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….

Digital breaches

In my latest posts on the wars in Syria – Cities under Siege here and here – I tried to open a space for the voices of those inside the siege lines.  To supplement those discussions, I want to notice two other digital breaches of siege lines, one in Mosul in Iraq and the other in East Ghouta in Damascus.

Although the Syrian regime has been either unwilling or unable to prevent digital access to the world outside its barricades (no doubt for a variety of reasons), Islamic State has persistently sought to isolate the communities it controls from within.  For example:

In Mosul, Omar Mohammed – a 31 year-old ‘stealth historian‘ – risked his life to chronicle life under IS in a remarkable series of posts: Mosul Eye.  When he lost his job teaching ancient history at the university in June 2014 he started an anonymous blog and became the eponymous ‘Mosul Eye’.

Lori Hinnant and Maggi Michael reported for AP:

Anonymous for more than three years, Mohammed wandered the streets of occupied Mosul by day, chatting with shopkeepers and Islamic State fighters, visiting friends who worked at the hospital, swapping scraps of information. He grew out his hair and his beard and wore the shortened trousers required by the extremists. He forced himself to witness the beheadings and deaths by stoning, so he could hear killers call out the names of the condemned and their supposed crimes.

By night, he was Mosul Eye, and from his darkened room he told the world what was happening. If caught, he knew he would be killed.

Writing in the New Yorker in October 2016,  Robin Wright explained that Mosul Eye

provided details about life under the caliphate—initially offering hourly reports regarding roads around Mosul that were safe to travel, and then, in the following weeks, reporting on the dawning anxiety about the heavily armed ISIS fighters, the power blackouts, the rising prices, the chaos in local markets, the panic over food shortages, and the occupiers’ utter brutality. Over the next year, Mosul Eye expanded into a Facebook page and a Twitter account. The posts were determinedly stoic—melancholic and inspiring at once.

For the past two weeks, as Mosul has become the epicenter of a new U.S.-backed offensive to defeat ISIS—also known as ISIL—Mosul Eye has been posting dozens of times a day on its social-media outlets. On Monday, it tweeted, “Today, Mosul has entered the atmosphere of the war. The bombardment is continuous on many areas of the city, specifically the southern and northeastern outskirts of the city.”

Mohammed paid smugglers to arrange his escape, and once outside of Mosul he eventually revealed his identity; it was not an easy decision but once he had made it, he said, he finally felt free.

Most of the published interviews with Mohammed took place once he was outside Mosul and his identity was known, but Wright managed to reach him over social media inside the besieged city and her report addressed the key questions of provenance and credibility:

Iraqis and Mideast scholars believe that the site is for real. Rasha al Aqeedi, a scholar from Mosul who now writes from Dubai, told me that “the information is reliable,” and added, “The perspective and ideology, however, reflect Mosul’s young intelligentsia: the will to review Islam and question religious texts and the fault lines along historic narratives.”

But the same questions dogged the two AP journalists en arrière, once they had met with him and he revealed his identity.  Here is their detailed response:

Omar gave us databases from his hard drive tracking the dead, noting daily events in Mosul. Each one was a separate file — totaling hundreds of files. The origin dates on each matched the date of the file, or at most was one or two days away from it. For his account of the day on the Tigris, he gave us multiple photos and a video from the day, each with an origin date in March 2015, which was when he said the events had happened. On Google Maps, he showed us the curve in the river where he picnicked, and zoomed on the marshy areas to show how it matched up with his account. As for himself blogging inside a dark room in his house in Mosul, he provided a video that AP used. He used maps to show his escape route. He showed on Google a list of the top students from his high school in Mosul, and his name was among the top five.

On the third day, just before we filmed over the course of about 90 minutes, he stepped away to make a phone call, in English, to announce that in a few minutes he would be shedding his anonymity as he didn’t want to be anonymous anymore. He showed us footage from his thesis defense, in which one of the professors accused him of secularism.

After the meetings, we asked Omar for contact information for his thesis advisor, who was among the few to figure out his identity during the early days of Mosul Eye; his younger brother, who he had told over the summer; activists and volunteers he worked with in Mosul; an American history professor he was in touch with via Skype since 2012, who knew his real identity. He provided all of this, and we spoke with all of them, including one person who, as it turns out, also figured out who he was and discovered that they have mutual friends. Omar provided us with links to his own scholarly work on Mosul. He sent over screen grabs of exchanges with a reporter from another news organization who he had worked with during the airstrikes to try and extract trapped civilians. He explained that, by that point, people were just messaging Mosul Eye in hopes he could help them. He acknowledged one other person had administrator access to the account: a Mosul woman now living in the U.S. who helped him with some of the interviews in English.

Omar explained to us how he cross-checked his information, and we put some of that into the story, but Mosul Eye isn’t an infallible source any more than anyone else, especially in a chaotic war environment. His death toll numbers, especially during the final months of the battle, are unconfirmed but in line with other estimates.That said, some of his unpublished notes read by Lori and Maggie, with origin dates from 2014 and 2015 and early 2016 especially, showed knowledge of IS that would only be published later. The leaflets he was collecting and publishing, the photos he was using to offer biographies and diagrams of their leadership showed a historian’s desire for documentation.

Several activists whom AP interviewed said that Mosul Eye was the only window to the outside world and that they have been closely following but fearing to even “like” or “share,” knowing that IS keeps an eye on social media.

I have cited this passage in its entirety because in the deformed world of “fake news” (which plainly did not start with Donald Trump, even if he embodies its digital metastasis: see also here and here), where today the alt.left is as pernicious as the alt.right in disparaging stories they don’t like, questions of veracity – and, to be sure, of positionality – have assumed a new and profoundly political importance  The vomit-inducing denial of systematic Russian and Syrian air strikes on hospitals and medical facilities across Syria is a case in point; the disingenuous disparagement of the work of MSF, the Syrian Civil Defence (the White Helmets) and a host of other non-government agencies is another.

It’s a complicated terrain, of course, and my second example illustrates something of what is at stake.  It comes from East Ghouta.  I’m preparing a major post on recent events there – it should be ready next week – and, as in my previous work, here too I’ve drawn on voices from inside the siege.  Many newsrooms and digital platforms have reported the extraordinary videos posted on Twitter and YouTube by 15 year-old Muhammad Najem: see here and here.

CNN reported:

Najem’s videos have a common theme: an appeal to the world to bear witness to what is happening in Syria.
“People should know about everything happening in Syria,” he told CNN. “I want to follow my studies. I want to become a reporter when I grow up. “Our blood begs every day. You watch it daily without any reaction from you,” Najem says in one video, wearing a Syrian flag draped around his neck like a scarf. “Our hunger, cold, and displacement have become a common sight. Save our people in Ghouta.”
In one of his most powerful videos, Najem stands on a rooftop as explosions echo in the distance. “We are killed by your silence,” he says.”

 

(If you read some of the comments below his videos on YouTube, you will discover the killing is not only accomplished by silence.)

The CNN report added the by now standard disclaimer – ‘CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of these videos – but the tone and texture of their coverage makes it plain that CNN doubts neither their authenticity nor their accuracy.  There is no single, plenary Truth – Donna Haraway debunked the ‘God Trick’ ages ago – but passion and partiality do not automatically disqualify someone’s voice: still less so, when their position is so precarious.

But listen to this exchange from the state-owned France 24.

 

In one of the videos, Najem says he wants to become a reporter “when I am grown up”. But for Franco-American [photo]journalist Jonathan Alpeyrie, who covered the Syrian conflict (in 2013, he was held captive by an Islamist group for 81 days), “a journalist shouldn’t be seen… Otherwise he becomes the subject,” he told FRANCE 24. To Alpeyrie, the teenager is more activist than journalist. “He is hostile to Bashar al-Assad but the role of the press isn’t to take a stance….”

Although several news outlets have relayed the teenager’s testimony, Alpeyrie thinks it’s dangerous to do so: “We can’t confirm the provenance of these videos. He says that he’s filming in Eastern Ghouta, but we don’t know anything.”

 

Describing Najem’s videos as a series of ‘selfies’, France 24’s reporter asked philosopher-psychoanalyst Elsa Godart for her take on them:

If a teenager is behind the account, his reliance on the selfie can have different motivations, said Godart. In the worst situation, aside from manipulation: “We can envision an extreme narcissism, where one plays on a tragic event under the sympathetic guise of defending humanity.”

And if we assume that the gesture is real and sincere on the part of an adolescent on the ground? “Then this could be just as it appears: a selfie as an act of resistance. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei documented his 2009 arrest with a selfie that he later exhibited as a work of art,” said Godart.

To her, the selfie taken at war is similar: “It denounces something extraordinary. It is a testimony of something that one feels a duty to report. ‘I am attacked, and here is the photographic evidence.’”

I hope it’s obvious what I think too.

Military, media and (im)mobilities

Two important new books on Israel’s occupation of Palestine that both have even wider implications.

First, Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca Stein on Digital militarism: Israel’s occupation in the social media age from Stanford University Press:

pid_23022Israel’s occupation has been transformed in the social media age. Over the last decade, military rule in the Palestinian territories grew more bloody and entrenched. In the same period, Israelis became some of the world’s most active social media users. In Israel today, violent politics are interwoven with global networking practices, protocols, and aesthetics. Israeli soldiers carry smartphones into the field of military operations, sharing mobile uploads in real-time. Official Israeli military spokesmen announce wars on Twitter. And civilians encounter state violence first on their newsfeeds and mobile screens.

Across the globe, the ordinary tools of social networking have become indispensable instruments of warfare and violent conflict. This book traces the rise of Israeli digital militarism in this global context—both the reach of social media into Israeli military theaters and the occupation’s impact on everyday Israeli social media culture. Today, social media functions as a crucial theater in which the Israeli military occupation is supported and sustained.

Here is Laleh Khalili on the book:

“Amidst the hype of Facebook revolutions and the ostensible democratizing power of social media, Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca Stein illuminate the counterpoint: online militarization and the extension of state politics into the virtual realm. They expose the machinery of the Israeli state power at work within social media, and show the possibilities for countering the force of this machinery. Powerfully argued, beautifully researched, and thought-provoking, Digital Militarism is vitally important.”

Second, Hagar Kotef‘s Movement and the Ordering of Freedom: On Liberal Governances of Mobility from Duke University Press:

KOTEF Movement and the ordering of freedomWe live within political systems that increasingly seek to control movement, organized around both the desire and ability to determine who is permitted to enter what sorts of spaces, from gated communities to nation-states. In Movement and the Ordering of Freedom, Hagar Kotef examines the roles of mobility and immobility in the history of political thought and the structuring of political spaces. Ranging from the writings of Locke, Hobbes, and Mill to the sophisticated technologies of control that circumscribe the lives of Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank, this book shows how concepts of freedom, security, and violence take form and find justification via “regimes of movement.” Kotef traces contemporary structures of global (im)mobility and resistance to the schism in liberal political theory, which embodied the idea of “liberty” in movement while simultaneously regulating mobility according to a racial, classed, and gendered matrix of exclusions.

And here is Eyal Weizman on this one:

“In this book Hagar Kotef manages to successfully weave several intellectual projects: a wide-ranging and theoretically sophisticated contribution to political theory, a robust and fine-grained analysis of the mechanisms of Israeli control of Palestinian movement, and a direct confrontation with its injustice. This book is a major contribution to the topological shift in the study of space. Kotef does nothing less than rewrite the history of territory as a matter of movement, and that of sovereignty as the control of matter in movement. By pushing her original insight as far as it would go, she best captures the logic of the world we struggle to live within.”

You can read the introduction on Scribd.

Je ne suis pas Charlie

Once you decide you want to engage with audiences beyond the academy – one of my reasons for starting this blog, which also spirals in to my presentations and (I hope) my other writing – you run the risk of accepting invitations to comment on issues that lie far beyond your competence.  Even supposed ‘experts’ can be caught out, of course: think of  Steven Emerson‘s extraordinary claim earlier this week on Fox News (where else?) that in the UK ‘there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in…’  Emerson is the founder and Executive Director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, and ‘is considered one of the leading authorities on Islamic extremist networks, financing and operations’ – or so he says on his website – and he subsequently apologised for his ‘inexcusable error’.

Emerson was being interviewed as part of Fox News’s continuing coverage of the murders at the office of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris on 7 January, and specifically about the supposed proliferation of what he called ‘no-go zones … throughout Europe’.

A good rule is to treat areas you know nothing about as ‘no-go zones’ until you’ve done the necessary research.

Academics need to take that seriously too, especially as universities become ever busier pumping up their public affairs, boosting their media profiles and offering journalists ready access to the specialised knowledge of their faculty.  Don’t get me wrong: I believe passionately in the importance of public geography, especially with a little g, and I also understand how producers and journalists racing to meet a deadline need talking heads.  But we need to be careful about the simulation of expertise.

This is, in part, why I haven’t said anything so far about the murders in Paris.  But on Thursday I was invited to lead a lunch-time discussion about them at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies; one of the many wonderful things about the place is the trust that emerges out of a commitment to the irredeemably social nature of intellectual work, and so – beyond the cameras, the microphones and the notebooks – I tried to sort out what I had been reading and thinking.    In many ways, it was an extended riff on Joe Sacco‘s cartoon that appeared in the Guardian just two days after the attacks (if you want to know the reactions of Arab cartoonists, then see Jonathan Guyer here and here):

joesaccoonsatire1200

My starting-points were provided by The colonial present.  First, many commentators have suggested that the attacks were ‘France’s 9/11’; Le Monde‘s banner headline declared emphatically ‘Le 11 Septembre Français’.

le_monde_11_septembre

I think this absurd for many reasons, but there are several senses in which the comparison is worth pursuing, particularly if we focus on the response to the attacks in New York and Paris.  Both events, or more accurately television and video feeds of the developing situations, were relayed to watching audiences in real time.  This sense of immediacy is important, because it says something about the ways in which viewers were drawn in to the visual field and interpellated as subjects who were enjoined to respond – and crucially to feel – in particular ways.

Since this is emphatically not what Dominique Moisi, author of The geopolitics of emotion, had in mind when he insisted that ‘the attacks in Paris and in New York share the same essence’, that both cities ‘incarnate a similar universal dream’ of ‘light and freedom’, perhaps a different comparison will clarify what I mean.  Think of the killing of hundreds, even thousands of people by Boko Haram in Baga in northern Nigeria two weeks ago; reports began to appear in Europe and North America just one day after the murders in Paris, but the focus on France remained relentless.  There were surely many reasons for that (see Maeve Shearlaw‘s discussion here and Samira Sawlani‘s here), but the contrast between the live feeds from Paris and the scattered, inchoate and verbal reports from Baga is part of it – particularly when you realise that the scale of that distant atrocity was eventually  ‘laid bare’, as the Guardian put it, by satellite photographs released by Amnesty International showing more than 3,000 houses (‘structures’) burned or razed in Baga and Doron Baga.  For all the importance of surveillant witnessing in otherwise difficult to reach locations, the distance between bodies and buildings, an ordinary camera and a satellite, and live television and static imagery is telling, and sustains an affective geopolitics that is at once divided and divisive.

(Imagery is important to the Paris attacks in another sense too: when the murderers stormed in to the offices of Charlie Hebdo the focus of their rage was a series of cartoons mocking Mohammed – but they were radicalised by quite other documentary images, including coverage of the wars in Iraq and photographs showing the atrocities committed by American troops in Abu Ghraib: see here and here, and look at Joe Sacco’s cartoon again).

My second borrowing from The colonial present was a re-borrowing of Terry Eagleton‘s spirited invocation of ‘the terrible twins’, amnesia and nostalgia: ‘the inability to remember and the incapacity to do anything else’.  In the book I suggested that these are given a special significance within the colonial memory theatre, where the violence of colonialism is repressed and replaced by a yearning for the culture of domination and deference that it sought to instill.   And in much (fortunately not all) of the commentary on the Paris attacks, France’s colonial past has been effaced.  But here is Tim Stanley writing in the Telegraph:

The ability of a society to forget its recent past is like the amnesia that follows an accident – the body’s way of protecting itself against trauma. Yet in the 1950s and 1960s, as France tried to cling on to its African colonial possessions, political violence was far more common than today. Muslim Algerian nationalists (their race and religion regarded as interchangeable by the French) bombed the mainland, assassinated officials and killed colonialists en masse. The reaction of the state was shocking. In 1961, 12,000 Algerian immigrants were arrested in Paris and held in a football stadium [and at other sites: see the map below]. Many were tortured; more than a hundred disappeared. For days, bodies were found floating in the Seine.

Carte.ParisAlgerie1961Bis

EINAUDI Bataille de ParisYou can find more on the events of 17 October 1961 – on the arrests, torture and summary executions following a mass rally to protest against a curfew imposed on Algerians in Paris – here and here, but the definitive account remains Jean-Luc Einaudi‘s Bataille de Paris (1991).

DIKEÇ BadlandsThis is but one episode in a violent and immensely troubled colonial history.  To point to this past – as Robert Fisk also did, in much more detail, in the Independent – is to loop back to 9/11 again, when attempts to provide similar contextual explanations were dismissed (or worse) as ‘exoneration’.  To be sure, one must be careful: although Chérif and Said Kouachi were the Paris-born sons of Algerian immigrants, Arthur Asseraf is right to reject attempts to draw a straight line between violence in the past and violence in the present.  But can the continued marginalisation of Muslims in metropolitan France, particularly young men in Paris’s banlieus, be ignored?  (Here there is no better place to start than Mustafa Dikeç‘s work, especially Badlands of the Republic).  Doesn’t it matter that more than 60 per cent of prisoners in French jails are Muslims? For the Economist all this means is that jihadists ‘share lives of crime and violence‘ so that structural violence disappears from view, but Tithe Bhattacharya provides a different answer in which the ghosts of a colonial past continue to haunt the colonial present.

And doesn’t the responsive assertion of a ‘freedom of expression’ that is, again, highly particularistic seek to absolutize a nominally public sphere whose exclusions would have been only too familiar to France’s colonial subjects?  Ghasan Hage reads its triumphalist restatement in the aftermath of the Paris murders as a colonial narcissism – a sort of colonial nostalgia through the looking-glass – fixated on what he calls a strategy of ‘phallic distinction’ in which ‘freedom of expression’ is flashed at radicalised Muslims to tell them: ‘look what we have and you haven’t, or at best yours is very small compared to ours.’  (And whose governments have done so much to prop up authoritarian regimes in the Arab world and beyond that thrive on the suppression and punishment of free speech?)

There are, as Joe Sacco’s cartoon makes clear, real limitations on what can be said or shown in France too, including how somebody can present themselves in public – think of the arguments over the veil and the headscarf.  There are also limitations elsewhere in the world, of course, which is why the sacularisation of Charlie Hebdo and, in particular, the march in Paris on 11 January seemingly headed by politicians from around the world, arm in arm (in some cases arms in arms would be more accurate), processing down the Boulevard Voltaire (symbolism is everything), was a scene that, as Seumas Milne noted, was beyond satire:

from Nato war leaders and Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu to Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egypt’s foreign minister, who between them have jailed, killed and flogged any number of journalists while staging massacres and interventions that have left hundreds of thousands dead, bombing TV stations from Serbia to Afghanistan as they go.

True enough, but here too appearance is everything: the photograph was artfully staged (even before one ‘newspaper’ airbrushed the women from the frame) and took place in an otherwise empty side-street.

Paris photo-op PNG

If I can make one last nod to The colonial present, not surprisingly many of these politicians have also used the murders to justify the continued violence of the wars being fought in the shadows of 9/11; if you are in the mood to reverse the looking-glass, then Markha Valenta‘s sobering reflection at Open Democracy is indispensable:

[E]verything that might be said about revolutionary Islamist movements – when it comes to global violence – could be said about global Americanism and US foreign policy. It has been ruthless, cruel, illiberal, anti-democratic. It has wreaked havoc, killed innocents, raped women, men and youths, tortured viciously, violated the rule of law and continues to do so…

It does so in our name. In the name of democracy. And those who expose this … are shut up ruthlessly, cruelly and in ways designed to degrade. (Yet we did not march then.)

This matters because it clarifies what our condition is today, the condition under which last week’s violence took place: an extended and expanding global war between those who claim the right to intervention, brutality and terror in the name of democracy and those who do so in the name of Islam.

No less predictably, one of the immediate and dismally common responses to the murders, amidst the clamour for freedom of speech, was a renewed call for more state surveillance and regulation.  As Teju Cole wrote in the New Yorker,

The only person in prison for the C.I.A.’s abominable torture regime is John Kiriakou, the whistle-blower. Edward Snowden is a hunted man for divulging information about mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning is serving a thirty-five-year sentence for her role in WikiLeaks. They, too, are blasphemers, but they have not been universally valorized, as have the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.

But it’s not only politicians who are guilty of appropriation.  Putting on one (far) side the extraordinary attempts to turn “Je suis Charlie” to commercial account – to ‘trademark the tragedy and its most resonant refrain‘ – there are other, less venal and more complicated appropriations.

B67GP_yCYAA_mce.jpg

Heat map of #jesuischarlie hashtag; animation is available here

So back to the looking-glass.  You might think that “Je suis Charlie” is an affirmative gesture born of anger and horror but also of sympathy and compassion, a simple human reflex that has become virtually commonplace – comparable to, say, “We are all Palestinians“.  That was my first thought too. But the trouble is that such a rhetorical claim comes with a lot of baggage.  David Palumbo-liu suggests that  “I am Charlie” can be an assertion of empathy, solidarity or identification.  Even empathy is far from straightforward – why do we extend our fellow feeling to these people and not those? – but, as he shows, the other two progressively raise the stakes.    Sarah Keenan and Nadine El-enany wire this to appropriation with exquisite clarity in a short essay at Critical Legal Thinking:

The #JesuisCharlie hashtag and its social media strategy of solidarity through identification with the victim is … an appropriation of what was a creative and subversive tool for fighting structural violence and racist oppression, perhaps most famously in the “I am Trayvon Martin” campaign. When young black men stood up and said “I am Trayvon Martin”, they were demonstrating the persistent and deeply entrenched demonisation of black men which not only sees them killed in the street on their way to the local shop, but also deems their killers innocent of any wrongdoing. When predominantly white people in France and around the world declare “Je Suis Charlie”, they are not coming together as fellow members of a structurally oppressed and marginalised community regularly subjected to violence, poverty, harassment and hatred. Rather, they are banding together as members of the majority, as individuals whose identification with Charlie Hebdo, however well-​meaning, serves to reproduce the very structures of oppression, marginalisation and demonisation that allowed the magazine’s most offensive images to be consumed and celebrated in the first place.

As the invocations of Voltaire should have demonstrated, there is a substantial difference between defending the right to draw a cartoon and celebrating what is drawn.  Too many commentators clearly want to elide the difference, but there is another distinction to be made too.  A Muslim friend who lives in Paris was distraught at the murders, but when he heard the calls for the cartoons to be re-published immediately after the killings he told me he felt brutalised all over again.  Those who made such demands, who casually sneered at the ‘cowardice’ of those who failed to comply, either forgot or chose to ignore the existence of a far, far larger Muslim audience than the terrorists against whom they vented their spleen: or, still worse, it never occurred to them that there is a difference between the two.

So: je ne suis pas Charlie; I think I’d rather ‘be’ Joe.

***

I am grateful to my friends and colleagues who helped me think through these issues – I realise there’s a lot more thinking to be done, so please treat this as a first, fumbling attempt – and to Jaimie.

Virtual Gaza

idffacebook

I had originally thought The everywhere war would include a reworked and extended version of my discussion of cyberwarfare and Stuxnet which appeared in the Geographical Journal (DOWNLOADS tab), but the chapter is now about ‘virtual’ battlespaces more generally – which are far from being purely ‘virtual’, of course – and includes some of the jottings I’ve made on the role of digital media in later modern war (see here and here).  With that in mind – but rather more than that in mind – I should update the part they are playing in Israel’s latest war on Gaza where, as the Wall Street Journal‘s headline on 23 July had it, ‘Israel and Hamas take fight to social media’.

The IDF is no stranger to information warfare and to the power of social media.  John Timpane explains the back-story succinctly:

In November 2012, Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense – on Twitter. It thereby became the first nation to initiate hostilities by social media. Starting with a YouTube video of the aerial assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed al-Jabari, Pillar of Defense escalated the social-media war. The Israeli Defense Force (Twitter following: 292,000) tweeted times and places of rocket strikes against Israel. A rag-tag bunch of pro-Hamas Twitter feeds (such as the oft-shut-down @alqassam, with 11,000-plus followers), Facebook pages, and YouTube videos published images of torn bodies and bombed schools.

As of 2014, “both sides,” says [Lawrence] Husick, “have become remarkably more sophisticated in how they use social media to engage with the rest of the world.”

To provide some idea of the scale of operations, al-Jazeera has produced this remarkable representation of the unfolding of a global Twitterstorm about the war; what appears below are screenshots and you really need to watch the whole thing:

#Israelunderfire

#Gaza under attack

The resources each side has at its disposable are far from equal.  According to Harriet Sherwood:

The propaganda war between Israel and the Palestinians is not new, but this battle-round is being fought with unprecedented ferocity. And like the asymmetry in the military conflict, the strength and resources of the Israel social media troops outweigh those of Hamas and other Palestinian organisations.

And those asymmetries have increased. Max Schindler reports,

With dueling Twitter hashtags, Facebook posts and YouTube channels, the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, are trading not just fire but also barbs over social media, in an attempt to win hearts and minds around the world. But Hamas, barred from certain platforms, faces additional challenges in the Internet war.

In this round of violence, the social media battle has become increasingly important. Israel’s ability to wage its campaign in Gaza depends on the level of international criticism it sustains.

On Wednesday, Twitter suspended several accounts used by Hamas…. Twitter’s terms of service block use of the website to “a person barred from receiving services under the laws of the United States or other applicable jurisdiction.” Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization by the State Department, denying it access to American commercial products…. Facebook maintains a similar policy, and has deleted dozens of Hamas accounts due to American government restrictions.

All of this has still wider implications because many of the tweets and the cell-phone videos uploaded to YouTube(see below) re-circulate through mainstream media too – though my strong suspicion is that the cautionary ‘cannot be verified‘ tag is used more often to diminish the suffering of people in Gaza than to call into question the IDF’s hasbara (public diplomacy/propaganda, take your pick).

These are more than military (or paramilitary) media operations, but the remainder is not only the work of individual ‘citizen-journalists’.  Ali Abunimah reports on a social media ‘war room’, set up on the first day of the current offensive by students at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a private university, to ‘explain’ Israel’s actions to overseas audiences: ‘israelunderfire’ originated here.  Some 400 volunteers from around the world are now involved in targeting online forums and producing their own (dis)infographics (more – and affirmative – reporting from the the Jerusalem Post here).

IDC Herzliya %22War Room%22

But most of the running is being made by the  IDF’s own concerted media campaign, and as I noted earlier Rebecca Stein has provided a timely analysis of ‘How Israel militarized social media’ that debunks some of the myths that have grown up around its ‘success’ (see also the link to her previous work here):

‘What’s been lost in this coverage – in this story of surprise — is the history of the Israel’s army presence on social media. For in fact, the military’s move to social media as a public relations platform has been rife with improvisation and failure, a process that runs counter to IDF narratives about its innovative work in this regard (the IDF lauding itself as a military early adopter). The army’s interest in the wartime potential of social media can be traced to the first few days of the 2008-2009 Gaza incursion….

In the years that followed, the IDF investment in social media would grow exponentially both in budgetary and manpower allocations, building on this ostensible wartime triumph.

But the process was rife with challenges and missteps…

Today, Israelis are also concerned about losing the media war. But they tell the story differently. In their rendering, the Israeli media problem is a by-product of damning or doctored images (this was the spirit of Netanyahu’s infamous “telegenically dead” remarks), of Palestinian media manipulation, of global anti-Israeli cum anti-Semitic bias. The Israeli media manages these problems by removing most traces of Palestinian dead and wounded from national news broadcasts.’

This feeds in to a deeper narrative in which both Palestinian casualties and Israeli culpability disappear from view, deftly characterised by Yonatan Mendel:

‘”We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children,” Golda Meir said in 1969, ‘but we cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.’ Forty-five years on, in the third week of the Israeli attack on Gaza, with more than 800 Palestinians killed, about a quarter of them children, Israel’s government, its media and Israeli society have turned Meir’s idea of Israel being ‘forced’ to do unacceptable things into a vast and dangerous superstition. It refuses to take responsibility for the killing, just as it refused to take responsibility for the military occupation and the blockade: these, it tells itself, are what it has been forced into. Killing in Gaza in 2014, killing in 2012, and in 2008. But Israel has convinced itself, despite the rising numbers of dead, that isn’t killing anyone in Gaza. Hamas are the people doing the killing; they are responsible for the siege, the destruction, the underdevelopment, the poverty, the absence of peace talks, the postponement of a ceasefire and the use of UNRWA schools for military purposes.’

One final, crucial qualification. Even as he explains how the IDF and Hamas are fighting a media war, a battle to control the story on social media, John Tirmane insists that ‘the real war is of steel and fire, flesh and blood.’  What the countervailing voices of the ‘Twitterstorm’ seek to enable and to disable is an all too material firestorm.

Just looking (and shooting)

I had just finished jotting my update to the IDF’s use of social media when Alex Vasudevan drew my attention to this brilliant, searing and deeply disturbing essay by Huw Lemmey at the New Inquiry, ‘Devastation in Meatspace’:

The missile rushing over your head was processed through an Instagram filter just hours previously. As you see it pass out of sight behind the apartment block opposite some young conscript is preparing for video footage of it to be compressed and uploaded to YouTube before the hour is out. By nightfall tonight that explosion which just shook your neighborhood, in one of the most densely populated areas on earth, will have been liked over 8,000 times on Facebook. Welcome to Gaza City.

In a previous post I’d objected to the way in which some commentators advertised social media as a new way to ‘consume’ war, but  – riffing off Eyal Weizmann‘s Hollow Land –  Lemmey focuses not on the Twitter streams but on the visualizations disseminated across these digital platforms: see, for example, the IDF’s Instagram page here (and look at the comments too); more here.  You can also find a selection over at Business Insider where Geoffrey Ingersoll describes them as ‘gorgeous’, and another selection at Moral Low Ground, which reads them rather differently.

Commenting on these images, Britney Fitzgerald at the Huffington Post simply sees them as ‘the world’s newest form of war reporting” – though she does note that the ‘intimacies’ that Israel puts on display through Instagram are radically different from those with the hashtags #gaza and #palestine – but Lemmey (who describes himself as a print maker and studio technician) provides a much more compelling reading.  He shows that the IDF images do indeed resonate with a consumerist ideology – climactic versions of the desiring gaze and the lust of the eye – that has become integral to the way in which late modern war is fought:

‘[T]he [IDF] use of commercially available instagram filters replicates the visual culture favoured by much of its audience, producing images that slip easily into their feeds, naturalising the content. “These are the photos you would take if you served in the IDF,” the aesthetic says, “we are just like you, and these military decisions are the ones you would take, if you were in our situation.” They also step beyond this, including an aspirational aspect of a desirable lifestyle — impossibly handsome young troops, having fun on their downtime. This is a fighting force at play as imagined by Wolfgang Tillmans and BUTT magazine, a million miles from an occupying force…. Liking and sharing IDF visual material becomes no more controversial than sharing your favourite Nike campaign — not a matter of politics, let alone ethics, but just another part of the construction of your online persona….’

‘Like many of the more advanced lifestyle brands, the IDF are shifting the focus of image production from their own staff and creative team toward their consumers: in this case, the troops, reservists, and supporters of the IDF. Content is aggregated from individuals and fed back into the social networks of the target audience. In many ways this is an advanced form of brand-management for a such a large institution; it shows a willingness to trust the audience, allowing them to define the brand, making IDFgram perhaps the first crowdsourced propaganda campaign for a state military but also one whose identity is ever more meshed with that of its troops and supporters, emulating fashion and lifestyle brands’ movement toward consumer-led campaigns. Here the IDF becomes the avatar of a thoroughly Western consumer identity. The distance between our own lives and those of the men and women who fight in the IDF becomes ever shorter and more compressed; in collapsing this distance, the grainy and pixelated images of the Palestinian subject become more distant. This is the IDF campaign for control of the virtual environment, interjecting its brand identity into the slivers of human interaction online and thus attempting to occupy a greater portion of the market share for geopolitical allegiance.’

Lemmey says much, much more than this: please read the whole essay.

BTW: IDF stands for ‘Israel Defense Forces’, so naturally none of this should be confused with IDF Marketing, where ‘IDF stands for Innovative, Digital, Foundations’: it’s an Irish company with no connection with the Israeli military.  In case you’re now thoroughly confused, here is Arwa Mahdawi on the marketing of Israel:

Ever since it officially came into existence in 1948, Israel has gone methodically about the creation of a “Brand Israel”. This originally began with an emphasis of the religious significance of a state for the Jewish people. Then, in 2005, when it was time for a rebrand, the Israeli government consulted with American marketing executives to develop a positioning that would appeal to a new generation: an Israel that was “relevant and modern” rather than a place of “fighting and religion”. So Israel did some pinkwashing, and suddenly became a vocal champion of gay rights. It fought to retain cultural ownership of falafel, hummus, and Kafka. It poured millions of dollars into tourism campaigns that sought to replace imagery of wartorn landscapes with sun-kissed seascapes.

When it comes to winning modern wars, a robust marketing campaign is as important as a military campaign.

Saving Face(book)

An update to my post on the use of social media in Israel’s latest assault on Gaza: at the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) Rebecca Stein provides an important historical perspective on the IDF’s mobilisation of these digital platforms and the resistance from senior commanders to resorting to a ‘digital vernacular’:

Even as the IDF labors to speak in a language that will be intelligible to the general public, largely abandoning traditional forms of military jargon, its Facebook and Twitter practices remain committed to the foremost military mission — that of asserting control over social media’s highly interactive field.

Rebecca also draws attention to the ways in which these military mobilisations complicate the ‘digital democracy’ narrative that emerged in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

I talked about this briefly in my essay on Tahrir Square, where I noted that it was not only the Israeli military that was learning from those events.  As Lt Col Brian Pettit put it, ‘the Arab Spring has profound implications for the US Special Operations mission of unconventional warfare’ that need to be incorporated into ‘theory, doctrine and training’.  He argued that standard ‘red force tracking’ in which the enemy is caught in a net of electronic surveillance should now be complemented by ‘social tracking’ in which social media are monitored and even enlisted.  The standard image of unconventional war, the same officer concludes, is of ‘underground resistance leaders meeting with US advisers, clustered in a dark basement around a crumpled map, secretly organizing and planning their next tactical move.’  But this is now incomplete, and future operations will need to enlist ‘a scattered network of digerati, all texting, tweeting, posting and hacking from thousands of locations.  Publicity is as paramount to the success of the digerati as is secrecy vital to the success of the traditional underground resistance cell.’  As I noted at the time, it’s not difficult to work out ‘which ‘resistance leaders’ were likely to be meeting with US advisers, nor the bodily consequences for those on the other side of the street.

But using social media is only one part of military strategy.  Writing in Joint Forces Quarterly early in 2011, Lt Col Thomas Mayfield had already accepted that ‘aggressive engagement in the social media environment can aid the commander in winning the information fight’  – bizzarely he pointed to the IDF’s ham-fisted use of social media during its previous assault on Gaza in 2008-9 – but his first priority was to monitor the use of social media to enhance ‘situational awareness’.  For a Canadian/NATO perspective on media monitoring, here is Bruce Forrester from Defence R&D Canada at Valcartier on ‘Social Media Exploitation Tools’ after the Arab uprisings.

If this is all too depressing for you, then try Richard Poplak who provides a different take on the IDF’s most recent attempts to use Facebook to save face…