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