The Current

Could a tweet start a war? How smartphones and social media are creating new battlegrounds

Author David Patrikarakos dissects the weaponization of social media in the age of modern war.
Smartphones are allowing the creation of a new battleground — right in your pocket, argues one author. (Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images)

In war, there's a powerful new weapon of choice: social media.

In fact, as author David Patrikarakos argues in his new book War in 140 Characters, it's not outside the realms of possibility that a tweet could start a war.

Patrikarakos looks at how digital platforms are creating a modern battlefield in people's everyday lives by feeding propaganda through the smartphones that live in their pockets.

According to author David Patrikarakos, anyone with a smartphone can be a citizen warrior having an impact on the battlefield. (© Lambros Papanikolatos)

"Take the Soviet Union for example. How would the Soviet Union, at the height of its Cold War, get its propaganda into American and Canadian houses?" he asked. "I mean it was very difficult."

"Now, you log onto Twitter, you can't escape Russian propaganda."

The platform is inherently structured to dissuade nuanced and thoughtful communication, he said. U.S. President Donald Trump "uses it malignantly, but expertly," Patrikarakos argues — and he's not the only one.

"Twitter is designed for someone to literally tweet something outrageous: 'All Mexicans are rapists,' and that will go viral," he said.

"Whereas the truth is, 'Well, immigration has its ups and downs, and we can look at this and look at that,' but nobody wants to hear that."

The president's recent tweets about North Korea are a case in point, which Patrikarakos said made him feel both "incredulous" and "utterly unsurprised."

"Donald Trump knows that he can tweet something outrageous and it will dominate the news cycle for 24 hours," said Patrikarakos, describing it as a way to both attract and deflect attention.

Could a tweet start a war?

Patrikarakos said that it's theoretically possible that a tweet could start a war — and pointed to a recent potential international incident as a parallel.

"I think it was last year the Pakistani Ministry of Defence threatened Israel with a nuclear war, in response to a fake article," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

He said that if, for example, Israel was hacked and a declaration of war posted online, they would move fast to correct it.

But these days information spreads so quickly that it can escalate very quickly.

"If Israel is hacked saying, 'We are now entering Gaza, we are sending in soldiers to Gaza,' and Hamas immediately starts firing rockets, and then Israel is forced to respond," he said.

"So it's entirely possible. And this is what makes what Trump does so dangerous and irresponsible."

An end to truth

Patrikarakos said that the modern objective in propaganda is not to make a lie look true, but to destabilise the very idea of objective truth.

Russia, he believes, is interested "in throwing so much fake news at you, so many lies, that you cannot in the end discern the truth when you see it."

This, he argues, is the similarity between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"The goal is the same in each case, which is not to lie or twist the truth like the politicians of old, but to subvert the idea, the very notion that an objective truth exists at all.

"So you go from Bill Clinton saying: 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman' — a lie — to Donald Trump, or rather his spokesman, who comes out and says: 'My inauguration crowds were bigger than Obama's,' when you can see that they weren't.

"When they are called out on it, what did they say? We're just offering your alternative facts. No objective truth. That's the great danger."

Power in your pocket

There is a flipside— with smartphones, the truth can be documented. 

"Now it would be impossible to deny the Ukraine famine during the '30s, when Stalin starved Ukraine and Walter Duranty from the New York Times famously won a Pulitzer Prize for saying there's no famine.... the Russians couldn't do that now," he explained.

Patrikarakos defines this new individual power that comes with smartphones as homo digitalis, or "the hyper-empowered networked individual."

"This is the great shift of our age. People say, 'Oh, power is shifting from West to East.' Well, that's debatable," Patrikarakos said.

"What is not debatable is the power is shifting from hierarchies ... to citizens and networks of citizens."

Listen to the full audio near the top of this page. You can share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.