 2017).

Violence, like Twitter, is a means of communication. If we do not understand it as such, its place in international relations makes no sense. As Thomas Schelling wrote in 1966: “The power to hurt is bargaining power. To exploit it is diplomacy — vicious diplomacy, but diplomacy.” Thinkers such as Joseph Nye and John Arquilla have argued that future wars will be determined by “whose story wins” more than who wins on the battlefield. Any analysis of narratives affecting war, however, must explain how violence itself shapes and destroys narratives. Violence may be a terrible way of communicating, but it will always be the ultimate way for states to signal their intentions and capabilities when discourse fails.

Journalist David Patrikarakos’ War in 140 Characters is an extremely rewarding, yet hopeless attempt to argue that new information technology — specifically, social media — has fundamentally “destabilized classic forms of war” and suggest that something new is upon us. According to Patrikarakos, social media is “one thing above all else: effect without cause.” As a result, it has given actors without any resources the ability to have an impact on what he calls the “narrative” and “discursive” levels of war, at which actors interpret the truth and political meaning of military action. Since the narrative and discursive levels of war have a greater impact on the political outcome of a war than military operations, effective tweeting can make battles irrelevant. And since non-state actors are better at tweeting than the West’s discredited institutions, they have gained an unprecedented advantage. The pernicious effects of battlefield social media thus threaten “the very idea that wars between state and non-state actors are asymmetric.”

To make its case, War in 140 Characters tells a riveting story about the diffusion of power from states to new social media actors it calls Homo digitalis. Patrikarakos is laudably balanced when presenting how Palestinian civilians and Israeli Defense Force soldiers compete on Twitter, where a single photogenic Gazan girl may be “larger” — measured in reach and retweets — than the entire Jewish state. In Ukraine, he describes the Facebook-centric “virtual state” that crowdsources defense material and the Russian trolls who seek to “sow as much confusion as possible” about what is occurring in Ukraine. He then profiles Bellingcat editor Eliot Higgins, an open-source intelligence analyst who, we are told, can “prove facts on the ground in wartime faster and more conclusively than government agencies.”

Unfortunately, this book mistakes the public for the powerful. Notably absent is an example of a non-state actor operating at the “discursive” level of war decisively altering the outcome of a conflict. Simply put, it is much ado about nothing. Palestinians on Twitter have not destroyed Israel’s base of international support, the Ukrainian armed forces remain resolute but ill-equipped, and Bellingcat has not supplanted MI6 as the British prime minister’s main source of intelligence. In fact, most of the actors described in this book appear to be disrupting war reporting as much as military operations. Bellingcat’s fine work, for example, has had a limited impact on policymakers with alternate, and usually superior, sources of intelligence, but has significantly increased the information available to the general public.

Even the interesting example of jihadist radicalization and recruiting of foreigners using social media is no game-changer. Jihadi groups have been radicalizing youth from a distance long before the advent of social media. Today, they do so much more efficiently, but mere propaganda does not win wars. As Patrick Porter put it in 2015, “The Islamic State did not tweet its way into Mosul and will not be narrated out, at least not without some strategic success to make propaganda credible.”

Moreover, Homo digitalis’ natural habitat — the information domain, functioning as a global “public sphere” — is not likely to exist for much longer. Authoritarian states are actively seeking to reverse the diffusion of power. Patrikarakos cites Parag Khanna, who once contended that states’ “dominance of information flows and narratives” has “evaporated.” This is supremely ironic. The Internet was originally a U.S. Department of Defense initiative. The United States has turned what began as a military network into a global space for it allies and enemies to debate it own place in the world. This is in line with American values, but the idea of a state actively diffusing power is so anathema to most other great powers that Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to genuinely believe the Internet is a “CIA plot.”

Russia and China are simply not going to tolerate non-state actors having so much freedom to debate the facts and meaning of their actions, and probably won’t have to. The authoritarian attack on discursive space already has several names. The 2017 National Security Strategy calls it “information statecraft.” Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig argue that Chinese and Russia influence is best described as “sharp power,” which is “not principally about attraction or even persuasion; instead, it centers on distraction and manipulation.” Whatever its name, its lines of effort are clear: aggressive efforts to control information platforms, computational propaganda to inspire support, complex influence operations to undermine opposition, and promotion of data sovereignty to guarantee states’ control over the Internet. If they succeed, the globalized information domain will cease to exist outside of the West — and with it, Homo digitalis will lose much of its power.

Then again, perhaps the global discursive battlefield never existed. Israelis and Palestinians are able to tweet at each other because Israel is a westernized country and the Arab world, which has low internet penetration, relies on “imported” Western social media platforms. But Russian and Chinese-speaking users use different social networks than most Americans and Western Europeans. The most popular social networks outside of the United States, including VKontakte in Russia and WeChat in China, are functionally under state control. Even if authoritarian regimes didn’t control the media, they control the data. China already has a “Great Firewall,” and Russia has suggested it may cut itself off from the Internet entirely. The discursive battlefield is thus already very circumscribed.

Russia is the most advanced practitioner of information statecraft, and Patrikarakos provides an excellent but incomplete account of how it has mastered information warfare at home and abroad. While profiling former Russian troll Vitaly Bespalov, he addresses Russia’s “post-truth” domestic politics yet sadly does not consider Russia’s extreme but unfounded paranoia about Western subversion, its theory of reflexive control, or its heritage of active measures (Рефлексивное управление) and military deception (маскировка). Russia has been preparing to fight in the information domain since the 1970s, when it determined that American armed forces had become “information-centric” and could be defeated by the disruption or destruction of their information technology. Now that most societies are also information-centric, Russia’s weapons have broader utility.

Nonetheless, Russia clearly sees these weapons as most powerful when used in concert with traditional military force, rather than as a substitute or replacement for it. Social media has empowered the state far more than non-state actors, and certainly has not reversed the traditional balance of power. When Russian annexed the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, it employed its cyber, electronic warfare, and special operations forces in what Russian military writers call an “electronic knockdown” to isolate the territory from most modern communications. While Russia is a “hybrid state,” this was unambiguously a state-directed operation. Homo digitalis in Crimea proved irrelevant without bandwidth, and the Ukrainian government in Crimea was confused into inaction. Russia changed the map of Europe without losing a single soldier using state-centric information warfare and following what is basically an updated version of Soviet Army doctrine. This truth — missing in this book’s account of Crimea — suggests that information warfare is decisive, but only when used in concert with the other elements of state power. There is no “cause without effect.”

Patrikarakos’ thesis is measured. While he claims traditional state-centric warfare is breaking down, he also admits social media is a “paradoxical force” that is “both centripetal and centrifugal.” In practice, when state actors impose limits on their ability to fight non-state actors, non-state actors gain an immense advantage from social media, as it provides them an unprecedented tool to amplify their message. But that is likely a quirk of the present day and of the conflicts that are so brilliantly presented here. States are becoming less restrained, and they remain the most efficient practitioners of violence. Violence remains “the last argument of kings” — Ultima Ratio Regum, as was once inscribed on Ancien Régime artillery — and will remain so. Other arguments are only relevant before violence is employed, or when violence is intentionally limited. Social media, like the global public sphere before it, cannot replace warfare.


T.S. Allen is an officer in the U.S. Army. Follow him on Twitter @TS_Allen. The views presented here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense and its components.

Image: Armando G. Alonso/Flickr