BOOK REVIEW: ‘War in 140 Characters’ by David Patrikarakos

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War in 140 Characters: How social media is reshaping conflict in the twenty-first century

by David Patrikarakos. Basic Books. 2017.

PREPARING FOR A TRIP TO THE MIDDLE EAST in the 1990s, I bought a guidebook which had just been published. The author, apparently enthused by Israel’s recent signing of a peace treaty with Jordan, suggested that one between Israel and Syria might soon follow. Alas, the world has not turned out that way.

Writing on current trends in a way that will have some enduring relevance is a great challenge for an author. In his engaging new book, War in 140 Characters, David Patrikarkos succeeds in telling us much which we did not know about the new world of media and conflict.

The book’s strengths include an approach which combines eyewitness reporting with more considered analysis. The author’s readiness to accompany Ukrainian social media activists into the warzones of the east of their country offers the reader truly revealing insights. The chapter on the Russian troll, Vitaly Bespalov, is the highlight of the book — leading as it does to the disgruntled former employee of St Petersburg’s infamous troll farm concluding that ‘unfortunately’ he too was ‘an actor in the Ukraine war’.

As anyone who has written or spoken on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict knows, it is impossible to offer any analysis which will be universally accepted. That said, Patrikarakos’ discussion — enlightening though it is  — of the social media war which accompanied Israel’s 2014 campaign in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, comes across as one-sided. His interview with the teenaged Palestinian twitter user, Farah Baker, is compelling for the way that it identifies a new front in the propaganda battle between Israel and the Palestinians. As Patrikarakos notes of the Palestinians, ‘Hopelessly outgunned, their side could never hope to win militarily’.

His argument that ‘Israel bombed and invaded Gaza with deadly success, but it still “lost” the 2014 war’, because the Palestinian media campaign was more effective, is stretching a point. Israel does all it can to avoid negative media coverage, but surely it cares more about its ability to win on the battlefield.

Nothing which has happened since 2014 suggest that this supposed Palestinian victory in the media war has delivered any lasting benefits. The killings of protesters at the Gaza border fence over the last few weeks tend strongly to suggest the opposite. Patrikarakos seems to admire the slick Israeli PR operation — right down to the ‘immaculate’ uniform of the ‘courteous and well-disposed’ Israeli Amy spokesperson whom he interviews — but then, that is what it is there for.

The undoubted effectiveness of the reportage is occasionally weakened by a tendency to overuse the weather and the light as a means of introducing new scenes. Patrikarakos’ point about the political significance of the use in Russian of the prepositions v or na when talking of Ukraine is important, but muddled here. ‘Na Ukraine’ does not mean ‘on the border’ (although the country’s name does share a root with the Russian word krai meaning edge, or district). The significance of the preposition is whether the speaker implies that Ukraine is a country in its own right (v) , or a region, (na). The use of the Google definition of ‘propaganda’ feels a little lazy when so much has been written on the subject.

Overall, though, Patrikarakos is to be congratulated on a book which makes important contributions to a number of important debates. War in 140 Characters is especially worth reading for its sections on Russian trolls, and its account of Bellingcat’s impressive investigation of the shooting down of MH17. I recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the way war, politics, and the media interact in today’s conflicts, and look forward to discussing it in Journalism seminars.

 

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Misled by elites? Not every journalist

This is the first part of an essay which I wrote for the current issue of the ‘British Journalism Review’. Based on my experiences reporting from Russia in the 1990s, and partly as a response to concerns raised by Channel 4’s Jon Snow in his 2017 McTaggart Lecture it argues that not all journalists are too close to political elites — especially foreign correspondents in countries where the elites don’t want to to talk to them. That gives them insights often denied to their better connected counterparts.

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Restoration work on a church in Rostov Veliky, northern Russia, June 2008. Photo: James Rodgers

THE MISSED AND MISUNDERSTOOD STORIES of Brexit, and Donald Trump’s triumph in the US presidential election – as well as political correspondents’ failure to predict Theresa May losing her parliamentary majority last year – have all led to soul-searching about whether journalists are too close to the elite. In his MacTaggart Lecture at last year’s Edinburgh Television Festival, Jon Snow described his own background and said: “We are comfortably with the elite, with little awareness, contact, or connection with those not of the elite.”

Foreign correspondents often come into closer contact with those “not of the elite”. While the political upper class may want to talk to foreign media to get their international message across, these are more likely to be rare, set-piece events. In consequence, reporters overseas seek out other stories – those of the ordinary people who will more readily speak to them. Ryszard Kapuscinski was famous for this approach. It was also one often followed by western reporters in Russia in the early post-Soviet era.

It may seem strange, in this era of confrontation between the UK and Russia, to write this, but I have Vladimir Putin to thank for the experience which has led me to develop the argument I am going to put forward here. For it was during his own formative years as a politician – Russia’s troubled 1990s – that we western journalists based in Russia were left largely to our own devices. Senior politicians did occasionally give interviews, but the often chaotic world of Boris Yeltsin’s administration meant that they had plenty of their own worries to deal with.

This was when a large part of the political elite were keen to show that they were breaking from the Soviet past, promoting a western-style idea of a free press, a “fourth estate” permitted to speak truth to power. Russian journalists enjoyed then freedoms unknown before or since. We did, too.

The restrictions on travel which had been part of the Soviet police state were mostly gone. Travelling close to military installations without permission was an exception, as I discovered in 2009 when the FSB arrested my colleagues and me for visiting some glasshouses which happened to be about 20km from a naval dockyard.

Kept at a distance from the Kremlin’s innermost power struggles – as foreigners generally have been throughout Russian history (remember Churchill’s “Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won”) – and allowed to explore the biggest country on earth, we had the chance to learn more than other generations of western journalists covering Russia. Going somewhere that your news organisation has never been before is always a help pitching a story, and travel – thanks to the troubled rouble – could be incredibly cheap. The weak currency did throw up some absurdities. One flight from St Petersburg to Moscow is memorable because the sandwiches in the airport café cost almost the same as the plane tickets.

With air travel literally as cheap as chips, and Russia’s overnight trains even cheaper, we took advantage. There was then a huge appetite for learning about Russia, with which we were enjoying much better relations. That has changed since. As I write this in late March, the talk – following the poisoning in Salisbury of the Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter – turns to tension between Moscow and London. The foreign ministry spokeswoman in Moscow has warned that British journalists will be expelled from Russia should RT (the Kremlin-backed channel formerly known as Russia Today) be closed down in the UK.

It was different then. In the late 1990s, colleagues and I travelled to Siberia to do a story on forest fires; to the far north east, above the Arctic circle, where blocks of flats, abandoned after their residents’ jobs went with the collapse of the planned economy, were being buried by massive snowdrifts. With Allan Little, I produced for the BBC’s Newsnight a lengthy report on how people of the southern Russian town of Rostov-on-Don coped with an economy that had largely ceased to function: workers at one of Russia’s biggest agricultural machinery factories got jars of gherkins instead of wages.

On that first trip to Siberia we also interviewed a coming strongman in Russian politics, the Afghan war veteran Alexander Lebed, then governor of Krasnoyarsk. He later died in a helicopter crash, but his growing popularity provided a clue to the direction Russia might later take. The consequence of these trips was that we saw how the country was changing.

It was not changing in the way that many people in the west hoped.

You can read the full article in the current issue of the British Journalism Review

 

Russia and information wars

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Copies of the Communist Party newspaper, ‘Pravda’, from the last summer of the Soviet Union

This week I was on the Politics.co.uk podcast with Ian Dunt and Jamie Bartlett. We discussed Russia, big data, journalism and their roles in international politics and conflict. We started all the way back in the 1990s, hence the ageing pictures of Pravda, above. You can listen here.

Reporting Russia in Revolution

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In this week’s New European, my article on how western correspondents covered the ‘Great October Socialist Revolution’, as the USSR came to know the Bolsheviks’ coming to power. The first few paragraphs are reproduced below. You can read the full piece in the paper. 

We in the west have tended to look warily towards Russia: fearing and yet fascinated by the vast land lying at Europe’s eastern edge. Often, as now, we have seen it as a threat.

If in the second half of the last century, it was nuclear warheads – and they have hardly gone away – today we are more concerned with cyberattacks. In those countries bordering Russia, and formerly under its influence or control, people look nervously at the annexation of Crimea and ask if computer hacking may turn into something more menacing.

Since it enlisted General Winter to help to defeat Napoleon, through to Stalingrad when it turned the tide against Hitler, Russia has intervened at key moments to change European history. Some might add Brexit to the list, with Kremlin-backed TV channels and websites playing their part in boosting nationalist sentiment in the west.

A hundred years ago, the Russian Revolution was certainly one of those moments. The full extent of its consequences may not have been fully grasped, but its significance was well understood, and in those confused, fast-moving times, it was the job of Western authors and journalists who found themselves in the country to try to make sense of it.

Reflections on 2016, and 1991: two revolutionary years

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A monument to Vladimir Lenin, USSR, 1991 ©James Rodgers

‘DO YOU KNOW WHAT THE USSR WAS?’ asked the Ukrainian I had got talking to in London.

The USSR was many things to me — although I think it has taken a quarter of a century for me fully to understand something of what it was to others.

‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven!’ wrote Wordsworth in ‘The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement’. That is how it felt to me to be in Moscow in 1991. I was in my 20s, and on my first foreign assignment as a TV producer, for the Visnews agency.

Russia’s post-Soviet revolution was ‘at its commencement’. For someone of my generation, who had spent their teenage years worrying whether the acceleration of the nuclear arms race in Europe was going to lead to conflict, the end of the Cold War between East and West was indeed blissful. The excitement of being on assignment in Moscow as a young journalist ‘was very heaven’. The world as I had known it all my life was changing forever, and I was there to see it.

What I — and the other young western journalists I met, and who were in some cases to become lifelong friends — saw that summer seemed good. Especially in the Soviet capital, we saw a population enthusiastic for change — brave enough, when the time came, to stand with sticks against tanks to defend it. They faced down a coup attempt by hardliners in August 1991 . Later that year, and 25 years ago this month, the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist. Back in London, I was in the newsroom on Christmas Day when Mikhail Gorbachev went on air in Moscow to resign, and the red flag was lowered from the Kremlin.

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The Kremlin, summer 1991, with the Red flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics flying. © James Rodgers

For some Cold Warriors in the west, that was victory. For one prominent American academic, this was — absurdly, it is now clear — the ‘end of history’. For those of us who spend a lot of time reporting from Russia in the 1990s, it came to be something else: the beginning of an age of great hardship, uncertainty, and humiliation for millions of people in Russia, and other parts of the former USSR.

‘We keep on failing to understand the nature of the trauma that hit all Russians in 1991,’ Sir Rodric Braithwaite, the last British Ambassador to the USSR, told an audience at Chatham House 20 years later. Policy makers did not understand well the possible political consequences of that trauma either — at least until it was too late.

For it was in those days that the wrath of post-Soviet Russia was being nursed. It came to adulthood in the annexation of Ukraine, and, on the wider global stage, in the Middle East. The end of history mindset seemed to have prevailed among policy makers, too — again until it was too late. When relations with Russia turned bad, there were not enough people who understood why. ‘What’s really lacking in all these theatres is sufficient people who are deep experts on the language and the region to actually produce the options to ministers,’ complained Rory Stewart, then Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, in a 2014 interview with Prospect Magazine , as Russia cemented its hold over Ukraine.

Experts: in 2014, a senior Conservative politician said they were lacking; in 2016, another, Michael Gove, said Britain had ‘had enough’ of them.

Many disagreed — but enough were persuaded to accept the case made by Mr Gove and his fellow ‘Leave’ campaign leaders that Britain should leave the European Union.

That is one of the ways in which 2016 has helped me understand 1991. Now, in middle age, I have a perspective on how it must have felt for Russians in their 40s and 50s to see their country go to hell, taking with it all they had known.

This year, it has been the turn of my country to have a revolution — for that is what ‘Brexit’ is — and head off in an unknown direction. Not even those who most fervently sought this turn of events can claim that it has been adequately prepared for.

As a foreign correspondent in the 1990s and 2000s, I saw other people’s political systems fall apart. Both in the former USSR, and in the Middle East, this led on occasion to wars which cost countless thousands of lives. There is no prospect now of war in Western Europe, although that was the way we chose for centuries to settle our disputes. It is not simply coincidence that the era of the European Union has also been an age of peace.

The signs of other times are still there to see. As a frequent visitor to both Scotland and Denmark, my seaside walks lead me past Second World War fortifications scarring the beaches on the North Sea coast.

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World War Two defences on the coast of East Lothian, Scotland, October 2016 ©James Rodgers

Will Europe ever be as divided again in my lifetime? As Christopher Clark wrote in the introduction to his excellent 2014 book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to War in 1914, ‘what must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914 is its raw modernity.’ He continued, ‘Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces.’

That’s why we need good journalism. Those of us western journalists who lived in Russia in the 1990s understood very well the reasons for Vladimir Putin’s rise to power (I wrote about this at greater length in a recent piece for The Conversation).

So, yes, I did know the USSR. A quarter of a century later, I know this, too: like the USSR,  nothing lasts forever. Blissful dawns do not necessarily lead to sunny afternoons, or peaceful evenings. The demagogues who have tasted victory in 2016’s tumult would do well to remember that.

 

 

 

 

 

Getting a taste of capitalism, Moscow 1991

This is the second extract from a memoir I have written about my time as a TV news producer in Moscow in the summer of 1991. You can read the first piece here . It describes a day in Moscow shortly before a summit between the then Soviet and American leaders — and concludes with an incident I always remember when trying to explain to westerners why Vladimir Putin has been such a popular leader in Russia.

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Copies of the Communist Party newspaper, ‘Pravda’, from the last summer of the Soviet Union

A few days before the summit between Mikhail Gorbachev and George W. Bush, I got a couple of hours off in the middle of the day. I decided to go to Red Square, while it was still easily accessible to the public, before summit security measures closed large parts of the city centre. I took a taxi. I went into GUM, the shopping arcade which runs the length of the square opposite the Kremlin. I recognized GUM’s exterior as the backdrop to Soviet military parades crossing Red Square on Revolution Day and Victory Day. It had been built as a monument to pre-revolutionary elegance and opulence: long halls with galleries of shops rising above on either side. It had become an embarrassing example of Soviet shortage. Despite this, it remained the closest that Moscow, or indeed the entire Soviet Union, had to a luxury goods store. Shoppers never knew what they might find so, even when it was woefully poorly stocked, it still drew the crowds. One benefit of the crumbling Soviet system from the employee’s point of view was that it didn’t always matter very much whether or not you turned up for work. So if you thought they might finally have say, towels, in GUM, there was nothing much to stop you wandering down there for a look. That day, plenty of people had. I loved Soviet watches. To me they were exotic, and cool, and I felt that now, after a couple of months in Moscow, I would have a special claim to wear one in London once I returned. At the watch department, all I could see were crowds pressing around cabinets which, when I got close, turned out to be almost empty. It was natural there, as anywhere else, that suspicion of spotting a rarity made people stop and look. The extreme circumstances here meant that two or three people dawdling too long might provoke rumours of a delivery of rare stock, and draw a crowd.

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The Kremlin, summer 1991, with the Red flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics flying. © James Rodgers

 

I walked out onto Red Square and towards Lenin’s mausoleum. It was almost midday and the guard was about to change. Tourists pressed up against the rope which kept the public back from the doors to the mausoleum. The Soviets in GUM behind me were desperate for material goodies. The western tourists already had expensive watches. They wanted to see a Communist ritual which to them was much more of a rarity.

As the Kremlin bells began to chime, the ceremony began. Green uniformed members of the guard goose-stepped from the tower next to St Basil’s cathedral, with its multi-coloured domes, towards the door of the mausoleum. As they marched, they held their rifles, with bayonets fitted, balanced in the palms of their left hands. Their right fists, clad, like their left, in white gloves swung rhythmically as they strode on their way. The change itself happened as the hour struck – life size figures with movements so precise that they too seemed to be mechanically controlled by the clock. It was an intricate dance with not a single step out of place. The sergeant oversaw it all. He marched out with the new guards, and then back with the ones who had been replaced. Their extreme formality – white shirts, gold braid, highly polished boots up to their knees, made the motley clothes of the onlookers seem almost profane. It seemed wrong to be watching in jeans and a t-shirt.

When they had marched away, I walked to the edge of Red Square, past St Basil’s, and down towards the Rossiya hotel – a mass of concrete which, with hundreds of rooms, a concert hall, and a cinema all incorporated into its gigantic frame, was said to be the biggest hotel in Europe.  An American ice cream company had recently opened a shop on the ground floor. I wandered in. A group of overweight Americans in training shoes that cost far more than a Soviet surgeon’s monthly salary enjoyed a taste of home. An elderly Muscovite made his way to the door, apparently eager for a first taste of this foreign delicacy. He went no further than the threshold. “Only for hard currency?” His face fell.  He repeated the words he had been told when he found out his roubles were worthless there. He left. Perhaps he forgot about how much he wanted the ice cream. He can’t have forgotten his experience. In the shadow of the Kremlin, the seat of Soviet power, the workers in whose name the Communists ran the country were being embarrassed and shamed by their ideological enemies.

Reporting the dawn and the death of Soviet Russia: 1917 and 1991

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Earlier this week, I published a piece on the website of The Conversation. Drawing on my time as a correspondent in Moscow in the 1990s and early 2000s, as well as on my current research, the article looked at the challenges of covering revolutionary Russia. You can read an extract below, and there’s also a link to the full piece.

“NO NEWS FROM PETROGRAD YESTERDAY”, was the headline in the Daily Mail on March 14, 1917. The story – or non-story – which followed, was only a few dozen words: “Up to a late hour last night the Russian official report, which for many months has come to hand early, had not been received”, it ran. So why publish it? The non-appearance of the daily news bulletin from the Russian government had led the Mail’s writer, trying to prepare a report in London, to suspect something was going on.

It was.

During the silence, the last tsar, Nicholas II, had abdicated and centuries of autocracy had come to an end in Russia. Correspondents in Petrograd were only able to tell their stories later. Russia’s links to the world were cut off. Donald Thompson, a pioneering news cameraman from the United States, later related his experience at the telegraph office: “The old lady in charge … told me not to waste my money – that nothing was allowed to go out.”

You can read the rest of the piece here .