Hashtag Wars

by Charles C. W. Cooke
On the social-media battlefield, Islamist terrorists may be shooting themselves in the foot.

The Obama administration’s peculiar penchant for virtual responses to actual threats has yielded acute mockery of late, coupled with the suspicion that, beneath the White House’s defensive bluster and smart graphic design, there is much less to our 44th president than we are supposed to believe. The United States has a number of effective means by which it can deal with outfits such as Boko Haram, but one suspects that none of them involve photographs and social-media savvy. As a rule, the sort of people who are capable of abducting hundreds of teenage girls and threatening either to murder them or to sell them into slavery are unlikely to be moved by photographs of the first lady’s looking glum, nor will entreaties from the slacktivists of Brooklyn to “Bring Home Our Girls” provoke a change of heart. This rule goes for nation-states, too. At the risk of sounding cynical, I would venture that if the State Department’s tweeted promises to “stand with Ukraine” have had any effect at all on Vladimir Putin’s metastasizing territorial ambitions, it has been to have encouraged them.

Nevertheless, the instinct has not grown up entirely inside a vacuum. In the last few years, the Internet has become a battleground of sorts — a ubiquitous front on which both America’s friends and enemies seek to engage her. A century ago, those waiting at home for news from the trenches were almost wholly reliant for their information upon the acquiescence of their governments. Indeed, even when they were not directly censored, newspapers, letters, and firsthand accounts were slow-moving and selective — and they competed for narrative attention and sentimental sympathy with the relentless propaganda that both public and private actors were delivering. Now, we not only watch wars in real time, but we react to them immediately, too. Ham-fisted and naïve as the White House’s offerings have been, the inclination is not an inherently risible one. Hashtags cannot serve as a replacement for policy. But they can complement it. And in this, governments have a role to play.

There are no curators in modern warfare, only people and timing. Today, information is not only fast, but it is uncontrollably diffuse — which combination presents combatants with a genuine problem: How do they ensure that their version of events becomes the accepted one? Myths, the old saw has it, are made within the first 24 hours, and everything else is rebuttal. The Israelis understand this better than most. Each day, the Israel Defense Forces’ official Twitter account, @IDFSpokesperson, puts out a combination of more traditional narratives (“Every rocket fired by Hamas is meant to kill Israeli civilians. Every rocket is a war crime” or “Once again, Hamas has violated a cease-fire. We cease. They fire.”), and data that seeks to counter its opponents’ tales. One recent tweet explains that “Over 70% of Israeli civilians are living within range of Hamas’ rocket arsenal,” and features a key showing the four types of rockets that Hamas possesses and a map illustrating the areas of the country that can be hit. Others report losses, feature videos of the Israeli military taking out targets, and even depict pilots declining to strike enemy facilities when they learn that there are children present. A particularly arresting offering shows a photograph of rockets streaking over the British Parliament and the words, “What Would You Do?”

As its blue checkmark makes clear, @IDFSpokesperson is a government-run account. Most involved in the online battle, however, carry no official documentation. Across the Internet, we are seeing the rise of volunteer armies — of keyboard warriors possessed of the genuine belief that they can change the tide of public opinion from their bedrooms. The game is a remarkably effective one. In July, Yahoo News reported that while Hamas’s designation as a terrorist organization has made life difficult for it on American-owned social-media services, volunteers are more than making up for its lack of official representation. “#Gazaunderattack had been used in 622,000 tweets in a week and a half,” Yahoo reported July 17, “with 36,200 tweets for #IsraelUnderFire.” In response, the New York Times has noted, 400 Israeli college students have teamed up to bolster the latter hashtag, pushing up its use and ensuring that all its opponents’ claims are met with rebuttals. This team is currently posting “comments, memes, video clips, images and explanatory graphics on Facebook and Twitter from dozens of computers in a ‘Hasbara war room’ at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.”

For both Israel and Hamas, such sustained and coordinated participation has scored major propaganda coups. For others, though, there are some serious downsides to the game. Whatever Americans may believe their country’s responsibilities in the Middle East to be, they cannot plead ignorance as to the scale of the present disaster in Iraq. On the contrary: Since the word “ISIS” first entered the American lexicon, the group’s nature has been readily apparent. On Twitter, supporters and participants have resorted to the usual Islamist bluster — to the taunting pictures of September 11; to snaps of dead American soldiers; to the quixotic promises of world domination — but they have also taken to documenting in irrefutable detail precisely what the presence of their coveted Mesopotamian neo-caliphate would mean for those who meet with its architects’ disapproval. To cruise the various hashtags that ISIS and its advocates frequent is to be appalled. There, in photograph after photograph and video after video, men, women, and children are herded into ditches and shot dead. Decapitated and impaled heads are ten a penny. One especially harrowing video shows a man screaming as his head is slowly severed. If the intention is to scare potential victims in the Middle East, it will undoubtedly be working. But these things have also found eyes in the Pentagon, in American newsrooms, and — crucially — among voters across the United States. One wonders if, by broadcasting its misdeeds so explicitly, ISIS is ultimately signing its own death warrant.

Modern media, it seems, present us with something of a quandary. Of late, instant coverage has been the enemy of warfare. Television helped to turn public sentiment against the war in Vietnam; candid photographs of the “highway of death” were instrumental in bringing an end to the first Gulf War; and the bullet-by-bullet, death-by-death, mistake-by-mistake coverage of the second foray into Iraq did its advocates no favors at all. Indeed, so wobbly has the public become that I have long wondered for how long even an obviously just and necessary conflict could survive instant analysis. And yet, the same forces that are being used to sow doubt and confusion in the minds of the public — and that permit each error to be beamed around the world in the blink of an eye — are now showing the nature of our enemies to anybody who dares to look. The Holocaust was not televised. There were no boasting, crowing live feeds from the Gulag Archipelago. And, even in this era, the North Korean death camps are invisible to all but the best-connected military figures. ISIS, however, is doing of its own volition what the mistrusted government of the United States never could: creating an unimpeachable case against itself. How long can it be before, rather than covering and shaping the wars that we fight, social media serve to start one?

  Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.