Essay

For Whom the Cell Trolls

A new book argues that modern wars will be won with phones and laptops rather than tanks.

A Palestinian woman takes a picture of a member of the Israeli security forces as he takes her picture in a street in Jerusalem on December 16, 2017.
A Palestinian woman takes a picture of a member of the Israeli security forces as he takes her picture in a street in Jerusalem on December 16, 2017. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)
War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. David Patrikarakos, Basic Books, 320 pages, $30, November 2017

It’s popular these days to proclaim that Clausewitz is passé and war is now waged via smartphones and Facebook feeds. Few writers have actually explored what this means in practice. The journalist David Patrikarakos’s new book, War in 140 Characters, chronicles in granular detail how social media has transformed the way that modern wars are fought. From the battlefields of eastern Ukraine to the bot factories of St. Petersburg, Patrikarakos takes us into the lives of ordinary citizens with no military training who have changed the course of conflicts with nothing more than a laptop or iPhone.

At the core of Patrikarakos’s book is the idea that narrative war has become far more important than physical war due to new technologies that shape public perceptions of conflicts in real time, regardless of what is actually happening on the battlefield. The spread of social media, he argues, has brought about a situation of “virtual mass enlistment” that gives civilians as much power as state propaganda machines — and sometimes more. Although some techno-utopians have celebrated the breakdown of centralized state control of information and the empowerment of the individual to challenge authoritarian regimes, he is not starry-eyed about the leveling of the playing field. “[B]ecause these new social media forums are structurally more egalitarian,” he writes, “many delight in holding up the Internet as the ultimate tool against tyrants.” It is not. As Patrikarakos notes, “the state will always fight back” — and it has.

The greatest strength of War in 140 Characters is the author’s preference for in-depth reporting over soundbite-ready platitudes. This is not a book of Lexuses and olive trees. Patrikarakos also goes to great lengths to show both sides of each conflict he covers. His chapter on Israel’s 2014 war against Hamas in Gaza, known as Operation Protective Edge, first brings us into the home of Farah Baker, a 16-year-old Twitter activist who became the voice of Gaza during the Israeli bombing campaign. Although it could do with fewer repetitive references to hashtags and tweets (#GazaUnderAttack, #ICC4Israel), Patrikarakos shows convincingly how Baker “could morph from a mere child into the most potent of weapons.” She helped drive the narrative of the war by producing heart-rending eyewitness accounts of a city under attack and disseminating information that mainstream news organizations, lacking access to the battlefield, picked up and repeated in their own coverage. Mainstream journalists had “become, in effect, her PR agents.” While Palestinians’ “rockets could never stop Israel,” he observes, “their narrative might.” Some books, content with celebrating a heroic underdog, would stop here. Patrikarakos’s does not.

Instead, he takes us into the inner sanctum of the Israel Defense Forces and examines how the Israeli defense establishment adjusted, slowly, to fighting a new enemy and a narrative war. He profiles a young soldier who, during a previous war in Gaza, pushed her superiors to stop fighting “analog war” and started a YouTube channel and Twitter account to disseminate the IDF’s narrative. The soldier even paid for a blog and domain name on her own credit card to bypass the grindingly slow bureaucracy. By 2014, the top brass had joined the modern era, and the IDF’s Facebook page was using visual propaganda, primarily videos, to bolster its message. The problem for Israel, as Patrikarakos observes, is that it is in a lose-lose situation even when it defends its narrative using the latest technology. “If it struck Hamas targets embedded in civilian areas, it received international condemnation, but if Hamas succeeded in kidnapping or killing any of its soldiers, Hamas won again.” The state struck back effectively, but the narrative of the underdog still dominated the news cycle.

The book’s focus then shifts from Gaza to Ukraine, where we meet Anna Sandalova, a middle-aged mother and former PR executive who is appalled by the state of the corrupt Ukrainian military establishment, hollowed out by years of kleptocracy and unable to provide the basic necessities for its soldiers. She takes it upon herself to “fill the governmental void.” She starts by organizing her friends on Facebook to supply Ukrainian soldiers battling separatists and Russian troops in the country’s east. Soon, she is sourcing boots and body armor and driving to the front lines in subzero temperatures, where Patrikarakos joins her under the threat of artillery fire, to deliver the supplies. Her efforts are not entirely new; as the author observes, the Jewish Agency illicitly obtained and shipped weapons to the Haganah — Israel’s pre-independence militia. The difference between 1948 and 2016, Patrikarakos argues, is that “What it may have taken the Jewish Agency months to do, Anna can do in days” with the help of diaspora networks that can be instantly activated on Facebook.

Just like the Gazan teenager tweeting under fire, the Ukrainian citizens fighting via Facebook also faced a response from the state. In this case, it was Russian troll farms that countered grassroots activists like Sandalova. Patrikarakos tells the story of Russia’s state-sponsored trolls by profiling one of them, who worked at the center of the counterpropaganda effort during the early stages of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Rather than simply justifying its actions, the Kremlin’s goal was to flood the zone with conflicting information and “sow as much confusion as possible.” The troll and his colleagues created fake blogs and sites masquerading as Ukrainian and cited each other as genuine sources in a self-referential circle of lies, producing a narrative completely at odds with the reality on the ground that was enthusiastically consumed and shared by pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. The troll rationalized his work as “finding idiots and giving them what they wanted.” The mark of victory in Russia’s new narrative war was not to convince the enemy of its position, but to heighten the level of doubt about all news among the target population so as to “weaken their propensity to recognize the truth when they see or hear it.”

Patrikarakos argues that social media exerts both a centripetal force — uniting people and creating new virtual communities such as the Ukrainian patriots who donated to Sandalova’s Facebook page — but also a centrifugal force driving people apart, such as the Ukrainian neighbors (or for that matter American Democrats and Republicans) who live side by side but inhabit parallel universes because their news comes from diametrically opposed sources. It is a textbook illustration of Hannah Arendt’s classic description of the fertile soil in which totalitarianism grows: “The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them,” she wrote in 1951. “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thoughts) no longer exist.”

War in 140 Characters recounts how one group of obsessive internet sleuths sought to cut through this fog of deliberate disinformation and counter the Kremlin’s propaganda effort in Ukraine. At the center of this story is Eliot Higgins (aka Brown Moses), who began his new career by using satellite imagery and online videos to break news others had missed. He discovered jihadi groups using ex-Yugoslav weapons, challenged the Bashar al-Assad regime’s denials in the wake of chemical weapons attacks, and then, in July 2014, sought to prove that Russian-backed separatists and the Russian state itself were behind the downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet, MH17, in eastern Ukraine.

MH17 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile in separatist territory. Russia denied involvement, but Higgins and his band of fellow volunteers began to trace the missile launcher and the vehicle carrying it in reverse using Google satellite maps, sunlight and shadow calculating tools, online phone directories, and, bizarrely, the publicly shared dashcam footage of Russian motorists. Then, using the posts of an online group for soldiers’ mothers (founded by anxious parents to monitor hazing and bullying in the Russian army), they found photos and videos posted by unsuspecting 18-year-old conscripts and shared by proud mothers showing the same Buk missile that had last been seen in the area where MH17 was shot down. They traced it back to a specific Russian army unit and a base outside of Moscow. The Russian Foreign Ministry immediately denied the link; the Kremlin’s mouthpiece, RT, mocked Higgins as a “laid-off office worker.” What is remarkable about this episode, writes Patrikarakos, is that “the Russian government was forced to publicly battle a group of mostly unpaid civilian volunteers … a battle that would have been both unnecessary and unthinkable just ten years ago.”

As the author is well aware, the social media weapons described in War in 140 Characters may soon be out of date, just like the book’s title (thanks to Twitter’s abandonment of its commitment to brevity soon after it went to press). Narrative war and the platforms used to fight it are constantly evolving. But even if new social media technologies render old ones obsolete on a monthly basis, the larger questions Patrikarakos raises will haunt us for years to come: How much blame do technology companies deserve? How do you counter disinformation when the goal of propagandists is simply to spread doubt? And if the goal of war is not absolute military defeat of the enemy, as in the case of Russia and Ukraine, but to persuade the local population they are being persecuted — then what defines victory?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but anyone grappling with them cannot afford to ignore this book.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy and the author of Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy. @sasha_p_s

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