Monday, January 15, 2018

War of The Words: The Role of Social Media in Political Conflict

This blog does not generally concern itself with military matters but when things military cross over with things media, that’s when I take to the light artillery, i.e. the laptop keyboard. And so today you get some thoughts on a podcast I just finished listening to, on a new form of warfare. It’s the one made possible by and magnified by social media platforms.

And yes, defeating the enemy by winning them over ideologically was always one form of warfare, but now, argues David Patrikarakos, author of War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty First Century, the ability to shape narratives, and to spread them, is taking place in distinctly tactical ways, most of which were not possible prior to the era of digital networked media.

This is because there are billions of people on social media, each with the ability to deliver, edit, and/or distribute information. But the issue at hand is more than just one of of scale, i.e. moving from a limited set of broadcasters and newspapers to thousands or millions of communicative channels. It’s also the fact that what is ‘official’, ‘journalistic’, or ‘accurate’ moves through the same channels as the deceptive and misleading. Welcome to the marketplace of opinions.

Early in the podcast Patrikarakos makes a key point: That in war as we once knew it propaganda operations supported military operations on the ground. Now, he says, it’s the other way around. Military operations are supporting propaganda operations. He says he noticed this while covering the recent war between Russia and the Ukraine. Wherever he went, he heard propaganda repeated to him, often verbatim, and almost always with a heightened level of conviction.

Isis, says Patrikarakos, is also a phenomenon of social media. In fact he refers to it as "a social media terror organization." "If they had emerged even ten years ago, it would have taken them 20 years to reach one quarter of the people they were able to reach."

It’s been about 10 years since the promise of participatory media became a reality. Think back to the arrival of content-sharing platforms such as Flickr and MySpace and YouTube. What's interesting to think about now is how they all seemed like toys at the time. Pastimes where we could spend hours on end doing who knows exactly what. 

The addictiveness of the activities was undeniable, and now here we are 10 years later. Most of us assumed that more cameras, more voices, and more opinions would mean more truth, or at least more checks and balances on claims. But even those with a very limited knowledge of physics (e.g. me) know enough that for every force there is an equal and opposing force. And not everyone uses their powers for good.

To hear the full interview with author David Patrikarakos on the WhoWhatWhy podcast click here.