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A Casual Spectator’s Guide to the Twitter Armies of the Earth

Like video game zombies they roam the fields of battle from Armenia and Syria to Iran, India, France, and Israel, engaging in a simulacrum of warfare, without risk

by
Armin Rosen
December 08, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Up until the early 21st century, the average person—meaning the majority of the human race that’s lacking in martial bravery and has little appetite for physical violence—wasn’t much help in war. For most of history, the fate of peoples and nations hinged on men hacking other men to death with spears, clubs, and swords at close quarters, close enough to see and smell the viscera of the enemy. Old-fashioned warfare required training, arduous travel, and the risk of death, among other unsavory and inconvenient features, which mostly ruled out the meaningful physical participation of 95% of the human race.

Technology, from the bow and arrow to the Predator drone, has provided the great impetus for the inclusion of more human types in warfare, allowing combatants to fight their enemies from a greater distance. By transmogrifying the intended objects of one’s lethal force from flesh and blood to pixelated images, technology has now expanded the field of combat to allow anyone with a keyboard to realize the human need to support the greater community and oppose the enemy during times of crisis. Thanks to gamified social media platforms, everyone can convince themselves they’re a warrior.

Nobody actually dies on internet message boards or on Facebook, of course; few acts of heroism are committed on Twitter. And yet it is often on social platforms, rather than in Aleppo or Crimea or Stepanakert or along the Gaza-Israel border, where instantly canonical versions of events are created, narratives that have real-world consequences. On a tactical level, social media can be used to sow confusion and gain sympathy. Failing that, you can harass the other side, wasting your enemy’s time and emotion. While the battlefields of Nagorno-Karabakh are far away and dangerous, and high diplomacy is the impossibly distant domain of a tiny handful of superelites, your enemies are right there on Twitter, vulnerable to your batteries of taunts, accusations, distortions, lies, and threats.

As a war zone with zero barrier to entry, it’s little wonder that Twitter hosts a globe-spanning collection of national cyberwarriors and other paid shills, along with radicalized independent web activists, embittered exiles, ethereal think-tankers, rambunctious diasporans, robots, more robots, bored former ambassadors with apparently endless amounts of time on their hands, retired military freaks, and probable intelligence assets, arrayed on a vast battlefield of the mind. It’s a battlefield that exists nowhere and everywhere, where the bombs don’t kill or maim and the refugee camps all magically vanish.

Here’s a quick guide to the people—some of whom aren’t really people in any intellectually honest sense of the word—who “march” in the world’s Twitter “armies,” turning the platform into a mesmerizingly terrible simulacrum of a fallen, miserable world.

Armenia and Azerbaijan

Heaven help you if you’ve been hanging out on Twitter long enough to have opinions about these sorts of things, but the social media version of the long-running Caucasus conflict makes its Israeli-Palestinian equivalent look tame. This year’s flare-up over the Armenian occupation of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region had moments of almost cartoonish bellicosity, complete with dueling military music videos.

More insidious, if more expected, were the conflicting and often nearly nondisprovable accounts of what was really happening on the ground, issuing from various Twitter pages connected to the Armenian-backed breakaway Republic of Artsakh, or sometimes just from one of thousands of profiles on both sides that were created just as the war kicked into high gear. Worst though most prosaic of all were the frequent recriminations between everyday folks on both sides, who used dueling hashtags to present themselves as victims of the other’s ethnic cleansing campaigns, and to claim that sinister foreign conspiracies lurked behind the others’ actions.

It’s not that they’re wrong about any of that necessarily, or that images of cities under fire and houses of worship being desecrated are fake, but the Armenian-Azeri Twitter dynamic is a grim lesson in what’s left behind when all nuance and empathy seems to disappear.

Ethiopia and Eritrea

The interminable Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict was always one of Twitter’s bitterest fault lines, with two large and globe-spanning diaspora communities pleading their sides’ respective cases. But these days the online antagonism centering on this part of the world isn’t between countries so much as within them. Isaias Afwerki’s thoroughgoing internal oppression has made refugees out of over a half-million Eritreans, which is remarkable for a place that isn’t an active conflict zone. Opponents and apologists abound.

Next door, a regime-imposed media and communications blackout in the war-torn Tigray region ensures that rumors emanating from various backers and enemies of the central government are nearly all the outside world has to go on. Claims of a Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front seizure of a major city, or the loss of that same city a week later, or the presence of the Eritrean military in TPLF hotbeds deep inside of Ethiopia can’t really be proved or disproved at the moment, and it is close to an iron law of geopolitical Twitter that that which cannot be disproved will eventually be asserted as true, and then widely believed.

The principle obtains beyond Twitter, too: To take just one example, the exact nature of the military alliance between Eritrea and Ethiopia, who were enemies up until approximately 15 minutes ago, is still remarkably hard to parse a month into the war.

The Persian Gulf

These are geopolitical players with sizable cheering sections in the United States, where the UAE and Qatar have dueling public messaging apparatus. Of course the real fun takes place on Twitter, where you can find hypernationalist royalty-adjacent Emiratis, who have suddenly emerged as some of the world’s great philo-Semites, alongside various Saudis of dubious connection to much of anyone or anything who spend much of the day lauding Mohammed bin Salman as the Arab Thomas Jefferson.

The Qataris tend to be a lot more adult about the whole thing: Their best shills are non-nationals who work in the worldwide archipelago of Doha-funded foundations, media outlets, and scholarly institutions and appear happy to tweet in exchange for food, whether it’s from the snack table at a D.C. think tank event or from that cute Lebanese place next to the Souk Wakif falcon market.

Syria

The deadliest and overall most world-breaking conflict of the 21st century was also one of the first to spread to Twitter. Around 2011, even a casual follower of global affairs started noticing clips from anti-Assad protests flooding the platform. These videos soon gave way to horrifyingly gruesome visuals from barrel bombings, chlorine gas attacks, and other Assadist massacres. Today, the dream of a liberal and democratic Syria barely endures even among the mostly now-exiled former opposition supporters, who have seen their revolution crushed by a collection of the most evil people on earth—namely Assad, Hezbollah, ISIS, and al-Qaida.

On Twitter, as in real life, the Syrian Civil War is a depressing zombie conflict in which much of the meaningful action has passed and the future is both bleak and ambiguous. The surviving anti-regime figures from the earlier and decidedly more optimistic stage of the war are still out there tweeting, in hopes of somehow drawing meaningful attention to a conflict that is soon to enter its second decade; victorious regime supports have meanwhile lost even whatever twisted joie de vivre led them to hack The Onion’s Twitter account back in 2013.

The Syrian Electronic Army hasn’t reared its ugly head for years. Sure there are a handful of wannabe-macho regime shills and freelancing pro-Assad propagandists still floating around the site, but the glory days, if you could call them that, of Partisan Girl and Max Blumenthal are far behind us.

Iran

The mullahs, like the Qataris, enjoy a crucial force multiplier from Westerners and residents of democratic countries who are willing to plead their case, including a very large contingent of Western diplomats and think-tankers who call to mind the pallid extras in a Weimar-period vampire flick.

But irregular units of Renfields eager to celebrate a regime that regularly hangs gay men and women from construction cranes are hardly sufficient for the trench warfare of social media: The Islamic Republic oversaw a network of over 4,000 sock-puppet accounts as recently as 2018. Tehran also has other more respectable shills on the site, like former Iranian Ambassador and nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian, who tweets from the safety of Princeton, New Jersey, where his status as a regime elder statesman has earned him a posting at the local university. On the opposition side, you’ve got your expected stew of royalists, MEK cultists, and wide-eyed liberals, all of whom claim to have some kind of real, actual grasp on what’s going on inside the Islamic Republic.

One shouldn’t dismiss them necessarily. But it’s worth remembering that nearly every major claim about Iran, from the regime’s inevitable moderation to its inevitable collapse, from the pacifying effect of the nuclear deal to the cataclysmic effect of the nuclear deal’s end, and from the supposed disaster of its entry into Syria to its perennial alleged disenchantment with Hezbollah, has ended up being wrong.

India

Only a simple-minded wannabe autocrat coasts on strict media controls, ethno-religious division, or a viselike grip on civil society. Smart ones, like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, do all that stuff while also realizing that mass adulation is the key to the whole package, all the better if the adulation looks like it’s real.

The pro-Modi Twitter brigades give his whole gig an air of plausibility: The prime minister’s BJP party has proven masterful at organizing masses of its supporters on the platform, where the prime minister famously follows thousands of his enthusiasts and enemies. Even a Narendra Modi fan is a center of gravity unto his or her or itself.

Pakistan

The India-Pakistan conflict is the dog that doesn’t bark—and yet actually yes, it does bark pretty constantly, once you stop to think about it, what with last year’s series of border skirmishes and bombing raids. So it’s no surprise to find Pakistani armies deployed opposite India on Twitter, just like in the Himalayas.

Twitter hosts a veritable high command of former Pakistani military brass who issue a reliable stream of nationalist calumny against the enemy to the east, along with hundreds of semi-coordinated accounts that swarm any perceived enemy of Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-populist prime minister. As far as the country to the west goes, Afghan Twitter’s hardcore jihadist and Taliban supporters are gone from the platform, although a few of their alleged collaborators still lurk.

Turkey

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in a kind of globe-spanning twilight struggle with too many opponents to recount here. The most web-savvy of his antagonists are the followers of the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, many of whom have been chased out of Turkey during the ongoing purge. But Erdogan doesn’t call the shots on Twitter, where the Gulenists have a lively presence, led by the lovable and highly articulate NBA second-string big man Enes Kanter.

Interestingly, some of Erdogan’s legions of Twitter fans present as mirror images of the Westernized elites the Turkish president has set up as another one of his domestic political foils, tweeting pictures of themselves drinking beer along the Bosporus in the company of pretty ladies in professional-class leisure wear. Visit Istanbul—as long as you are not Israeli, Armenian, or a Gulenist.

Woke China

The most outward-facing of China’s state propagandists is the foreign ministry spokesperson Lijian Zhao, who tweets in English and recently alleged that the coronavirus originated as a U.S. bioweapon. But this oafish conspiracist is perhaps meant to distract from the armies marching elsewhere on the platform.

Beijing’s more quietly effective Twitter operatives were the astonishing 170,000 Chinese-linked profiles purged from the platform in mid-June, in the midst of a coordinated effort to capitalize on American racial unrest by decrying the United States’ incurable structural prejudices and pledging support for BLM. Even the higher-profile Chinese state-linked accounts were running a tasteless parody of a #FreeHongKong-type Twitter campaign, except focused on cities like Minneapolis.

The Chinese messaging apparatus understands what buttons to push to keep American society divided against itself. It probably understands this as well or even better than most American policy and media elites do.

Tankies

Twitter is an asylum of users with names like PolPotGirlSummer69 followed by a string of Iranian, Chinese, North Korean, Venezuela, Syrian, Cuban, Palestinian, Baathist, or Belorussian flag emojis, as well as a sickle and hammer just to drive the point home.

Some of these people happen to be wickedly funny. Many of them are sad and delusional, and channel their hatred of their own societies, and perhaps a little bit of their hatred of themselves, into bland excurses into Gramsci’s prison letters and adulation for the 21st-century anti-imperialist hero Bashar Assad.

Resist the temptation to see it all as an act, or as a cry for help. Some startling percentage of the world’s most consequential political movements began as something that could easily be mistaken for one or both of those.

Multilateralism

Nearly every right-thinking person on earth supports the idea of greater integration between countries, at the expense of certain aspects of national sovereignty—only a fascist, racist, Neanderthal Brexiteer neocon populist could fail to understand how essential and lifesaving the United Nations Global Forum for Road Traffic Safety is, for example. The evidence and facts point in one direction and one direction only: If the planet Earth is to survive, and not succumb to such products of short-sighted human failures to obey the prime directive as global warming and climate change, racism and ethnic hatreds, exploitation of both the child and the girl-child and assorted other plagues, it is imperative that the performance of world government be taken very seriously indeed, and that its figureheads be treated with the utmost respect. Sure they might be the unelected henchmen of illiberal foreign governments, and work for bodies and mechanisms and agencies and permanent forums that hardly anyone on earth takes all that seriously, but unlike most of the rest of you they only have the human race’s best interests at heart.

And yet online, the multilateralism-industrial complex often gives the distinct impression that it knows how despised it really is. The pro-U.N., pro-EU, and pro-humanosphere Twitter army is one of the least interesting and more generally tiresome groups of people (or bots) on the entire site.

Yes, there have been some entertaining global bureaucrats to flitter across the 280-character firmament in recent years: Who could forget Chris Gunness, the infamously moody and Jew-obsessed United Nations Palestinian refugee agency spokesperson who also performed one-man plays about his job? Still, most of them tweet from a place of Olympian superiority, as if they are nations unto themselves.

The worst and therefore best exemplar of this crew is “Doctor” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the former Ethopian regime apparatchik and public health Ph.D. who was put in charge of the World Health Organization in 2017, partly at China’s behest. This was much to the human race’s misfortune: The WHO botched the detection, messaging, science, and basic response to the coronavirus about as badly as it could have. But Ted’s failure was not without its amusements: There’s his organization’s now-legendary “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China” tweet of Jan. 14, 2020.

At one point, Tedros was reduced to issuing cryptic single-word tweets as the contagion raged.

France

Yes, that’s right, France. The homeland of Montesquieu and the Duc de la Rochefoucauld conquered the art of aphorisms in 280 characters or less centuries before Twitter was invented. The French should therefore rightly sneer at the crude debasement by American technologists of an art form of which they are past masters.

But the real reason France warrants mention in a list such as this one is the robust online defense of Emmanuel Macron by French journalists, who have formed an unusually disciplined and aggressive phalanx to hail the country’s latest Napoleon as the free world’s bulwark against Islamism, fascism, neo-Ottomanism, European disunity, and a host of other modern evils. He may well be all of those things, but his fans are conspicuously eager to get a head start on history’s judgment. The approbators also include former diplomats and think-tankers—in other words, a higher class of shill.

Russia

Y’know, Russia—the world-spanning superpower whose internet partisans are apparently powerful enough to swing an American presidential election. Quiver before the mighty Russian empire, whose global reach and influence is, like, everywhere, magnified a thousand times by its awesome terrifying mastery of digital technology.

The mere invocation of Vladimir Putin’s troll hoard has operated as a sort of magical “get out of having to address or even think about your own society’s dysfunction” card for the world’s respectable classes for the past several years, or at least since November of 2016 (or maybe since June 23 of that year, date of the Brexit referendum). It’s also an easy way not to talk about China—a country whose GDP is more than 11 times the size of Russia’s, and which is now effectively partnered with most large Western corporations and banks.

This is a kind of double myopia: The Russian state-orchestrated social media army is real. But the victims of its serial lies and distortions, spread through troll armies and multilingual media organs, aren’t in Adams Morgan or the Upper East Side. They’re in Donetsk, Aleppo, and Moscow.

Israel

Did you think I was going to leave them out? The Jewish state has a systematized and professional messaging operation, known to its friends and foes alike as hasbara, that often does a better job of amplifying its enemies’ agenda than Hamas or the BDS movement ever could. Whatever it is that Israelis are good at—and there are many good answers here, from winning Nobel Prizes, starting companies like Waze, and excelling at windsurfing and judo—hasbara isn’t on the list.

Israel’s official government accounts are reliable purveyors of cringe, in particular the IDF’s now-legendary Twitter profile, which has posted both Friends parody videos and the coordinates of a Hezbollah weapons cache in southern Beirut. The hasbaraists usually aren’t a whole lot better.

And yet who, in the vast Jewish world, doesn’t look at @Israel’s disorienting mix of Jewish historical tragedy, Israeli tourism and/or food porn, and weird over-earnestness and see just a little bit of themselves in there?

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.