Not long ago, it was the place you shared memes, photographs, and news. However, since the recent revelations that Russia used Twitter and Facebook accounts in attempts to sow discord in the United States, social media increasingly looks like a battleground.
But, according to journalist David Patrikarakos, it doesn’t just seem that way. Social media actually is the battleground of the 21st century.
“First and foremost, it has enabled anyone with access to a smartphone to become an actor in war,” says Patrikarakos, author of War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. “It has allowed propaganda to be disseminated at speeds and at scopes that are unprecedented.”
Patrikarakos joined Hromadske through Skype to discuss the content of his new book, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political goals in Ukraine, and how social media platforms amplify existing divisions in society and make conflict easier.
How has social media changed war today? How is it different than 20 years ago?
It’s done so in a variety of ways. First and foremost, it has enabled anyone with access to a smartphone to become an actor in war. What we are seeing now is a form of virtual war with mass enlistment in which anyone with a smartphone can play a role. So for example, if you are someone in Gaza, and an Israeli shell hits a building near you, you can take a picture of the dead bodies in that rubble and broadcast it to the world. Now obviously this has a real effect at the information level of war because obviously dead bodies, dead children, and civilian casualties are as old as war itself. The difference is you couldn’t see them before. Or if you did see them it was in far smaller numbers. Now during a war you can’t escape them.
The second thing is that it has allowed propaganda to be disseminated at speeds and at scopes that are unprecedented. Now propaganda is as old as war itself. But with the changing nature of war, propaganda has taken on a new role. And put simply, where once propaganda supported military operations on the ground, increasingly, military operations on the ground are supporting information operations on TV and in cyberspace. Now, what do I mean by that? If you look at the classic Clausewitz, the famous Prussian military theorist, he said ‘war is the continuation of politics without a means.’ Now I argue that actually war is becoming armed politics. Now, let’s look at classic wars.
Usually, in a classic war two or more sides would fight in an area that was delineated almost as a boxing ring, and the winner would impose a political settlement on the loser. The classic example of this is the treaty of Versailles after WWI. But this is no longer what is happening in war. Let’s take Putin in Ukraine. Now Putin and Russian aggression, Putin never had any intention of defeating Ukraine, which he easily could have done at the beginning and forcing it to the negotiating table. No, what he did was he backed separatists, he sent in Russian forces to occupy parts of eastern Ukraine. But he did this in order to make it easier to sow a narrative. And the narrative, which I heard again and again during my time in the occupied territories, was that the Kyiv government was a fascist junta, and they wanted to persecute Russian speakers and destroy the speaking of Russian in Ukraine. In effect, it was trying to get eastern Ukrainians to buy into a narrative. And that is a political goal.
For example, when I spoke to soldiers who served in Afghanistan, they told me the goal became in the end not to militarily defeat the Taliban but to convince the local population not to join them. And that’s a political goal, not a military one.
And Putin’s goal in Ukraine is a political one; it’s to destabilize the country by sowing discord amongst its population. And that is a political goal; it’s not ultimately a military goal that seeks the military defeat of Ukraine. And that is key. And social media is obviously at the heart of that.
So how did social media and online propaganda seek to achieve that goal? Do you have some examples of that?
Of course. Take, for example, the downing of MH17 over eastern Ukraine by a missile we now know came from Russia. That was propaganda in action. What happened, and I was in Ukraine when that happened. As soon as the missile… As soon as the plane was shot down, suddenly swarms of Kremlin accounts came on propagating a variety of ludicrous narratives: ‘The Ukrainians did it, the Americans did it, the Ukrainians and the Americans did it.’
But the goal—and this is what is also different, especially about Russian propaganda. Traditionally— let’s take Soviet propaganda. Its goal was to convince people that the USSR was the model society, it was the utopian dream realized on earth. Modern Russian propaganda is not interested in that. It’s not interested in portraying a positive vision of Russia. What it is interested in doing is saying as much confusion and discord as it can so that there is so much misinformation that people’s ability to recognize the truth, when they see it, is diminished. And that was the point of all the propaganda around MH17. The propaganda was successful not because of its content, which was ludicrous, but by its sheer volume which drowned out a lot of the truth. It’s at the center of these information operations which now are at the center of warfare.
So these information operations have been getting a lot more attention lately, probably the biggest social media related story: ‘Russia attempt to use Twitter, Facebook to interfere in certain global political events, the US presidential election, Brexit etc.’ This is getting a lot of attention in the media right now, but Ukraine has been experiencing this since 2014 and probably longer than that. How does the scope of Russian efforts in Ukraine compare to the situation in Britain or America?
In Ukraine, it’s obviously different because there’s a war going on. Russian information operations are in concert with the Russian Military campaign.
As I said, they are destabilizing a part of the country that they have occupied. However, while people are dying in Britain and the US, they’re having a huge scope. If it does turn out, those fake ads, the fake news swung, they’re saying reached 126 million people, which is pretty much the amount of people that voted in the US election. If it can be said that they swung the election for Donald Trump, that it a very, very big deal. This is interfering in the election and getting elected— the single-most powerful man on earth. It is a huge deal, and this is increasingly going to be the future. And it’s very, very worrying in terms of conflict because social media was sold to us as another great utopian dream of a transnational connected world in which everyone would be brought together.
In a certain sense, it’s true; we are connected. I can speak to my friends in Ukraine on Facebook Messenger, and we can talk instantly. But at the same time, what social media has done is that it also drives people apart and it does that in two different ways.
The first is obvious. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter make it very easy for people to argue and have confrontation online, virtually face-to-face. You’re not physically face-to-face but you can seek out your opponents, and you can argue, and you see it on Twitter, which is a nasty place, and you see people unfriending people on Facebook, over political disagreements.
The second way, and this is more insidious, is what we call homophily which means literally: love of the same, love of the like-minded. Generally, when you’re on Facebook, while people won’t accord with all your views, your “friends” are generally going to be largely speaking like you. It’s unlikely, for example, you’d be friends with a load of Nazis or Jihadists. And they post content that more or less is at least within the realms of what you agree with. Even if you disagree with Brexit and you’re a Democrat, and they’re Republican, you’re within the normal parameters.
The second thing is that the Facebook algorithm calculates content that you like and feeds you more of that content. Now twenty years ago… when the US went into Iraq…or Israel and Palestine had a war, both pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians would have watched CNN or BBC, with their required standards of impartiality, journalistic standard—they both would have watched the same footage. They might have drawn different conclusions, but they were watching professionally produced journalism. Now, each side gets its information from its own preferred sources. And they literally, these sources—when you cocoon yourself to such a degree—they construct your reality. And when all the sources that you see or read are only reaffirming your worldview, then division, hatred and even the ability to understand the other side’s point-of-view becomes far, far harder. And thus is conflict, thus is hatred, thus is war made far easier.
You, in your book, interview one former “Russian troll”—a paid employee of the Zik Internet researcher agency. What is your takeaway from that? What is your impression of that agency and how well it functioned?
As the scholar Mark Galeotti says, we do have this impression, and I’ve quoted him before, that Russians are all chess-paying grandmasters thinking 20 moves ahead. The troll farm was effective. As Vitaliy, the former member was telling me, a lot of the times it was just sheer stupidity, it was spamming. It was creating memes, posting them to all sorts of sites that had nothing to do with politics, so many of their fake accounts would get shut down.
One, it has an effect. The Russians are throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the problem and at 20%, they consider it a job well-done. Unfortunately, if you’re in a position where you can reach 126 thousand people, 20% is all you need.
Having written this book and from your vantage point, what does the future politics and conflict look like to you?
At the moment, very very gloomy. More divisiveness, more cocooning within our eco-chambers, greater divisions, greater conflicts. One, we have other tangential problems, depressed wages, high house prices. You have a disenfranchised generation. And what you have are social media platforms that amplify our existing divisions and make conflict easier.
What is going to have to happen, and you’re seeing this with the tech-hearings that recently happened in the US, is that the government is going to have to intervene at some form of the legislative level to deal with social media.
Free speech is sacrosanct, but there is too much hate speech. There is a clear difference between free speech and incitement to violence. One is legal as is should be, the other is illegal. Too much of that is around. Something needs to be done. Right now, social media is a serious threat to our information ecosystem. Unfortunately, until something is done, things are only going to get worse, and they will get worse before they get better.