Power in the palm of the hand

Exploring how social media is transforming war.

AN ISIS fighter uses his phone to  lm a military parade in Syria’s northern Raqqa province in 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN ISIS fighter uses his phone to lm a military parade in Syria’s northern Raqqa province in 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Not too long ago, a French member of ISIS was sitting in Raqqa, Syria, describing the beauty of the city to a friend. He and another friend sent photos on WhatsApp and Viber of them hanging out in restaurants and sailing boats on the Euphrates. “They had never felt integrated into French society,” according to the account by reporter David Patrikarakos. But in Raqqa, “They belonged; they were doing good.”
Patrikarakos is the author of War in 140 Characters, a new book that looks at how social media is “reshaping conflict in the 21st century.” He takes the reader from the streets of Gaza to the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, and from the front lines in Ukraine to the men investigating the MH17 aerial disaster.
“Social media is many things, but above all... it empowers the individual,” he writes. Facebook was founded in 2004 and by June 2017 had two billion monthly users. Twitter was founded in 2006 and by October of this year had 330 million monthly users. These two social media platforms have played a key role in the Iranian protests of 2009, and the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011. Twitter also played a specifically major role in the Ukrainian Euromaidan protests that began in the winter of 2013 and eventually toppled the government of president Viktor Yanukovych.
The power that social media have on the streets cannot be ignored by governments. The US is now embroiled in an acrimonious debate about the role of “fake news” in the 2016 election that brought Donald Trump to power. In many ways, the alternative media that spread via social media are a mixed bag. They can empower the marginalized and citizen journalists, but also spread false information and become a place for terrorists and the far Right to recruit.
“I decided to write this book while lying on my bed in a bleak room of the Ramada hotel in Donetsk,” recalls Patrikarakos in his introduction.
“We need to better understand the 21st century war.” New media have expanded the realm of conflict from the battlefield and the street into the virtual world, the author says. “Whether you are a president, a soldier, or a terrorist, if you don’t understand how to effectively deploy the power of new media you may win the odd battle but you will lose a 21st century war.”
War in 140 Characters begins in the Gaza Strip. Here, “armed with only a smartphone,” Palestinians struggle to defeat a much more powerful military “on the narrative battlefield.” Patrikarakos introduces us to Farah Baker, a 16-year-old Palestinian, whose summer was “ruined” by the 2014 Gaza war. “Farah hadn’t been expecting war to come that summer. There had been talk of it on social media, of course.”
Farah’s Twitter account grew from 800 followers to 200,000, as she tweeted about the conflict that followed the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. “People on the ground tweeting photos and descriptions of events during wartime have become invaluable,” the author writes.
Like Farah, Anna Sandalova also saw social media as a powerful tool to get her nation’s message out. When war broke out in Ukraine between the government and rebels in the east, the Ukrainian army faced numerous obstacles, not just on the battlefield, but in the information war.
“The state couldn’t cope and Anna was convinced she could help fill the governmental void,” writes Patrikarakos. She began with a group that was raising funds to support soldiers at the front who were fighting pro-Russian separatists in 2014. Online groups like hers appeared all over Ukraine, “doing everything from disseminating information on the crisis to housing refugees to raising money to repairing planes to buying trucks on which the army mounted rocket launchers.”
Of course, reality and social media are also often two different things. For example, Sophie, an ISIS recruit, didn’t find life in Syria as great as her male friends said it would be.
“She was installed in an apartment that, she found out, had been seized from its original Syrian owners.” This wasn’t the imaginary caliphate, but some kind of sick, twisted, version. Foreign volunteers treated locals “like dirt.” At the hospital where Sophie volunteered, not only were foreigners, often from Europe, treated better, but doctors seemed to be harming women by performing too many C-sections.
Was Sophie a victim? While today ISIS recruits want to pretend they were brainwashed or didn’t know, Sophie doesn’t discuss in the book the fact that in 2014 ISIS had not just put out messages about sailing on the Euphrates, but had also boasted of selling indigenous Yazidi women into sex slavery and took pride in committing genocide against Shi’ites, Yazidis and others. Sophie saw foreign women recruits “clapping and cheering” as a video of a Jordanian pilot being burned alive was broadcast.
Social media give us a tool for good and bad. Like the Nazis harnessed modern technology to carry out genocide, social media can be harnessed to incite people to kill. They can also be used to defend the weak and shed light on the suffering. They are a tool in the hand of governments and the poorest farmer. Patrikarakos has put together a compelling and important narrative about war in the early 21st century. The question for the generation coming of age today is what will become of this powerful tool. Will the free-for-all that empowered people in recent years remain, or will it be censored and slowly strangled? In retrospect we have seen the revolution. But we await the counter-revolution.