War in 140 Characters by David Patrikarakos — from trenches to Twitter

A 16-year-old Gazan girl armed with Twitter; a Ukrainian mother raising funds for troops on Facebook; French men using WhatsApp to lure a woman from the suburbs of Paris to Isis-occupied Syria. These are actors in a new kind of warfare — one where who wins the war of words is more important than who has the most powerful weapons.

In "War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century", journalist David Patrikarakos meets the people behind these influential social media accounts, building dramatic narratives that show the power of what he calls “Homo digitalis”, the online individual.

He argues convincingly that individuals using social media can be more powerful than institutions. In Gaza in 2014, teenager Farah Baker live-tweeted her terror during the 51-day war with Israel, attracting worldwide media attention. As Patrikarakos puts it, “In the sea of the faceless, Farah was Taylor Swift.” Tweets using pro-Palestinian hashtags outnumbered by almost 10 times those using pro-Israeli hashtags, presenting Israel with a problem: “Israel lost the global information war because it did not ‘bleed’ enough, and as long as it maintains its military advantage, it never will,” the author writes.

But nation-states are fighting back. Patrikarakos also meets an Israeli army officer charged with winning the social media war. He speaks in terms of ceding space to the enemy and giving ammunition to supporters — but he fights his war with memes. One tweet shows a video of Usain Bolt running the 200 metres, with the caption: “The world’s fastest man can run 200 metres in 20 seconds. During a rocket attack, Israelis living near Gaza only have 15 seconds to reach a bomb shelter.” In the US, the government has tried to produce anti-Isis memes but they are bound by diplomatic rules and lack the same amplification network that makes them go viral.

War in 140 Characters is a fascinating tour of how social media is being used in conflict the world over, from the propaganda and recruiting frequently covered in the press, to how informal groups are gathering to fact-check claims online. The tale of Ukrainian Anna Sandalova, who has used a Facebook group to become a “virtual government minister”, replacing a corrupt army bureaucracy, gives us clues about how social media may be used in the future. She has raised $1.3m to buy night-vision goggles, imported army uniforms and even an ambulance.

The book is at its most timely when it discusses the Russian approach to disinformation campaigns, so successful that the US Congress is raking over every tweet and Facebook post in the run-up to last year’s US presidential election.

Patrikarakos argues that Russia could have defeated Ukraine militarily — but it aimed for destabilisation, not defeat. The author devotes a chapter to the “troll”, a former employee of a Russian troll farm, who describes an operation where people created fake blogs to be reported on by fake websites in a “merry-go-round of lies”. The trolling campaigns and fake news are not designed to win the world’s support for Russia, but to “sow discord and disharmony within the west, to confuse and to obfuscate”. This is a crucial point as concern about Russian online influence in the US election spreads to concern about other elections, including the Brexit referendum.

The author’s last book, Nuclear Iran, aimed to demystify that country’s nuclear programme, and War in 140 Characters continues his quest to show how war and diplomacy are evolving. But for all his expertise on conflict, he lacks a deep understanding of how platforms such as Facebook and Twitter work — for example, the role of automated bots in amplifying a message. Nor does he address what the tech companies should be doing to monitor or take down disinformation.

Patrikarakos ends with a warning, comparing the present day to the run-up to the first world war, when no one wanted conflict but drifted into it through “miscalculation and error”. While I share his concerns about the “reinvention of reality”, I would have liked him to flesh out his parallel with the years before 1914. Both periods are marked by mass migration, a backlash against it, trade quotas, and new technologies that deepen global connectivity, he argues.

War in 140 Characters is filled with fantastic on-the-ground reporting on how social media is changing war. It is worth reading for anyone trying to comprehend Russian disinformation campaigns — and to help us anticipate the social media challenges of future wars.