Friday, December 14, 2018

‘War in 140 Characters’ investigates the new digital battlefield of war

  • News Desk
    Published: 2018-03-03 12:20:03 BdST


As IS recruits supporters on Twitter and Russian disinformation campaigns on Facebook call American elections into question the importance of controlling the narrative of war has come to the fore.

The new digital landscape affects conflict in real time and has made modern war as narrative as it is physical, argues journalist David Patrikarakos in his new book ‘War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century’.

“Whereas in a war as it is traditionally understood, information operations support military action on the battlefield,” Patrikarakos writes on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, “in Ukraine it became clear that military operations on the ground were supporting information operations on TV and in cyberspace”.

Reporting from the scene, Patrikarakos found information regarding the conflict spreading on Twitter long before it hit news reports.

And then there is the story of the former PR executive whose Facebook account helped supply part of the Ukrainian army.

Anna Sandalova, a middle-aged mother, took it upon herself to organise Facebook support for the Ukrainian soldiers battling separatists and the Russian army in Crimea. Her effort raised $1.3 million to buy night-vision goggles, imported army uniforms and even an ambulance.

Patrikarakos also devotes a chapter to Palestinian teenager Farah Baker, who live-tweeted her experiences during the 51 days of the 2014 Gaza war and caught the eye of the international media. Starved for access, mainstream media outlets amplified her eye-witness accounts. As Patrikarakos puts it, the media had “become, in effect, her PR agents.”

While Palestinian rockets could never stop Israel, there was a chance their narrative could, he adds.

But states are now learning to fight back, says Patrikarakos.

His book also profiles a young Israeli soldier who pushed her superiors to stop fighting an ‘analogue war’ and opened accounts on YouTube and Twitter to disseminate pro-Israeli Defence Force messages. By 2014 the top brass had listened, and the IDF Facebook page was using videos and other visual propaganda to boost its message.

Another nation that was quick on the uptake was Russia, which ran a massive disinformation campaign during the Ukraine conflict before it targeted the 2016 US election.

Patrikarakos devotes a chapter to an employee of a Russian ‘troll farm’ who describes an operation to create a network of fake blogs and sites.

The fake sites would pretend to be from Ukrainian sources and cite each other to bolster credibility in a ‘merry-go-round of lies’ catering to eager pro-Russian separatists.

The campaign wasn’t designed to gain support for Russia, Patrikarakos says, but to “sow discord and disharmony within the west, to confuse and to obfuscate”.

Patrikarakos’s book is a timely warning and an indication of the world to come, but it is also quickly outpaced by its subject. After all, even as ‘War in 140 Characters’ hit bookshelves, Twitter had expanded its character limit to 280.

Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at ‘The Daily Beast’ and a contributing writer at ‘Politico’. He has also the author of ‘Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State’.