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“We Need Networks, Not Hierarchies Governing Us” - British Author David Patrikarakos
13 August, 2019
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A British journalist was sent to Ukraine to cover the aftermath of Maidan, but ended up seeing the events in Donbas unfold first-hand. Despite covering various conflicts since 2010, it was Ukraine that made him ponder the new nature of war.  

David Patrikarakos arrived in Ukraine in 2014 at the height of the so-called "Russian Spring". He witnessed the seizure of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Sloviansk. The journalist had previously worked in the Middle East and Africa, in particular writing a book on Iran's nuclear policy. But the conflict in eastern Ukraine pushed him toward exploring the power of social media in the modern age.

Hromadske spoke to the author about how social networks change wars, democracies and interactions in societies.

Patrikarakos chose eight characters representing the opposing sides in three different conflicts: Russia-Ukraine, Israel-HAMAS, and Daesh (ISIS). What is remarkable is that half of his characters are female despite the war being “a predominantly male domain for millennia”. It proves to be just one of many illustrations of how the nature of war is changing. 

In his book, the author draws attention to the disappearance of boundaries between war and peace citing 20th century conflicts as an example: once the Peace Treaty was signed the Second World War was over, whereas nowadays British soldiers still die in Iraq, but it is difficult to call them victims of the 2003 War, he argues.

Individual vs. State

Also, the very definition of a soldier is changing. Patrikarakos’ characters are seen firing bullets into cyberspace, without understanding this, simply by using Twitter to write and share posts.

Don't need missiles and bullets, you have tweets and shares. 

Speaking of how states deal with the growing influence of social media platforms, he believes they are aware of the problem now, which does not, however, mean they can solve it. Reasons for this being that all bureaucracies are “bloated, risk-averse, slow, and worrying about reputations.”

State cannot compete with homo digitalis. 

“Networked, hyper-empowered individuals” that are produced by the digital revolution are endowed with abilities beyond what should be normal in given circumstances, Patrikarakos reasons. The epitome is a female 16-year-old character who is a civilian in wartime. In the usual circumstances, she would be as powerless as it is conceivable to be. But in his book, she became the face of Palestinian suffering, which ended up affecting Israeli calculations for the next war.

British journalist David Patrikarakos speaks to Hromadske. Photo: Hromadske

Patrikarakos plays down social media changing the state’s modus operandi because its inability to adapt to new digital challenges further solidifies the position of tech giants. The problem also lies in self-regulation not working. The writer gives an example of banking regulators ending up with jobs at global investment banks. Thus, there is no incentive to burn any bridges looking ahead to the future. 

No president is powerful enough to take on all tech giants. They wouldn't want to either.

What News Is

The emergence of social media did not just affect us globally, it reshaped the way news come about. Patrikarakos reasons that traditional journalists “ceased being sole gatekeepers of what is news.” Moreover, social media take all the money for materials produced by professional journalists, which in turn leads to old-fashioned media enduring a professional financial crisis, which consequently lowers the quality of news reporting. As a result, other communicative models enable people like Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelenskyy to rise, the author argues.  

Crazy people used to be isolated alone in their houses. Now you find 50,000 other crazy people and you're a movement. You have sway and power you never had before. 

Fighting Propaganda

Social media literacy should be taught at school so that people learn to recognize fake news.

Because fact-checking does not work, testified by Mr. Trump becoming president, people need to be shown and explained information, which is something Bellingcat does very well, the journalist claims. Nowadays things need to be done forensically, and only very bold moves such as releasing the video of two men along with their Russian Military Intelligence (GRU) identity cards - as was done in the Skripal case - can actually cause “the middle majority” to believe the facts. At the same time, Patrikarakos admits some people will never be reached, despite anything.

People don’t like to feel stupid. Shrieking “fake news” does not work. 

British journalist David Patrikarakos speaks to Hromadske. Photo: Hromadske

Commenting on the situation in Ukraine, the writer notes that if both Ukrainian and Russian population had spent the last 20 years watching the BBC, there would have been a possibility of discussion between the people. But because each country has television that is “catered to its own beliefs”, the conflict is made much easier because the two parties are simply “liars to each other.”  

You have to keep relying on places like Hromadske. You need good journalism to drive out the bad.

The problem is intensified by “having to keep fighting with one arm tied to your back” because Ukraine is subject to democratic norms, whereas a dictatorship like Russia is not, Patrikarakos opines. Whilst troll farms thrive in Russia, British or American press would have exposed them within a month and ensured they are shut down. But Putin is not accountable to his press, which is why the Western world will remain at a disadvantage in the conceivable future, the author predicts.

We live in a world governed by hierarchies when we really need networks.

Patrikarakos goes on to point out that due to Russia’s history of active measures, Putin was able to exploit the tools against the population and not ban them. Whilst there are no GULAGs and fewer killings, arrests and fines for tax irregularities and zoning violations are commonplace. By taking control of their own social networks, the state was able to fill it with content that it wanted. But China, however, in a similar situation, acted entirely differently by shutting down Western networks, something about which the writer has doubts as to how long it can last in the digital world.  

/Interview by Angelina Kariakina