The weaponisation of social media

Following on from my last post, Foreign Policy has a thoughtful review from Sasha Polokow-Suransky of David PatrikarikosWar in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (Basic Books):

A leading foreign correspondent looks at how social media has transformed the modern battlefield, and how wars are fought.
Modern warfare is a war of narratives, where bullets are fired both physically and virtually. Whether you are a president or a terrorist, if you don’t understand how to deploy the power of social media effectively you may win the odd battle but you will lose a twenty-first century war. Here, journalist David Patrikarakos draws on unprecedented access to key players to provide a new narrative for modern warfare. He travels thousands of miles across continents to meet a de-radicalized female member of ISIS recruited via Skype, a liberal Russian in Siberia who takes a job manufacturing “Ukrainian” news, and many others to explore the way social media has transformed the way we fight, win, and consume wars-and what this means for the world going forward.


You can read the introduction here (scroll down) and find an interview with the author here.

Sasha writes:

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.

And she adds, tellingly:

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.

A caution that should be applied more widely….

How everything became war

Apologies for the long silence: the last month has been full of horrors, but it’s good to be back and there’s lots to catch up.  First – I’m easing myself back into this! – is a new book by Rosa Brooks, How everything became war and the military became everything, out next month:

The first serious book to examine what happens when the ancient boundary between war and peace is erased.

BROOKS How everything became warOnce, war was a temporary state of affairs—a violent but brief interlude between times of peace. Today, America’s wars are everywhere and forever: our enemies change constantly and rarely wear uniforms, and virtually anything can become a weapon. As war expands, so does the role of the US military. Today, military personnel don’t just “kill people and break stuff.” Instead, they analyze computer code, train Afghan judges, build Ebola isolation wards, eavesdrop on electronic communications, develop soap operas, and patrol for pirates. You name it, the military does it.

Rosa Brooks traces this seismic shift in how America wages war from an unconventional perspective—that of a former top Pentagon official who is the daughter of two anti-war protesters and a human rights activist married to an Army Green Beret. Her experiences lead her to an urgent warning: When the boundaries around war disappear, we risk destroying America’s founding values and the laws and institutions we’ve built—and undermining the international rules and organizations that keep our world from sliding towards chaos. If Russia and China have recently grown bolder in their foreign adventures, it’s no accident; US precedents have paved the way for the increasingly unconstrained use of military power by states around the globe. Meanwhile, we continue to pile new tasks onto the military, making it increasingly ill-prepared for the threats America will face in the years to come.

By turns a memoir, a work of journalism, a scholarly exploration into history, anthropology and law, and a rallying cry, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything transforms the familiar into the alien, showing us that the culture we inhabit is reshaping us in ways we may suspect, but don’t really understand. It’s the kind of book that will leave you moved, astonished, and profoundly disturbed, for the world around us is quietly changing beyond recognition—and time is running out to make things right.

More here.

Insurgent thoughts

fm3-24When the US Army and Marine Corps issued their revised Field Manual 3-24 on Counterinsurgency in December 2006 there was an extraordinary public fanfare: a round of high-profile media appearances by some of its architects (you can watch John Nagl with Jon Stewart here) and, even though you could download the Manual for free – there were two million downloads in the first two months – the University of Chicago Press rushed out a paperback edition that hit the best-seller lists.  This was all to advertise counterinsurgency as what David Petraeus called ‘the graduate level of war’ and to inaugurate what I called, in ‘The rush to the intimate’ (DOWNLOADS tab), the US military’s ‘cultural turn’.  And as the media campaign made clear, it was also about the production of a public that would rally behind the new strategy to be put to work in Iraq.  The message was that the military had put the horrors of Abu Ghraib behind it – which were in any case artfully blamed on ‘rotten apples’ rather than the political-military manufacturers of the barrel that contained them – and was now marching beneath the banner of a kinder, gentler and above all smarter war (see my summary slide below).

COIN doctrine 2006

The new doctrine, first field-tested in Iraq and then applied to operations in Afghanistan, was not without its critics, both inside and outside the military.  Insiders complained that this was all smoke and mirrors – or more accurately, perhaps, too many mirrors and not enough smoke – because it was a distraction from the ‘real’ (the implication was, I think, ‘manly’) business of war-fighting, while outsiders objected to its weaponisation of culture and to the biopolitical project that it sought to advance.

FM 3-24 2014The debate grumbled on, and many insiders insisted that COIN was dead and buried, interred in the killing fields of Afghanistan.  But a revised version of the doctrine has now been issued.  It was trailed by the Joint Publication 3-24 on Counterinsurgency last December (issued by the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and – interestingly – the Coastguard Service), which you can download here (for an early review, see Robert Lamb and Brooke Shawn‘s ‘Is revised COIN manual backed by political will? here).  But the new Field Manual has been comprehensively re-written and even re-titled: Insurgencies and countering insurgencies, which you can download here.

I’m going to work my way through it in the next week or so – I can hardly complete The everywhere war without doing so – and I’ll post a commentary in due course, but it’s worth setting out its structure now:


1: Understanding the strategic context

2: Understanding an operational environment

3: Culture


4: Insurgency prerequisites and fundamentals

5: Insurgency threat characteristics


6: Mission command and control

7: Planning for counterinsurgencies

8: Intelligence

9: Direct approaches to counter an insurgency

10: Indirect methods for countering insurgencies

11: Working with host-nation forces

12: Assessments

13: Legal considerations

I’m still interested in how the revision treats ‘culture’, of course, but I’m also keenly interested in the discussion of ‘intrastate war’ and insurgency, the direct incorporation of air power (which was relegated to an appendix in the previous edition), the attention paid to intelligence in it multiple guises, the role of biometrics (biopolitics again!) – and in that remarkable last chapter.  One of the central diagnostics of later modern war, in my view at any rate, is its reflexivity.  You can see that in the discussions of assessment and reassessment in the new FM 3-24 (Ch 12 in particular), but attention to metrics and ‘lessons learned’ is hardly novel even if the means of monitoring have changed.  What I have in (closer) mind is a preoccupation with the public reception of military operations and military violence – which involves a distinctive emphasis on its intellectual provenance (‘the graduate level of war’ again),  on media strategies (‘strategic communications’), and on the provision of a legal armature that works to inform and legitimate its operations (hence that last chapter).

I’m sure the new manual will be the subject of intense discussion over at the always provocative and thoroughly indispensable Small Wars Journal (see, for example, Bing West‘s opening salvo here and David Maxwell‘s more measured critique here), and elsewhere too, but I doubt that it will attract the public fanfare FM 3-24 received in 2006-7.  We’ll see.

The Days of the Roundtable

I’m very pleased (and relieved) to say that I’ve received two new grants for my work.

The first is an Insight Grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council for my project on Medical-military machines and casualties of war 1914-2014.  I’ve provided an illustrated version of the substance of the application under the DOWNLOADS tab.  The plan is to explore the human geographies of evacuation and treatment of casualties, both combatant and civilian, in four major combat zones: the Western Front 1914-1918; the Western Desert, 1942-1943; Vietnam; and Afghanistan.  Since submitting my application, though, I’ve also become interested in the medical geographies (what my good friend Omar Dewachi calls the ‘therapeutic geographies‘) in which people suffering from both war-related injuries and chronic diseases in Syria make their precarious journeys into Lebanon and Jordan for treatment.  All that in four years…

PRT Farah Conducts Medical Evacuation Training with Charlie Co., 2-211th Aviation Regiment at Forward Operating Base Farah

The second is a grant from the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at UBC to support an International Research Roundtable in May 2015 on The contours of later modern war.  This will be an invitation-only event (the grant provides for travel and accommodation for each participant), but here is the pitch.  I wrote this in an hour just before leaving for Glasgow, so forgive the rough edges:


Commentators often insist that in recent years the nature of war has been transformed. Military historians who address this question display a fine-grained sensitivity to the details of armed conflict, but the imaginative (theoretical) framework they deploy usually returns to Clausewitz’s nineteenth-century theses On War. Philosophers and social scientists work with a more refined theoretical apparatus, though too often this seems to be confined to annotations of Foucault’s Paris lectures in the 1970s, and yet – unlike Foucault himself – they typically show little interest in the specifities and materialities of armed conflict. The Roundtable seeks to finesse this impasse by bringing together a group of scholars, each of whom has demonstrated both a theoretical and an empirical sensibility, to consider crucial questions about the transformations of modern war.

CREVELD Changing face of warThe objective is not to identify a single rupture – the Vietnam War, the end of the Cold War, the wars conducted in the wake of 9/11 – but to recognize that multiple temporalities are at work so that there are both continuities and contrasts to be identified and understood. Similarly, later modern war cannot be reduced to arguments about the Revolution in Military Affairs and its successor projects, which have indeed changed advanced military operations in all sorts of ways, or to the ‘new wars’ supposedly waged by non-state actors in the rubble of the Cold War and in the peripheries of empire: these twin modalities need to be thought together to provide a more inclusive understanding of the shifting contours of military and paramilitary violence.

In speaking of ‘later modern war’ the intention is to avoid the now tired discussions of the postmodern (what comes after that?), while indicating that the closing decades of the twentieth century witnessed a series of changes – political and legal, social and cultural, scientific and technical, legal and ethical – that started to distance armed conflict from the forms it had assumed during the First and Second World Wars. The term also suggests connections to the logics of what is sometimes called ‘late capitalism’ and to the evolving impositions of neo-liberal political and economic formations.

STRACHAN Changing character of warAdvanced militaries often claim that their conduct of war has become surgical, sensitive and scrupulous. The first of these relies on technical advances in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (much of which now takes the form of geospatial intelligence and high-resolution, near real-time imagery) and on advances in military networks, targeting and weapons systems. The second involves the incorporation of cultural knowledge into asymmetric warfare and counter-insurgency, but it also involves a new sensitivity to public opinion: thus media operations have become central to military campaigns in an attempt to win support from populations both at home and abroad. There is also an increasing sensitivity to casualties, both combatant and civilian, and many commentators have spoken of the humanitarian armature that attends contemporary military interventions as a new ‘military humanism’. Finally, and following directly from these observations, contemporary military power is supposed to be characterized by a heightened ethical awareness and the unprecedented incorporation of international law (and military lawyers) into its operational decisions.


All of these claims invite critical scrutiny, to recover their developing genealogies (how novel are they?) and to evaluate their practical consequences (what are their material effects?). They assume particular importance as interstate wars have declined, and transnational conflicts have become the dominant modality of armed conflict, as ‘war’ bleeds into terrorism, counter-terrorism and new modes of transnational policing. These changes in turn affect the sites and locations of military violence, and these in turn may be transformed not only by geopolitics and military power but also by global environmental change and the political ecologies of war. In short: is the locus of war shifting in decisive ways?


The Roundtable will address these questions through four intersecting and interlocking themes that allow for theoretical interrogation and empirical scrutiny: each of these is a stark signpost but its simplicity allows multiple questions (and the connections between them) to be addressed under each heading. In capsule form these are:

IMAGE – the role of imagery (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance); the images of war that circulate through media, old and new, and their role in public debate;
AGENT – the agents and vectors of military and paramilitary violence; the changing human/technological assemblages through which war is conducted;
VICTIM – the casualties of war (the dead, the wounded, the captured, the displaced); the political, cultural and legal armatures that regulate military and paramilitary violence;
LOCUS – the changing targets, spaces and ecologies of war

When they accept the invitation, each participant will be asked to provide a one-paragraph summary of their present research for posting on a dedicated website. Four weeks before the Roundtable everyone will provide a short (six page maximum) essay, written in an accessible and reference-free form, illustrated as appropriate, and drawing from their work. These may address the theme of the Roundtable in general or in detail, and will be posted on the website. Formal papers will not be presented: the emphasis will on discussion and debate.

There will be four main sessions addressing each of the four key themes:

Day 1:  Arrival

Day 2:

Morning – Walking Seminar (Stanley Park): participants will walk the Seawall as a group but in pairs, changing every 20-30 minutes, to share their research and ideas with one another.

Afternoon – IMAGE (discussion led by four participants)

Day 3:

Morning – AGENT (discussion led by four participants)

Afternoon – VICTIM (discussion led by four participants)

Evening – Public Performance: Either a staged reading of Owen Sheers’ radio play Pink Mist [about soldiers returning from Afghanistan] or George Brant’s Grounded [about a female drone operator], to be followed by public discussion led by scholars on either the Wounds of War or Drone warfare

Day 4:

Morning – Exchanges: small-group discussions (informal) about the key themes and to plan future collaborations and research projects

Afternoon – LOCUS (discussion led by four participants)

Evening – Roundtable Dinner

Day 5:  Dispersal

I also want to invite one or two visual artists to attend the Roundtable, both to take part – the visual is a vital register for both the conduct and the critique of modern war – but also to use the discussions as a provocation for their subsequent work (to be posted on and/or linked via the website).

I’ll keep you posted – I’m immensely grateful to Janis Sarra, Director of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, and to my colleagues and friends for their support and encouragement.

I’ll keep you posted.