Tweet fast and kill things: digital war

Abstract

Digital technologies have disrupted most sectors of human life and activity, and war and conflict are no exceptions. Beyond military systems, the entire battlefield is transformed, with multi-media smartphones, messaging apps, and social media platforms especially creating a global, participative arena, in which the distinctions of combatant, civilian, and informational warrior implode. In an overview of recent developments of digital war, we argue that neoliberal economic ‘creative destruction’ is now destructive creation, as digital technologies have created new possibilities of destructive activity. Facebook’s early mantra of ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ can now be read as ‘tweet fast and kill things’. We have moved from the 1990s US military hopes of ‘full spectrum dominance’ of all battlefield information to the new military reality of full spectrum access. This is an emergent ‘military-social media complex’ in which the most popular US-made apps and platforms serve as a global informational warfare proxy, where empowered ‘citizen militia’ keyboard warriors take on and take down governments and media propaganda units. As computer processing has eaten mass media, it is time to reveal war in its full ecology, as made through an epochal, structural revolution in communication.

‘WWIII Announced…’

Just after 1 am local time on 3 January 2020, only minutes after his arrival at Baghdad airport, a US Reaper drone-strike killed Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force and one of the most powerful and important figures in Iran. The strike was built on a global, networked ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) system that combined HUMINT (spies at the airport), SIGINT (tracking Soleimani, including homing in on the cell phones in the car in real time to confirm their identities) and years of satellite mapping and terrain information available to the drone operator, the whole being run from US Central Command in Qatar, with camera feeds to the CIA, the White House, the President, and various military locations around the globe (Dilanian and Kube 2020).

US–Iranian hostility had simmered since 8 May 2019, when President Trump announced the US’s withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. Squeezed by the US’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign of sanctions, the following months saw Iran respond with attacks on and detentions of oil shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and the shooting down of a US RQ-4A Global Hawk surveillance drone on 20 June for violating Iranian airspace. The conflict was happening as much on Twitter as on the ground. Having called off retaliatory airstrikes for the drone loss, Trump felt compelled at least to brag of how US planes had been ‘cocked and loaded’ to go before his humanitarian decision to spare Iranian lives (Wintour and Borger 2019). The lack of military response, however, was noted by the Iranian leadership. By the end of the year, facing significant protests at home against the economic impact of the sanctions and the religious leadership, and protests in Iraq against Iraqi government corruption and Iranian influence, the Iranian military leadership hatched a plan. In a meeting, Soleimani decided that if they could provoke the USA into a military attack, they could turn both domestic and Iraqi anti-Iranianism into anti-Americanism, unifying both peoples and forcing the withdrawal of US forces from the region (Reuters 2020a).

Hence, attacks by pro-Iranian militias on US Iraqi bases were stepped up, with a rocket attack by Kata’ib Hezbollah on 27 December succeeding in killing a US contractor. Soleimani’s plan worked. The USA responded with airstrikes against the group on 29, killing 25 and wounding over 50, leading to organised Iraqi mobs attacking the US embassy in Baghdad on 31. The symbolic humiliation of the burning buildings and defaced property stung Trump who took to Twitter to declare, ‘….Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!’ On 1 January 2020, Iran’s Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, trolled Trump on the same platform, tweeting, ‘You can’t do anything’ (Khamenei 2020). The drone-strike response came two days later. Boom! Mic drop.

Soleimani hadn’t simply brought it on himself in that October meeting, he’d taunted Trump online for several years. Responding to a Trump tweet in a speech on 26 July 2018, Soleimani denounced Trump as a ‘gambler’ who spoke like ‘a bar-tender or casino-manager’, adding ‘Come, we are waiting for you’ (Dorn 2020). Two days later, Soleimani joined Instagram, with one of his first posts an Olympus Has Fallen spoof photograph of himself in front of an exploding White House. He followed that on the 30th with another post of himself that quoted his own speech under the headline, ‘Mr. Trump! The gambler! Don’t threaten our lives!’ (Memri 2018). On 3 November 2018, Soleimani responded to a Trump tweet playing on A Game of Thrones’ tagline saying ‘Sanctions are coming’, by posting an Instagram image of himself with the message ‘I will stand against you’ in the same show’s characteristic font. The online pop-cultural troll war would have continued had Instagram not suspended Soleimani’s account in April 2019 (Johnson 2020), but the abuse obviously rankled Trump who’d later justify Soleimani’s killing on the basis that he was ‘saying bad things about our country’ (Pengelly 2020).

Immediately after the Soleimani drone-strike, the hashtags #WWIII and #FranzFerdinand began trending on twitter and social media exploded with memes about the coming war (Bogart 2020). BBC TV’s Have I Got News For You 3 January 2020 tweet was widely shared, expressing a common sentiment:

Jan 1st: New decade going fairly well, all things considered.

Jan 2nd: Australia appears to be on fire.

Jan 3rd: World War III announced.

With both genuine and organised mourning for Soleimani whipping up anti-American fury in Iraq and Iran, the fears seemed real, but Iran’s retaliation proved carefully modulated, with precise rocket attacks early in the morning of 8 January on two USA–Iraq bases avoiding fatalities. ‘All is well!’, Trump immediately tweeted, happy with the lack of casualties (Helsel 2020); but here again, this was just more ‘fake news’ to add to the global disinformation around any event. As information about brain injuries mounted, Trump downplayed the problem as ‘headaches’. By 30 January, the USA admitted that 64 troops had suffered ‘traumatic brain injury’ (Baron 2020). Iranians were jubilant at the response and the apparent damage, with Iranian state television spreading its own disinformation, claiming over 80 US troops killed and around 200 wounded (Staff 2020). Iran’s pride had been restored, or so it seemed.

But a catastrophic event, caught up in the new military reality of full spectrum access, soon upended this state of affairs. This was the loss of all 176 people on board Ukrainian International Airlines flight PS752 which crashed soon after take-off from Tehran airport just after 6 am local time, a few hours after the missile strikes. For several days, the Iranian leadership blamed ‘technical difficulties’ and began a process of debris clean-up that attracted international concern. What first undermined their claim, however, was user-generated content from their own citizens, with mobile phone videos quickly emerging showing the plane as a small ball of fire coming down in an explosion and small balls of light streaking up and striking the plane (Beaumont et al. 2020). Everything suggested the plane was shot down, and by the 9th US officials announced they had spy-satellite evidence that IRGC anti-aircraft missiles had downed the plane by accident. Iran vehemently denied this, with the head of their Civil Aviation Organization Ali Abedzadeh claiming, ‘Scientifically, it is impossible that a missile hit the Ukrainian plane, and such rumours are illogical’ and government spokesman Ali Rabiei angrily asserting, ‘All these reports are a psychological warfare against Iran’ (Reuters 2020b).

The USA was reluctant to release their evidence, but they didn’t have to. More Iranian citizen videos and the full might of Open Source Intelligence Techniques (OSINT) began to undermine their position, with Bellingcat and the New York Times especially working on publicly available evidence to establish the facts. Like a crowd-sourced project, people sent videos and links to Bellingcat who analysed embedded video metadata, including EXIF data with precise latitude and longitude coordinates. They also tried to geolocate footage, mapping buildings, signs, and roads onto satellite imagery and using Google Street View to precisely match landmarks and locate the position and direction of the video. Audio and visual cues also helped, linked with Open Source Flight Trackers to establish that the plane in the video was definitely PS752. Analysis of the missiles in the videos and of videos and photographs of the crash-scene built on this, with research going so far as to acquire and consult the technical manual of the Tor M-1 missile, claimed to have been used to determine its fragmentation pattern so that it could be compared with the damage seen in crash-site imagery (Stokel-Walker 2020).

Iran’s belated admission on 11 January that they had shot down the plane arguably owed more to this investigatory pressure than western government denunciations. The accumulating evidence, much provided by their own citizens, was becoming too difficult to deny. The admission proved to be a key turning point, as the anti-Americanism rapidly reversed itself back against the Iranian government, leading to renewed demonstrations at the deaths, the incompetence, and the lies. Meanwhile, the conflict returned again to the Internet, with international diplomacy continuing to play out over Twitter. On 17 January, Khamenei and Trump played the digital ‘dozens’ again, burning each other with their tweets: ‘Instead of leading Iran towards ruin, its leaders should abandon terror and Make Iran Great Again!’, Trump sniped at the Supreme Leader (Griffith 2020b).

This is conflict today. Smartphone-equipped leaders bypass traditional modes of communication and diplomacy to announce their policies (and every passing thought) directly onto Twitter, globally trading personal insults and threats; top-level generals weaponize social media to spread snark; the public of every country joins in with their own bottom-up memetic and informational warfare; hashtag wars, disinformation and trolling by states, non-state actors, and keyboard warriors proliferate, confusing political debate and blurring knowledge; global, digital, military panopticon, and command systems mobilise unmanned weapons to assassinate enemies with pinpoint precision; government denials are undone within days by their own citizen’s videos taken and spread across messaging apps and investigated by a global army of OS investigators, and, beneath it all, there are the ongoing cyberoperations almost certainly launched by the USA and Iran against each other. Reports of US cyberattacks on 20 June (the day Trump backed down on airstrikes) targeting the computer systems and databases Iran was using to attack Gulf oil shipping and Iranian missile systems demonstrate CNE capabilities are in play (Ibbetson 2019b; BBC 2019c), and there are also claims of Iranian attacks and a possible response after the Soleimani strike (Tucker 2019a; Griffith 2020a). Given, however, the recent revelation of Russia’s ‘Turla’ group hacking Iranian hackers to masquerade as Iranians in attacks on over 35 countries (Warrell and Fox 2019), we could honestly ask who knows who’s involved?

Destructive Creation

Digital technologies have proven highly disruptive. As Lev Manovich argues, the meeting and merger of computing technologies with mass media at the end of the twentieth century gave rise to contemporary ‘new’ digital media (Manovich 2001). Except this merger was closer to a ‘digitalphagy’ (Merrin 2014, 34), as computer processing eat mass media, as a meta-medium absorbing all previously separate forms as mere types of digital content, allowing it to be more easily produced, distributed, shared, taken, reworked, remixed, and added to and critiqued. As the technologies spread, the result was an epochal, structural revolution in communication (Merrin 2014).

Within a few decades, the entire broadcast model of mass media that had become dominant in the centuries after Gutenberg’s creation of the printing press was blown apart. The centuries-old division between a minority of creators and the mass of receivers was replaced by a new, dynamic world of empowered individual producers and their p2p, anyone-to-anyone, anything-to-anything, communicational, and technological relationships. The result has been an ongoing churn-up of business models, of news and information, of how we know, what we know, what we’re interested in, and what we want to spend our time doing. Ongoing developments such as the rise of broadband, domestic and public Wi-fi, increasing digital interconnectivity and operability, and increasingly smart and capable, multi-media phones and devices and the Web 2.0 ‘architectures of participation’ that support and promote their use have remade the entire global media ecology. This disruption has also been deliberately produced. Today’s dominant technology companies are heirs to ‘the Californian ideology’, a vision combining countercultural ideals of personal development and self-realisation with a Randian individualism, Neoliberal anti-regulatory libertarianism, and a love of Schumpeterian ‘creative destruction’ (Turner 2006; Barbrook 2007). Facebook’s early mantra ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ was later revealed to be an all-too-honest expression of the company’s philosophy and business model (Taplin 2018).

Today it’s hard to find any sector of human life and activity that hasn’t been disrupted by digital technology, and war and conflict are no exceptions. Neoliberal economic ‘creative destruction’ becomes here destructive creation, as digital technologies have created new possibilities of destructive activity. Digital technologies have fundamentally changed how wars are fought, who fights them, how they’re fought, where they’re fought, how we know about them, how we spread information about them and even what war itself is, and they have done so continuously, in an ongoing transformation of a scale and scope that is difficult to track and comprehend: For ‘move fast and break things’, read ‘tweet fast and kill things’.

Importantly, the shock of Soleimani’s death was primarily a shock at who was hit, not at how it was done. As the Drone Wars UK report In The Frame, published on 19 January 2020, argues, this culture of targeted drone killing has become ‘normalised’ today (Sabbagh 2020). The US drone programme in Afghanistan, for example, continues, along with its similarly normalised civilian casualties (Reuters 2019a), whilst other nations such as Iran and Turkey have built up their own drone fleets, deploying them, for example, in Syria. Iran is also widely seen as responsible for one of the most important recent drone attacks, the attack on Saudi oil facilities on 14 September 2019 that disrupted global supplies (BBC 2019a). China has also emerged as a key source of drone development—as seen in their unveiling of the new Wuzhen-8 supersonic UAV in September 2019 (You 2019)—and of proliferation, as they seek to sell their models abroad.

Meanwhile, in January 2020, NATO took delivery of their first NATO-owned and operated drones, US Global Hawks, able to monitor a territory the size of Poland (BBC 2019b), whilst the UK Navy began tests on a MAST-13 unmanned sea vehicle (USV) fleet in September 2019 (Lloyd 2019b) and the RAF unveiled their new Protector drone in August (Brown 2019). In July 2019, the USA announced the deployment of the first pocket-sized surveillance drones in Afghanistan, the ‘Black Hornet Personal Reconnaissance Systems’ (Bell 2020), whilst the month before it announced a new BAE contract to build four 50-ton, armed ‘Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle’ Orcas (Ardehali 2019). Key, ongoing developments in drones revolve around their increasing autonomy and in ‘swarm robotics’ research. DARPA is working on Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFSET) which envisions humans using virtual reality to control micro-drone formations and have tested their Collaborative Operations in Denied Environments (CODE) human-controlled drone swarms. Meanwhile, Chinese drone developers Zhuhai Ziyan claim to have developed autonomously operating heli-drone swarms that can attack and overwhelm enemy forces (Peck 2019a).

Developments in robotics are slower but are serious enough to warrant increasingly regular warnings from AI experts and campaign groups (Guarav 2020; Wareham 2020). In September 2019, for example, a Google software engineer who resigned at being asked to work on drone technology warned that a new generation of autonomous weapons or ‘killer robots’ could accidentally start a war or cause ‘mass atrocities’ (McDonald 2019). The technologies themselves are progressing and increasingly being deployed. In October 2019, the US Army showed off their new Textron Systems’ Ripsaw M5 ‘robotic combat vehicle’ (Randall 2019b), whilst in September, Boston Dynamics announced a new leasing scheme for their ‘Spot’ dog robot which, by December, was undergoing tests with the Massachusetts State Police Department (Jackson 2019).

Beyond robotics, many are warning of the broader dangers of military AI, especially as the USA appears to be in an ‘AI arms-race’ with China, with the Defense Department requesting a tripling of its 2020 AI research budget to $268 m to fight the threat (Ashizuka 2019). AI is increasingly being used in military technology, from facial-recognition goggles (Tucker 2019b), increasingly autonomous missiles such as Israel’s Spice 250 (Frantzman and Atherton 2019) and target identification, as in the now-famous Pentagon/Google Project Maven. More generally, the spread of AI raises the interesting point that what we may need to fear in the future isn’t, as many campaign groups suggest, ‘killer robots’, but AI commanders, as their identificatory and decision-making capabilities increase. Highly complex, multi-asset battlefield forces moving at digital speeds will, in all likelihood, leave human capacities behind, leaving AI-based systems as the primary commanders (Merrin 2018, 285). AI and robotics, of course, won’t just work on their own, but they’ll be integrated into more complex military systems and forces. In December 2019, it was reported that computer-simulated battles at the Fort Benning’s Maneuver Battle Lab demonstrated that troops reinforced with ground robots and drones repeatedly routed defending forces three times their size without losing a single human soldier, with their addition giving ‘a 10–fold increase in combat power’ (Freedberg 2019).

AI is also seen as central to developments in soldier augmentation and ‘wearable’ technologies. DARPA’s new ‘Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology’ (N3) program is exploring how AI could help ‘next generation neurotechnology’. Research areas include the use of brain–computer interfaces (BCI) to enable soldiers to control, feel, and interact with remote machines as if they were part of their own body (Corrigan 2019), systems to help machines read and understand human thoughts (Tucker 2019c), BCI computer strips attached to the neck to control future vehicles (Tucker 2019d), robotic arms controllable by EEG caps (Blanchard 2019), and the Magnetic, Optical and Acoustic Neural Access (MOANA) ‘mind-reading’ helmet to control robots and drones (Randall 2019a). Research into exo-skeletons continues too. Though the US Army has scrapped its TALOS suit programme (Tucker 2019e), individual technologies within it will still be used, whilst in January 2020, Delta and Sarcos robotics demonstrated a functioning exo-skeleton, the Guardian XO for 2020 production, proving the concept has a future (Pero 2020).

The US military’s growing interest in augmentation systems was also seen in Special Operations Command’s (SOCOM) May 2019 announcement of their ‘Hyper-Enabled Operator’ (HEO) concept and subsequent research stemming from it seeking to combine sensors and AI to give elite troops superhuman capacities (Tucker 2019f). The ‘smart’ revolution is also transforming weapons. Guns and bullets are getting increasingly networked, but any item of military hardware could potentially be upgraded, as seen in January 2020 in the US military’s interest in using wirelessly networked, ‘smart’ landmines (Tucker 2020a).

Other recent US military developments include the October 2019 announcement of the upgrading of specific bases for 5G broadband technology to improve connectivity and the range of operations supported by the bases, including smart warehousing and AR/VR training systems (Adamczyk 2019). The same month saw the Pentagon awarding a $10b cloud-computing Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract to Microsoft to upgrade the DoD, whilst Summer 2019 saw the USAF starting work on data architecture for its planned Advanced Battle Management System, the family of platforms that will eventually replace the E-8C JSTARS surveillance planes, a project aiming to increase weapon lethality and networking (Weisgerber 2019).

And all the time cyberoperations and computer network exploitation carry on as the ambient background of international relations. Here, things can get strange, as in recent claims of the Saudi crown prince hacking Jeff Bezos’ phone with WhatsApp spyware messages (Kirchgaessner 2020), the exposure of the Russian ‘Turla’ group’s simulation of Iranian hackers (Warrell and Fox 2019) and Twitter’s recent admission that hackers with possible ‘ties to state-sponsored actors’ in Malaysia, Iran, and Israel stole millions of mobile phone numbers linked to user accounts (Pinkstone 2020).

Other developments have been easier to follow, such as the UK’s January 2020 announcement of a new MOD/GCHQ National Cyber Force (NCF) dedicated to solely offensive cyberoperations against other countries (Sengupta 2020). But things move fast in the realm of cyber. Recent months have seen an array of stories including a ransomware attack on a US base (BBC), Microsoft seizing North-Korean websites used for cyberattacks (Morrison 2019), Israeli spyware being discovered on Pakistani government official’s phones (Kirchgaessner 2019), New Orleans declaring a state of emergency following the discovery of suspicious activity over the city’s networks (Winder 2019), possible Chinese spying attacks on Iran (BBC 2019d), DDOS attacks on the UK Labour Party during the November election (Walker and Hern 2019), Iranians hacking India’s space programme (Stickings 2019), a cyberattack on India’s largest nuclear power plant at Kudankulam (Stickings 2019), and Chinese online and cyberoperations against Uighurs, Hong Kong protestors, and even UK mobile phone users (Hern 2019; Paul 2019b; Young 2019).

One response to these threats has been to move towards protected, Chinese-style ‘sovereign’ networks, with local storage and control of data. Russia’s own ‘sovereign internet’ law came into force in November 2019, and in December, the government successfully tested their new cyber-defensive strategy of being able to cut off their own network from the Internet, to thwart what they see as increasing US penetration and any future full-scale cyber-war (BBC 2019e). Global intrusions are now so frequent, however, so as to call the very concept of ‘cyberattacks’ and even ‘war’ itself into question. For example, the UK Chief of Defence Staff General Nick Carter warned in a speech in September 2019, daily state cyberattacks and online influence operations are confusing traditional military categories:

The changing character of warfare has exposed the distinctions that don’t exist any longer between peace and war. I feel I am now at war, but it’s not a war in the way we would have defined it in the past. And that is because great power competition and the battle of ideas with non-state actors is threatening us on a daily basis.

(Peck 2019b)

For Carter, the old domains of land sea and air will be extended and perhaps even replaced by the new domains of ‘cyber’ and space.

Space, especially, has emerged as a new military focus. In December 2019, President Trump officially launched the US ‘Space Force’, declaring, ‘Space is the world’s new war-fighting domain’ (Associated Press 2019). The primary aim of the force is to defend US interests in space, especially satellites used for navigation and communication, and this new intent was immediately seen in the January 2020 US government decision to restrict the sales of AI-based software that another nation could use to analyse satellite imagery (Tucker 2020b). In September 2019, it was reported that the NSA was using AI to analyse satellites to detect anomalous readings that might indicate penetration or enemy control (Tucker 2019g), whilst earlier in the year, the Defense Department had indicated it was working on satellites that could dodge missiles or employ their own space-based weapons (Tucker 2019h).

Other nations are also interested in space, including France who, in July 2019, announced their plans for a new arsenal of laser-armed satellites, with protective patrolling nano-satellites by 2023 (Lloyd 2019a), and India who, in March 2019, conducted a successful test to shoot a satellite down with a missile (AFP). The USA, Russia, and China have all carried out similar tests, with each seeing control of space as a future priority. This battle is almost certainly already happening, as seen in late January 2020 when the Russian satellite, Cosmos 2542, synchronised its orbit with USA 245, a US satellite deployed for military and intelligence applications in order to stalk it (Chadwick 2020). The increasing ubiquity of satellites and ‘GEOINT’ has also forced the USA and others to look for counter-measures and deceptions against space-based surveillance (Koller 2019).

Beyond military systems, digital technology has transformed the entire battlefield, with multi-media smartphones, messaging apps, and social media platforms especially creating a global, participative battlefield, where the distinctions of combatant, civilian, and informational warrior implode. Today information pours onto, from, about and around the battlefield. We have moved from the 1990s US military hopes of ‘full spectrum dominance’ of all battlefield information to the new military reality of full spectrum access—a mode of ‘participative war’ where everyone can experience and take part in conflict, from governments and militaries to organised non-state actors, to civilians on the battlefield and the entire, interested, engaged global public. Whatever our age, experience, or expertise, we can all fight our own hegemonic battles in a fractal, digital infowar aimed at exposing a particular situation or promoting preferred political interpretations. The military ‘information warfare’ systematically theorised through the 1990s has been completely democratized to anyone with a phone. That is, to anyone.

‘Social media’ in the broadest sense, therefore, has become central to wars and conflicts, imploding with the event, to simultaneously capture it, promote it, denounce it, deny it, spread images, videos, bloopers, memes, jokes, graphics, gifs, and comments, help organise it, raise funds, raise awareness, accrue new recruits, direct combat operations, spread disinformation and propaganda, and rally aid and help for its victims. Since the Abu Ghraib torture was revealed in 2004, digital cameras have regularly exposed the abuse of power in conflict zones, and this was seen again in November 2019 in the leaked checkpoint footage of Israeli police shooting a Palestinian in the back ‘for fun’ (Cole 2019). The Syrian civil war is a major source of this footage, with groups like the Syrian Archive continuing to collect videos from the battlefield, verifying their contents using Open Source tools and curating them for possible future war-crimes trials and to aid post-conflict reconstruction (Syrian Archive 2020). The issue of potential war-crimes, for example, made the news in October 2019 when mobile phone footage emerged of Turkish-backed Arab forces torturing captives and mutilating dead bodies, following a new Turkish offensive against the Kurds (Chulov 2019; BBC 2019f). Similarly, in May 2019, a BBC Arabic investigation found potential war-crimes footage from the Libyan conflict being shared on Facebook and Twitter (BBC 2019g).

Despite being pushed out of their territory in Syria and northern Iraq and the disruption of their media production units, Islamic State have retained a social media presence. Through 2019, for example, the IS-linked Ash Shaff media foundation released mocked-up posters threatening attacks on New York and London’s Big Ben and Westminster Palace (Aldersley 2019; Elsom 2019). In December 2019, the EU’s Internet Referral Unit (IRU) launched a major offensive against IS’s Telegram operations and supporter groups, ‘resulting in a comprehensive decimation of many of the Islamic State’s most important online networks’ (Winter and Amarasingam 2019). IS have rebuilt their networks before, however, and they have proven adept at moving onto the latest apps and platforms—there were already reports in October 2019, for example, of their discovery and use of TikTok to spread their videos (BBC 2019h). IS-affiliates also remain active, as seen in the January 2020 release of a video by Amaq News Agency showing a young child from the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) executing a Nigerian Christian in Borno (Tanno 2020). Meanwhile, the IRU aren’t the only ones targeting IS online. In August 2019, Al Qaeda’s media wing, Hidayah Media Production, released an IS blooper video reel showing young fighters in Yemen fluffing their lines from 2017 with the aim of discrediting the group (Ibbetson 2019a).

Social media apps and platforms continue to be central to conflict today. In December 2019, the US Navy banned the short-video app TikTok from government-issued mobile devices, claiming the Chinese-owned app represented a cyber-security threat (Reuters 2019b). The scale and scope of the Russian online, social media disinformation/information warfare campaign in the 2016 US presidential election took years to be understood, and, like cyber-war operations, we can assume it has continued since as an ongoing background ‘noise’, promoting particular stories and agendas and working against others. Though Facebook, Google, and Twitter have implemented protective measures and continue to remove suspect accounts, many are warning about probable attempts to undermine the 2020 election. The tactics and platforms employed, however, keep evolving. In particular, we are seeing more domestically organised and spread disinformation, the use of ‘organic’ posts from seemingly genuine users rather than paid-for posts and ads, the spread of commercial companies who can be hired to promote or suppress certain messages or actions, the threat of manipulated video (‘deepfakes’), and a range of new platforms being exploited, suggesting the problem has intensified since 2016 (Levine et al. 2019). In October 2019, it was reported that Iran had already started its 2020 operation by targeting a US 2020 presidential campaign (Reuters 2019c).

The problem has also now globalised. The UN declared Facebook had a ‘determining role’ in spreading genocidal hate speech in Myanmar against the Rohingya in 2018 (BBC News 2018), and in January 2020, Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC) warned that fake and false information posed a threat to the 2020 general election, claiming ‘hate speech and fabrication can negatively affect the five norms of the poll’ (Lwin 2020). Online disinformation is now a widely recognised domestic and international policy, and recent months have seen: Twitter suspend 88,000 accounts linked to a Saudi disinformation campaign (Agence France-Presse 2019a); YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter discovering Chinese anti-Hong Kong protests disinformation campaigns (Conger 2019; Agence France-Presse 2019a; Paul 2019b); Facebook removing 304 fake accounts, with 1.4 m followers, linked to a Saudi disinformation campaign (Martin 2019); Twitter removing 4800 accounts with links to the Iranian government (Paul 2019a); and Facebook removing thousands of fake accounts and Instagram pages linked to Iran and Russia (AFP and Palmer 2019). Clearly, many nations have learnt about the possibilities offered by online manipulation, with new global social media infowar influencers such as Iran emerging (Tucker 2020c).

But this discussion of states misses everything else that’s going on. Because digital media empower everybody, everybody now gets involved. Determining the origins and motivations of actors is becoming impossible as anyone with an opinion, a patriotic or political conviction, or just a grudge can now let fly their likes and comments and gifs and memes and burns whilst picking the kids up from school or doing the shopping. Today the most popular US-made apps and platforms serve as a global informational warfare proxy: a new ‘military-social media complex’, where empowered ‘citizen militia’ keyboard warriors take on and take down governments and media propaganda units. It happened in Iran with Ukrainian International Airlines flight PS752. But it’s happening everywhere, all the time, with war and conflict now globally dissolved throughout everyday life. 1960s media theorist Marshall McLuhan saw this coming: after WWI’s railway war, World War II’s radio war, and Vietnam’s TV war, he suggested, ‘World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation’ (McLuhan 1970, 66). Our recent announcement, it seems, came too late. As McLuhan suggests, World War III has been happening for years.

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Merrin, W., Hoskins, A. Tweet fast and kill things: digital war. Digi War 1, 184–193 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s42984-020-00002-1

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Keywords

  • Military-social media complex
  • Destructive creation
  • Participative war
  • Keyboard warrior
  • Ambient international relations