F15, keyboard, troll
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Keyboards Are the New F-15s

How Propaganda and Disruption Have Become Ends in Themselves


A look at how social media’s “charisma of certainty” is changing the nature of warfare.

Modern warfare is now a clash of narratives that fit in a tweet.

Not as an adjunct to physical warfare, as propaganda once was, but as an end in itself. As we have seen in Ukraine, and in what might be called Cold War 2.0, disruption, confusion, and uncertainty about what is and isn’t true can contribute to the destabilization of entire countries.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, journalist David Patrikarakos, author of War in 140 Characters, says that Twitter and other social media create the “charisma of certainty.” They subvert the very concept of objective truth, because these platforms are the perfect vehicles for sensationalism. Designed for speed and reach, they are inherently unfriendly to nuance — or accuracy.

Patrikarakos talks to Jeff Schechtman about the fact that never before have so many people had the ability to reach so many other people so fast, with no filter or arbiter.

As a case study, Patrikarakos examines how this happened with both Donald Trump and with ISIS. If Trump is the social-media president, ISIS is the social-media terror organization. Both are about division and the radicalization of individuals, and both promote and benefit from political and social instability.

Social media may not be the sole cause of our divided politics, but it exacerbates it in ways that are historically consistent with how technology, from the printing press to the internet, has always created havoc by overturning previously accepted norms and conventions.

David Patrikarakos is the author of War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (Basic Books, November 2017) and Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State (I.B. Tauris, November 2012).

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman : Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Some of you may remember that during the cold war, particularly during the Vietnam conflict, we were told that the battle was for the hearts and minds of the enemy. We understood that in conflict, propaganda, particularly as told through narrative, was an important tool of warfare. The narrative, if successful, was there to reinforce the battle. The ultimate expression of this, I suppose, was the phrase sometimes attributed to both John Wayne and Chuck Colson, that if you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.
Today, in our 24/7 always on social media saturated world, the object has changed. Now the battle through social media and television is for the proverbial hearts and minds as an object in and of itself. As we’ve seen with Russia in both the Ukraine and in its new Cold War with the US, sometimes control of the Twitter and Facebook narrative is enough to create disruption, to change the terms of the conflict itself, and ultimately to win. Suddenly, in Cold War 2.0, a keyboard has as much power as an F-15.
We’re going to talk about this today with my guest, David Patrikarakos. He’s the author of the book Nuclear Iran: The Birth of the Atomic State. He’s also a contributing editor at the Daily Beast and a contributing writer at Politico, and he is an expert on how social media is re-shaping conflict in the 21st century. David Patrikarakos, thanks so much for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
David Patrikarakos : Thank you for having me on.
Jeff : Propaganda certainly has been around for as long as warfare has been around, but propaganda really was sort of a back stop. It was something that served the purposes of warfare. Now it’s become kind of an end in itself, particularly in this social media world. Talk about that.
David : I think you’re absolutely right. You hit the nail on the head, Jeff. Look, propaganda is as old as war itself. I think where the change has come, is that in war as traditionally understood, propaganda operations supported military operations on the ground. Now we are getting to a situation where, often, not always, but often military operations on the ground are supporting propaganda operations inside the space and on TV.
I think a classic example of this, and this is where the genesis of my new book, War in 140 Characters comes from, is the eight months I spent in Ukraine covering the war between Russia and Ukraine. War, as is traditionally understood, if you want to call it the Clausewitzian paradigm, Carl von Clausewitz. Two or more sides would have a fight in an area almost as delineated as a boxing ring, and the winner would then defeat the loser and impose a political settlement on them. A classic example is the Treaty of Versailles after World War II.
What I was seeing in Ukraine on the ground, was something entirely different. Putin had no intention of defeating Ukraine and forcing it to the negotiating table, which it easily could have done. Instead, what he wanted to do, was to de-stabilize the country to stop it drawing closer to the EU. The way he did this was to essentially get eastern Ukrainians to subscribe to a particular narrative. Yes, he sent tanks and Russian troops across the border and supported the Ukrainian separatists, but the goal of this was actually just to create a space to allow Russian propaganda to flow in.
It was truly remarkable, Jeff. As I went from city to city in the occupied territories, if you like, people would repeat verbatim to me lines that I’d seen coming out of the Kremlin on TV or on Facebook or on Twitter or on Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook. The belief that, for example, Kiev was a fascist junta following the overthrow of the Moscow-backed Yanukovych during the Euromaidan Revolution, that Kiev wanted to destroy the speaking of Russian in Ukraine, that it wants to persecute Russian speakers. These ideas were sincerely held. At the end of the day, when your goal is not to defeat the enemy militarily, but to get them to subscribe to a particular narrative, obviously social media as a conduit, propaganda becomes the central goal. What you see actually is the blurring of politics and conflict.
Jeff : Isn’t this something, though, that has long been the purview of dictators and strongmen and authoritarian rulers?
David : To a degree, yes, but we’re talking about its role in conflict now. It’s changing because conflict is changing. If you think the post-World War II order was designed to regulate war out of existence, in the west at least. No major state has gone to war against another state. Now you can argue that America went to war against Iraq, but actually the battle against Saddam’s military lasted days, essentially. It was nothing. The real problem was the insurgency. The nature of warfare is changing in that states now, like the United States, like the United Kingdom, fight asymmetrical wars. What social media does, is it allows the underdog to gain power. Asymmetric wars are not so asymmetric anymore. You see examples of this.
The one example I use in my book of Operation Protective Edge during 2014, where a country like Israel can decisively win the military battle, but in effect lose the war, because the war is fought not to defeat Hamas, but essentially to put across the Israeli government’s narrative. Yes, there were military goals to eradicate the tunnels, which they were fairly successful in, but ultimately that war came down to a clash of narratives. One side saying we are the democratic state under siege, the other state saying we are the oppressed people being oppressed by a US backed satellite colonialist power. In that space Israel lost, despite absolute military victory. That is something that is fairly, fairly new.
Jeff : To what extent is it about disruption as the first phase of this kind of warfare? In many ways we can look at what’s been going on with respect to Russia and the US right now as an example of that. The object is less clear, but the disruption that it seeks to create is very clear, and the hope is that in that disruption, some kind of social media victory can be achieved.
David : I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, take the Russian example. What is so interesting about Russian propaganda is it’s totally different from the propaganda of old, and indeed, traditional propaganda. The Soviet Union, its propaganda was centered on presenting a positive image of the Soviet Union, a Soviet Union was the ideal society. It was Utopia realized on earth. Modern Russian propaganda doesn’t seek to do that at all. It doesn’t seek to promote a positive image of Russia. Look. I’m sure ideally they’d like to, but I think they realize it’s not possible, so they don’t bother.
What they do is, you’re absolutely right, is they disrupt. They confuse. They distort. What is interesting about that propaganda … I’ll give you an example. Take the shooting down of flight MH-17 over eastern Ukraine, which we now know was done by a missile provided by the Russian military. I was in Ukraine during that time. Within minutes of the news breaking, the Russian trolls are out in force saying, “The Americans did it. The Ukrainians did it. The Americans and Ukrainians did it.” The point wasn’t to convince anyone by the content of these patently absurd narratives, but actually to confuse the narrative so much that anyone, anyone with a normal life, not like you and me Jeff, political obsessives, who was hoping to go on there and find out what the hell was going on, was totally confused. This is the goal, which is to create so much misinformation that you weaken people’s ability to see the truth, to recognize the truth when they see it.
Jeff : That really is the object of this kind of propaganda, to completely distort reality, to eliminate any kind of objective truth.
David : You’re absolutely right. Look, this is why I say we live … Post-truth is a cliché now. What post-truth has done is created the post-truth leader. You see this all the way from Vladimir Putin to Donald Trump. Now, obviously there are many problems with Trump, but let’s not get carried away. Putin is a dictator in all but name. Trump is still the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy. But, in each case, the goal is the same, which is not to twist the truth, like the politicians of old, but to subvert the very idea that an objective truth exists at all. You see this. We go from Bill Clinton, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” which is just a classic straight forward lie, to Donald Trump or his spokesperson, who comes out and says Trump’s inauguration crowds were bigger than Obama’s, when you can see, you can see that they weren’t. What happens when they’re called out? Kellyanne Conway appears and says, “We’re offering alternative facts.” [inaudible 00:09:36]. No objective truth. Alternative facts. You’re absolutely right. This is dangerous. It’s very dangerous.
Jeff : Talk about the ways in which social media as a tool, then, reinforces those kinds of alternative facts.
David : Again, this is a very good question. The thing with social media is by its very nature, it rewards sensationalism. It rewards the declarative, the exclamative. It works against nuance and thoughtfulness. You know, you could tweet, “All Mexicans are rapists,” and that’s sensational, and it will go viral. When in fact, the truth is we have immigration. Some people may not be very good, but the net balance, on balance, is positive because of X, Y and Z. You can’t do that on Twitter. They don’t have the space. No one wants to read it. There’s nothing more depressing, Jeff, even on Facebook, where you can say more than press [inaudible 00:10:29] and see your status and it opening up in another window. No one reads the Facebook status of ten paragraphs long.
The point is these platforms are geared away from deep thinking nuance and geared toward the sensationalist and the simplistic. This allows propaganda to flow, because I call it the charisma of certainty. As I said, it is much better to say, “All Ukrainians are fascist,” than actually to say, “If we look at the situation on the ground, this is untrue. They did very badly in the elections. Yes, there are some [inaudible 00:11:05].” By the time you’ve done this, in today’s day and age, people stop reading. I think social media, by its inherent architecture, helps propaganda spread.
And off course, in terms of the reach and speed and scope with which it can reach. Back in the day, how would the USSR get its propaganda out? It would have a few useful idiots and fellow travelers in the west who might sell communist newspapers, but that was it. Now, if you go on Twitter, you can’t move, depending on who you follow, you can’t move for Russian narratives. RT is pumping it out, Sputnik is pumping it out. There are trolls everywhere. I think it’s been a real game changer.
Jeff : To what extent is this creating individual radicalization out there?
David : Look, that’s a very good question. I think the answer here is to be found with ISIS. ISIS is, without doubt, a social media … Like I say, Donald Trump is a social media president. ISIS is a social media terror organization. If they had emerged even ten years ago, it would have taken them 20 years to reach a quarter of the people that they’ve reached. This is a group that at one point was recruiting 10,000 people a week to its caliphate in Iraq and Syria. That simply cannot be explained without social media. This is how people were recruited. This is how their message was spread. Obviously they would make these horrific beheading videos, which get picked up by the national media. What really dragged people to the caliphate were actually the more positive videos showing giving people a chance of agency. Essentially, stay in Paris and drive a cab, or come to Iraq and be a hero. In terms of that, in terms of radicalizing, in terms of recruitment, the case of ISIS shows that has absolutely again changed the game. It’s made it transnational. You could recruit someone to the caliphate without ever having even met them. This, again, is quite novel. Certainly the speed and scope at which it is done is novel.
Jeff : Talk a little bit about these troll farms, troll factories, what it is they do and the impact that they have.
David : Okay. It’s actually quite surreal. In my book I interview a character called Vitaly. He’s actually a fairly liberal Russian journalist, but lost his job and needed some work, wasn’t quite sure what he was getting into. It was, literally, and I use the word in its correct sense, a big building on a road in St. Petersburg, which was filled with trolls pumping out disinformation. It even had a clear structure. On the first floor where Vitaly worked, they would write articles with a .ua URL to make it look like the articles were published in Ukraine as opposed to St. Petersburg, twisting the facts about the Ukraine war. The second floor were meme makers who would post memes around the place in support of Kremlin policy. The third floor were “Ukrainian” and “American” bloggers and the “Ukrainian” bloggers would say, “There’s no electricity in Kiev. The kindergartens, the children don’t have food,” whereas the American bloggers, the supposed American bloggers, would say that America supported Putin and the Ukraine was full of fascists. On the fourth floor were the big boys and girls, the social media trolls who would go on their Facebook, Twitter, and VKontakte, which is Russia’s version of Facebook, and troll and spam and post and do everything they could to push the Kremlin narrative. It was literally a house of lies.
Jeff : Talk a little bit about how effective this is and does it matter, because the volume makes up for some of the specificity?
David : You’re absolutely right again. We have this belief. I always say that Russians are all chess-playing grandmasters thinking 17 moves ahead, when in fact a lot of the stuff they do is very clumsy. Vitaly talks about how he was told to just spam any page with stuff on Russia-Ukraine. He was posting to Facebook pages or groups that had nothing to do with politics. His profiles would get taken down, but they just gave him more SIM cards, because you need a SIM card for each account, and he just registered more. I think Russia’s goal here is you throw everything but the kitchen sink at something, and if just 20% of it sticks, that’s a success.
Look, with the tech hearings, we kind of see this. They say that Russian ads reached 126 million people, which is almost the amount of people that voted in the election. Did they affect or change 126 million people’s minds? Of course not. Nowhere near, but let’s say even 1% were changed for the election of the most powerful person on the planet. That’s very serious. That does make a difference. Even if 99% of your efforts are failing, out of targeting 126 million people, you get 100,000 or something to change their mind, because of this or that, especially in a swing state, you look at in fact what it came down to for a Trump win, then who knows how effective it may have been?
Jeff : The other aspect of this is that unlike real warfare, there’s no downside in failure.
David : Yeah. There is in the sense when your goal becomes political. I gave you the example of Putin’s goal in Ukraine was not to militarily defeat Ukraine, but to get eastern Ukraine to subscribe to a particular narrative. I spoke to US and British soldiers in the war in Afghanistan, and they said in the end, the goal became not to militarily defeat the Taliban, but to convince the local population not to join them. That is a political goal. Where Clausewitz once said war is the continuation of politics by other means, what you now see is war as armed politics. When that happens, if your narrative fails and there is a big downside, as you saw in Israel during 2014’s Protective Edge, when in the end the Israeli narrative was simply unable to compete with the Palestinian counter-narrative, and it lost. There’s a downside in that sense, but in terms of pumping out propaganda on social media, all you’re doing is paying a few trolls, so in that sense, if you lose, I suppose it’s not like you’ve lost 100 men in battle.
Jeff : The interesting question is what is the counter to this? Is it counter-narrative? Countering in social media? I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a clear cut battle of social media versus social media in this world, in this landscape we’re talking about.
David : We have. In my book I talk about Alberto Fernandez, who was head of the State Department division tasked with countering ISIS propaganda with narratives of its own. Quite frankly, as you said, we lost. We were hopelessly out-manned. There’s 15 of us dealing with thousands of pro-ISIS Twitter accounts. We could not offer an equally … ISIS was offering a narrative saying, “Come. Come and join us. Come and be part of something. Come and be part of the caliphate.” We were saying, “No. Stop. Don’t go. Don’t go.” They had a positive narrative. We had a negative narrative. There was only going to be one winner. Plus, we were damned by what we were, essentially the American government, because if you’re a young disaffected Muslim, the last person or the last entity on earth you’re going to listen to is the American government. It has been tried and we’ve failed.
This is where you see that democracies are at a disadvantage to dictatorships. When I spoke to Alberto Fernandez, he said, “Look. We’re not Russia. We can’t pretend to be who we aren’t. We can’t have troll farms. We can’t do these things.” I have no doubt … obviously I’m not saying that the west does not push out propaganda or anything like that, but if you had a troll farm somewhere in New York, the New York Times would get ahold of it, run a story, and it would be shut down pretty damn quickly. The troll farms in Russia have been covered quite a lot now, and no one … they’re still carrying on their work.
The other thing, I think, is that a lot of culpability lies with the social media companies themselves. Alberto Fernandez was dealing with pro-ISIS accounts that Twitter refused to take down until the beheading of the journalist James Foley, and then they started to take them down. Ultimately, people think social media, we talk about platforms. The word has a very neutral connotation, this idea of a neutral space we can all go on and have a chat. Ultimately, social media companies are not neutral. They’re capitalist enterprises designed to make money, which is entirely fair enough. Then they [inaudible 00:19:49]. What they want is first of all, they want as many users as possible, so they don’t want to kick people off their platforms.
Secondly, they want to keep us on their platforms for as long as possible, and they do that through these algorithms so that they can essentially target adverts to us. I think the social media companies have a lot of culpability. We’ve seen it already with the tech hearings. I think self-policing is not working, because they have a default libertarian free speech model, which is absolutely correct. Free speech is sacrosanct and should be respected, but there is a difference between free speech, which is legal, and incitement to violence, which is illegal. There is too much of that going on on Facebook, Twitter and on all the platforms. Also, the social media companies are going to have to … I think some form of legislative intervention is going to have to come, because self-policing hasn’t worked, and they’re only reluctantly changing.
Jeff : One wonders, though, what that looks like in a democratic system, in a system in which free speech is arguably so important, and yet looking at something, looking at a product, Facebook or Twitter or what have you, that is antithetical to the very idea of democracy.
David : Absolutely right. I mean, it’s antithetical to the idea of the nation state, because it’s by its nature transnational. Social media platforms, and bear in mind, we’re talking about Facebook, which has two billion people, has a bigger population than China. They are not built, their architecture is anti-nation state. I’m not saying they’re going to destroy the nation state, but they are hugely, hugely disruptive. Yes, I mean what they look like is very complicated because also you don’t want to persecute to such a degree that you start affecting free speech, but I think certainly, if hate stuff, jihadist content, Nazi content is being kept on sites, government should have the power to fine them heavily, and I think you’ll find that as a business, they’ll start going down a lot more rapidly than they are now. That is not happening at the moment. The government will have to step in at some point, I believe, because the social media companies are just not going to do it themselves, and they haven’t done so far, not really, not to the degree necessary.
Jeff : What is the cutting edge of all of this? Where is the leading edge? If there is no intervention, if this keeps going on, where does it lead, in your view?
David : I think it leads to more instability, greater division, greater chance of conflict, greater disruption in politics. We’re seeing this already. Donald Trump would not have been possible without Twitter. With Obama, you remember his speeches. How many speeches of Donald Trump do you remember? The only thing you remember is him in his speech mocking a disabled reporter. What you remember are Donald Trump’s tweets. It’s slightly chicken and egg, but what we have to understand is that social media has emerged, coincidentally, at a great time of crisis in the West. We can trace it in a linear fashion.
In 2003, our politicians took us to war in Iraq on a lie, essentially. There were no weapons of mass destruction. The political class was discredited. Then, in 2008, the banking establishment brought the great recession, so the financial establishment was discredited. Then came the Snowden revelations, and all the people we thought were protecting us turned out to be spying on us, so the security establishment was discredited. You combine this with longer term declining standards of trust in the media, and you go from politics to finance to intelligence to media, all the great pillars of the establishment have been discredited. What this has led to is the rise of demagogues, be it Geert Wilders in Holland, Marine Le Pen in France, Nigel Farage in Britain, and obviously the ultimate combination of this, Donald Trump in the United States. We have this greatly destabilizing technology combined with a period of great political instability. I think, put it this way, it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.
Jeff : I mean, in that sense, it is a self-perpetuating problem, because the more it destabilizes, the harder it is to deal with.
David : Absolutely. Absolutely, which is why I’m gloomy about the future. If we look at history, every major advancement of information technology has brought great destabilization. We look at the printing press. Then what happened was the Gutenberg Bible. Bibles could be printed in the vernacular in the language of local countries, so the Catholic church no longer became the sole mediator of the text between the people. [inaudible 00:24:32] between the text and the people, and the wars of religion followed. If we look, in 1920 saw the mass expansion of TV and radio. A decade later in the 30s, Hitler and Mussolini used these new information technologies and more followed. Now, I’m not saying war is going to come. What I am saying is that each great advancement of information technology, a period of destabilization results. We are now, essentially in the wild west days still of social media. They’re still relatively new technologies. You can’t call someone a murderer or a rapist or this in a newspaper. You’d get sued without evidence, but you can do it on Twitter or Facebook. There’s so many things to be worked out. We’re still very much in the wild west phase, and I think things are going to continue to be unstable for quite a while.
Jeff : Another part of it is we talk about this, and you talk about it even in the title of the book, about this being a new form of warfare. What happens when this kind of destabilization generates real warfare, physical warfare, hot warfare, and then how these two things work together?
David : Well, I mean I talk about that in the book, because I worry that essentially, in 1914, no one really wants to go to war, but leaders became so boxed in by their rhetoric that in the end, they had no choice. They risked losing their positions. You know, the more I saw Russian propaganda talk about Ukrainian fascists, the more I saw Russians going, “Yes. Yes. We have to kill them,” and blah blah blah. You look at China and the South China Sea. Really they have armies of paid bloggers. They rile people up and their population demands more and more action in the South China Sea. There comes a point where you wonder maybe a China or a Russia or an Iran might become boxed in by their own rhetoric and forced into a war they don’t want, or risk losing so much face that their administration could be threatened. I think that is dangerous. I think that is a possibility, hopefully still a slim one. Once a hot war erupts, with propaganda, its ability, its scope, its range cubed, if not more, then the war will be even harder to stop, compromise will be even harder to find, and conflict is likely to last for much, much longer.
Jeff : Finally, now that the war is not in 140 characters, but 280, does that make any difference?
David : I mean, look. Before you could insult people in two sentences. Now you can do it in four. It makes no difference. If they changed it to a lot more, no one would use Twitter anymore, but not really. You can just be slightly more rude to people.
Jeff : David Patrikarakos. His book is War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. David, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
David : Thank you very much for the time. I greatly enjoyed it.
Jeff : Thank you. Thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to

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  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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