At the start of January of this year, General Sir Nicholas Carter, now the newly appointed head of the British armed forces, delivered a widely noticed, doctrine-setting speech on the nature of contemporary armed conflict in the age of social media at the Royal United Services Institute. Over the last half decade, he posited, radical innovations in social media had revolutionized the capacities of state and nonstate actors to wage war, with connected individuals and groups now possessing weapons of mass propaganda that had hereto been the purview of powerful states with a well-funded military. The brightest lights of the British armed forces (as well as their counterparts the world over) had taken notice, and were preparing to adapt to fight back. In the midst of his speech, General Carter observed that “social media is throwing up digital supermen, hyperconnected and hyperempowered online individuals,” and added that “I’d like a few of those in 77 Brigade, please.”
The quote, and several other references in the speech, were taken from David Patrikarakos’ War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century, whose lessons are based on ground reportage conducted during the last Israeli-Gaza and Russian-Ukrainian conflicts. Both of those conflicts were fought in cyberspace as much as they were on the field of battle, and the book posits the birth of “homo digitalis,“ a tech-savvy postmodern creature, who inhabits the online world and whose fighting prowess is equal to that of a battalion of infantry. Writing on the asymmetry between Hamas and Israeli narratives for Tablet last month, Patrikarakos stipulated that
As ever in modern conflict—from Syria to Iraq to even Occupy Wall Street—two battles are taking place between Israel and Hamas in Gaza: one on the ground and the other in cyberspace. This latter battle centers on questions of outrage, perceived culpability, blaming (on both sides), and is played out in cycles that are determined by the mechanics and rhythms of social media. In terms of substance, this clash is between two opposing narratives.
The book has received a great deal of attention because it captured the innovative ways in which the act of shaping political narratives over social media—also known as “disinformation warfare,” as well as other new names for the ancient art of propaganda—are now ascendant. In fact, the radical timeliness and importance of the book’s message was underlined when Twitter instituted long debated changes by doubling the platform’s character limit a week before the publication date.
Patrikarakos describes the Russian-Ukrainian conflict as the first truly modern war, and his is the first concentrated study of the ways in which media have been weaponized on the ground. His innate gift for explaining the wide-ranging social implications of complex technological innovations to popular audiences quickly catapulted him to the forefront of a newly forged class of social media explainers of politics in the age of “post truth.” Unlike the majority of these commentators, however, his analysis and prescriptions are based on rigorous on-the-ground reportage. The book marked a transition from being an old-school war correspondent to being a public intellectual.
Yet, taking up the pen, the Middle East, and the study of military conflict seems to have been almost predetermined for Patrikarakos. He descends, on his Greek side, from the statesman and soldier Georgios Sisinis, a great revolutionary who fought against the Turks and whose portrait hangs in the Greek national museum. On his mother’s side, Patrikarakos is descended from the master kabbalist and de facto chief Rabbi of Babylon, Yosef Hayyim. Another great-grandfather was Rabbi Abdallah Somekh, who was instrumental in the process of the codification of Iraqi kosher laws. Sylvia Kedourie, the wife of the great Middle East scholar Elie Kedourie was also a cousin.
Patrikarakos was born in London, and grew up in the British capital living mostly with his mother after his parents divorced when he was 11 years old. His father ran a software company, and his mother was an art collector who lived off of money inherited from Naim Javid, her grandfather. An Iraqi businessman who had made a tremendous fortune in Baghdad, Javid was typical of his generation of Baghdadi Jews, a generation whose fortunes were wiped out when they were forced to flee Baghdad in the wake of the founding of the state of Israel. Javid decamped for Tehran in the early 1950s, and somewhat improbably recreated his fortune in Iran before being forced to flee again by the next geopolitical earthquake, the 1979 revolution in Iran. After attending the private University College school in Hampstead, Patrikarakos studied English literature at university. He spent his time there mostly reading the novels of Martin Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Dickens, Wodehouse, George Eliot, and Phillip Roth, and drinking through his studies instead of doing his coursework. An impressionable early reading of Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches would later prove to influence his choice of vocation. How could it not?
Being a self described “nice North London Jewish boy,” Patrikarakos followed family expectations after university and made a halfhearted effort at starting a career as a commercial lawyer after having attending law school. A depressing stint at a law firm specializing in international arbitration ended in spectacular failure. Patrikarakos informed me that he was sacked from the job after six months, being “escorted from the building by security guards in a gentle and civilized manner”.
In his late 20s, he returned to Oxford to pursue his postgraduate studies at Wadham College. He admits that his time at Oxford was noteworthy chiefly for his “a somewhat lax attitude toward traditional college rules,” an attitude that on occasion landed him in the dean’s office. Which, of course, is a timeless tradition for literary men. The degree work concluded in a stint studying Persian at the University of Tehran. He left Oxford, and took the plunge into journalism. writing first for the Financial Times, which was followed by a stint writing for The New Statesman. Early globe trotting war exploits included a stretch of time embedded with the U.N. peacekeeping force in the Congolese jungle as it faced off against the maniacal Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, and Patrikarakos admits that he encountered some deeply visceral stuff in the jungle. He covered the Kurdish referendum and traveled the breadth of the Middle East.
Yet it was Patrikarakos’ Oxford thesis on the history of the Iranian atomic program that would constitute the germ of his first book, Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State. Minutely researched, deeply immersive, and written with flair, Nuclear Iran was the first full-length historical study of the Iranian nuclear program to have appeared in the English language. The narrative arc begins with Iranian humiliation in the 1950s and goes all the way to the present day, buttressed by impressive and wide-ranging interviews with the principal architects of the Iranian nuclear program. The timing of its publication, as the world debated the Obama administration policy of rapprochment with Tehran, was impeccable and the book was unusually well received for a freshman effort in foreign policy analysis, being a New York Times editors’ choice, and landing on the shortlist for the international affairs book of the year and being nominated for the political book award in Great Britain.
Patrikarakos arrived in Ukraine in March of 2014, right after the Maidan revolution concluded with the kleptocratic former President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the country. He stayed in Ukraine for just under a year, covering the conflict, with his experiences there and in Israel constituting the core ideas for War in 140 Characters. During his time there, he traveled throughout the occupied cities Luhansk, Donetsk, and Slovyansk, and was embedded with the Ukrainian army. During the course of his reporting on the conflict, he befriended the Ukraine volunteer activist Anna Sandalova, who was a pioneer of social media assisted crowd-sourced support for the Ukrainian army at a moment when the Ukrainian state was unable to offer basic service or arm its own troops.
Not that it much mattered: Modern warfare, Patrikarakos soon learned, was very different from the traditional model we’ve come to know and expect. Nowadays, he learned, propaganda no longer served war on the ground, with maneuvering on the ground serving to advance and buttress particular propaganda narratives. President Putin’s Russian forces, the book notes, could’ve easily defeated their neighbor militaristically, but instead focused on using social media to convince many that the Ukrainian government was a junta-dominated fascist regime hell-bent on persecuting Russians. This form of social media based battle not only deepened the fissures, but turned war into a never-ending affair, a state of mind perpetuated by troll farms churning out countless posts designed to sow discord and animosity.
The book that Patrikarakos wrote is not only an excellent guide to living in such times of never-ending conflict, but also a damning account of what happens to us when we descend from the barbarism of violence to the arguably even more depraved depths of vile tweets, malicious posts, and fake news.