‘War in 140 Characters’ Is to the Point

David Patrikarakos has written an engaging narrative that covers the activities and surroundings of eight 21st century social media crusaders.

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

The notion of a social network has rarely if ever been put to better use than by the warriors and crusaders profiled in this thorough examination of war and social conflict in the 21st century. The first and best way to understand this change is in the way nouns quickly become verbs. The social networks of Facebook and Twitter have been the primary means of an older, more staid domestic consumer base. In other words, Facebook is the preferred home of your grandmother and great aunt in Florida or Missouri, They share inspirational videos and post affirmative reactions to pictures of newly-born relatives from across the country. They rarely turn the noun “network” into a verb. For many older folks in the United States (save for the current occupant of the White House) Twitter is still a foreign entity, a frightening impulse control issue that is now available in 280 characters.

How do we manage and understand this brave new world when we know that any record of what’s happening now could be rendered irrelevant within a year or so? In David Patrikarokas‘s War In 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-first Century, the argument is based on some simple differences in definition. “This is a book about war,” Patrikarakos writes. “But it is also a book about stories, the narratives of conflict and the conflict of narratives.” This is a good way to put it, and the reader feels confident from the start about the direction Patrikarakos is going to take. He was fighting wars on two fronts as a journalist covering conflict areas from the Ukraine to Siberia and parts in between. He profiles eight major characters in this book, and notes the differences between the major players now and those that might have been playing many years ago. Four are women, three civilians, and only one is an enlisted person.

For Patrikarakos, power has shifted from hierarchies to individuals (or networks of individuals). The narrative of any war in question is more important than its physical dimensions. The conflicts he examines here are now between the state and a “non-state actor”, somebody lurking in front of a computer terminal or on their phones. He writes that social media has:

“…given birth to a new type of hyperempowered individual, networked, globally connected, and more potent than ever before…Homo digitalis.”

In other words, the new crusaders were just as comfortable with disseminating information through social networks (e.g., the Arab Spring uprising of 2011) as they were behind the barrel of a gun. Rather than promote and embrace connections, this means of battle both “…shatters unity and divides people in two overarching ways…” It sets Facebook and Twitter camps against each other. The capitalist enterprises of these corporations endeavor to use any means necessary to build their empires. The notion of “post-truth”, so popular by the end of 2016, allowed for the newly elected US President to be clearly labeled as an unrepentant and prolific liar. In many ways, if Patrikarakos ever chooses to update this volume, Trump might be the best example of an unapologetic and brilliantly devious exponent of this new warfare. History happening at the moment has clearly illustrated that whenever something devastating is about to happen to his adminstration, Trump turns to Twitter and generates a storm of activity in an attempt to direct the public’s attention elsewhere.

The war we see today is asymmetrical. Battles are fought in dimly lit basement rooms through Twitter battles and Facebook posts. Patrikarakos starts with Israel’s 2014 war against Hamas to illustrate what he sees as the clash “…between individual authenticity and institutional corporatism…” In the murky and more difficult to define “gray zone” war areas, like the Ukraine-Russia war, “…reality is reinvented to serve the ends of a new kind of dictator.” The logical end result of “Homo digitalis” calls for the clear brutality of the Islamic State. Where the ideal of social networks and their ability to network disparate groups of people for ideal purposes has manifested itself in Go Fund Me campaigns or other relief efforts, the Islamic State has conclusively taken the top of the mountain when it comes to recruiting gullible recruits into their fold and maintaining a status in the darkest edges of the worldwide web mindset.

War in 140 Characters shows the extent to which new media has opened up the ability to broadcast anywhere and everywhere. It can be done by virtually anybody at little cost. Among the eight social media users interviewed here, we meet sixteen-year-old Farah Baker, a Palestinian who uses social media to broadcast the plight of her people in Gaza. “In just a matter of weeks… her followers jumped from 800 to around 200,000.” Patrikarakos notes that Baker was successful because “…she rarely, if ever, took part in explicit political debate.”

Where Baker’s story is indicative of an appealing face to tell a dark narrative, Patrikarakos also notes that social and traditional media more often than not are working in tandem for the military. This is illustrated through the story of Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, working for the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). It’s a calculated, methodical process that requires the ability to gather material to post on Facebook that will most surely go viral. In effect all social media (particularly Twitter) is effect without cause. The goal had to be seeing how the origins of a conclusion can be determined. In short, the point “…was to get out as much information as possible for the minimum investment.”

Readers entering War in 140 Characters with a deeper knowledge of the conflicts in Ukraine, Gaza, and the universal prevalence of the Islamic State will have an easier time entering this book than those entering it uninformed. Nevertheless, the essence of this book seems to be to provide a basic introduction to these and other conflicts. In his chapter on Vitaly Bespalov, whom he calls “The Troll”, Patrikarakos writes:

“Social media has enabled a light to be shined on the powerless and voiceless. It has enabled the telling of stories that should be told. But through its ability to circumvent media’s traditional gatekeepers, it has also contributed to the spread of misleading and outright fake news…”

It’s when we’re near the end of this chapter on Bespalov that we know War in 140 Characters needs a sequel. What we know about Donald Trump today, and the collusions and machinations he orchestrated to gain the office and maintain it (for the timer being) has only gotten darker since the publication of this book. Patrikarakos is succinct in his understanding of the current condition, which does not need any updating:

“The more doubt you can sow in people’s minds about all information, the more you will weaken their propensity to recognize the truth when they see or hear it. This is the overarching goal at the heart of Russia’s propaganda…”

It’s in this statement about Russia that we can clearly understand what has been happening in America. Trump and Putin are not the primary players in this story, but they will always exist at the heart of it all. No matter how long they stay on the national stage, pulling strings and drawing in scores of minions to do their dirtiest deeds, the damage they do to their respective countries continues. Patrikarakos saves his strongest warning for his final pages:

“In more ways than one, the world of 2017 looks eerily similar to the pre-1914 world… We think of globalization as a new phenomenon, but from the mid-nineteenth century to 1914 around sixty million people left Europe in search of better economic prospects in countries like the United States…”

Important Political Science texts serve as warnings from people who can carefully connect the dots. Trump and Putin are players whose time may be running out, and a deeper dive into their particular psychoses will be better suited for other texts. With War in 140 Characters, Patrikarakos has written an engaging narrative that covers the activities and surroundings of eight 21st century social media crusaders who may be helping to provoke change for the better.

RATING 8 / 10