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


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.


Ukraine: politics, and football

The thirst which came with being trapped in a huge crowd on a late summer day, and the excitement of change — unprecedented, and, until shortly before, unforeseen — are the two strongest memories of that day.

Two things which have happened this week have brought those memories back. The first was the latest round of political uncertainty in Ukraine. The second was a football match.

In September 1991, Visnews, the TV news agency for which I was then working, sent me to Kiev. The city was then still capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. I can only understand a little Ukrainian, but I think this press pass says ‘3-10 September’.


However hard you try to plan for what is going to happen, most foreign correspondents know that success is often a result of luck as well as judgment. I was fortunate that hot day because I did get a front row seat — actually, in spectating terms, it was really a cramped standing space — as history unfolded.  I filmed the Soviet-era flag being lowered from the flag pole on the top of the Ukrainian parliament. It was replaced by the yellow and blue — for cornfields and sun — which still flies today.

In a 2014 essay for the Wall Street Journal, Serhii Plokhy, author of several acclaimed books on Ukraine and Eastern Europe, wrote of the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, ‘The roots of today’s crisis go back to the last days of the Soviet Union.’

An underestimation then of what those last days meant still has consequences today. Ukraine became the focus of the most serious crisis in Russia’s relations with the West since the Cold War. In choosing to challenge the West by annexing Crimea, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has shown an excellent understanding of his constituency.

For the many years I lived in Moscow after the end of the Soviet Union, a mention to a Muscovite of an upcoming trip to Ukraine might prompt the response, half-joking perhaps, ‘Tell them to give us back Crimea.’

On my travels around the former Soviet Union — often linked, as the news agenda goes, to reporting on armed conflict, I was struck by the number of people who still thought of themselves as Soviet. The USSR had collapsed politically and economically, but it still existed culturally.

This was not always well enough understood in the West, but Mr Putin and his supporters understood it very well, and have exploited it. Remembering now that sunny day — the picture with Professor Plokhy’s article was taken then, I think — it is hard not to regret the passing of the euphoria and optimism that radiated from that crowd.

‘We wanted the best, but it turned out like always,’ as Russia’s post-Soviet Prime Minister, later ambassador to Ukraine, Viktor Chernomyrdin, once observed. He was reflecting on the roughness of Russian life in the 1990s, but his words describe pretty well Russia’s current relations with the West.

25 years on from that hot afternoon, Ukraine is not the place that crowd hoped it would be. Watching the UEFA Champions League on TV the other evening, I saw the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, among the spectators for Dynamo Kyiv against Manchester City. Mr Poroshenko was surrounded by men — presumably his body guards — in military fatigues: their clothes a reminder of the conflict in the east of the country.

I have supported Manchester City since long before the end of the Soviet Union. For years, I never imagined they would enjoy the success they do today. Both as a football fan, and foreign correspondent, you get used to the fact that everything changes — though rarely in ways you expect.





#Russia2018: so much to play for

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

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

PATRIOTISM guided their hands as much as professional pride. In the summer of 2008, I visited some of the towns of the ‘Golden Ring’, the name given to the tourist route which takes in some of the splendours of Medieval Russia.

In Rostov Veliky, craftsmen were carefully restoring frescoes. At best frowned upon during the Soviet era, churches were now benefiting from the riches flowing into the new Russia with rising oil prices. Scaffolding surrounded onion domes finally being fixed up after decades of hard winters.

It was not just artists and masons who were making Russia proud that summer, as I noted in a piece for the BBC’s ‘From our own Correspondent’ programme. The nation’s footballers had made greater progress than any Russian team since the collapse of the USSR. They reached the semi-finals of the European Championships. As would happen anywhere in the world, there was a surge of support for the national team. Russia was back.

2008 was a key year for Russia in international football. In addition to the achievements of the team, Moscow successfully hosted the Uefa Champions’ League final. Experiments with visa-free travel for fans, and a charm offensive by the most aggressive police units (I was astonished by the uncharacteristically polite assistance offered by members of one group when I was looking for the media office), were a great success. It seemed then to be part of a Russian bid to host a major tournament. Sure enough, the country was later awarded the 2018 World Cup.

2008 was a big year in Russia’s international relations, too. A few weeks after my trip around the Golden Ring, I was reporting on Russia’s war with Georgia. Sparked by the Georgian government’s deployment of troops to the separatist region of South Ossetia, Russia responded by invading South Ossetia to drive them out. It was a low point in post-Soviet Russia’s relations with the West, where few accepted Moscow’s claim that it had acted to protect civilians in the breakaway Georgian territory.

It had also acted to end Georgia’s ambition to join NATO. This it did, at a time when both Georgia and Ukraine were making moves in that direction. Yet the campaign, hailed then in Russia as an example of a once weakened former superpower striking back, also exposed shortcomings in Russia’s combat readiness, and military technology. Acting on lessons learned then, Russia seems to have learned to move much more efficiently against the current Ukrainian government’s desire to move closer to European and Atlantic institutions.

That confrontation has damaged still further Russia’s relations with the West. It is in that already tension-filled arena that another diplomatic row is kicking off — one which is football-related. President Putin has already suggested that the U.S.-led investigation into alleged corruption at FIFA may be ‘ part of an attempt to take the 2018 World Cup away from his country’, as the Moscow Times put it last week.

At the weekend, a top FIFA official, Domenico Scala, raised the prospect of tournaments being taken away from both Russia and Qatar, ‘should there be evidence’ that they had won the right to host them, ‘only because of bought votes’.

So there is a lot to play for. Confrontation over Ukraine, and controversy over Russia’s dim view of gay rights, may have meant that the Sochi Olympics last year did not deliver Moscow the international acclaim it presumably sought when it bid.

Football has been an important part of Russia’s drive to regain the status it lost at the end of the last century. Losing the right to host the World Cup will not be seen in Moscow as only a game.

Another Russia?

Renewed tension between Russia and the West has also led to renewed interest in London, Washington, and elsewhere as to the state of the Russian opposition.

Earlier this week, The Guardian published an interesting piece by Timothy Garton Ash  which looked at Russia as a country suffering from a loss of empire. Garton Ash argued that there was also another Russia ‘represented by the murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, and the people who come to lay flowers on the bridge where he was assassinated’.

Yesterday, the paper published a letter in which I argued that the state of Russia today could not be fully understood without reference to the role that NATO enlargement, in the post-Soviet era, had played in forming Russian foreign policy. You can read it on The Guardian‘s letter page, here, and the text follows below.

Timothy Garton Ash (‘There is another Russia’, Monday 20 April) makes some interesting points, but misses others. While it is true that some ‘Putin understanders’ do seek to ‘excuse all’ when looking at Russia today, there are also pitfalls in adopting the opposite approach. Nowhere does the article mention NATO expansion. One can agree or disagree as to the wisdom or otherwise of NATO’s policies in Eastern Europe since 1991. One cannot disagree that the admission of the Baltic States in particular, and earlier discussions of the possible accession of Georgia and Ukraine, have been used by Vladimir Putin’s administration to fuel his popularity.
There is another Russia today, but it is of limited significance. I was in the audience at Chatham House recently when Mikhail Khodorkovsky gave a lecture. Those of us present who lived in Russia in the 1990s saw a picture of the past rather than the future. The ‘other Russia’ had its chance then. Its day may come again, but it is not here now. Overlooking this, combined with an apparent general lack of Russia expertise (not least in language skills) is one of the reasons why the West has found itself caught on the hop over Ukraine.

Second Thoughts on First Drafts

My first international assignment was to Moscow in 1991. I ended up witnessing the end of the Soviet Union. That was the end of the Cold War. Now, more than twenty years later, relations between Russia and the West are worse than at any time since. For this month’s British Journalism review, I have written an essay on the value of journalism as history. Here’s an extract.

SOLID GOLD TEETH, SOFT CONSONANTS, HEAT, AND THIRST are what I remember from that day. The solid gold teeth were masterpieces of Soviet dentistry, filling the mouths of those who smiled now as they seemed to have won a famous victory over their masters in Moscow. The soft consonants were part of the Ukrainian accents I heard around me in the square in front of the Ukrainian parliament. Where most Russian accents pronounce ‘G’ as a hard sound, Ukrainian softens it. The crowd, intoxicated with the excitement of sudden change, chanted slogans of independence, and hissed insults about ‘Horbachev’, as they called the last leader of the Soviet Union.

Goodbye Lenin? A monument in Moscow, 1991 ©James Rodgers

Goodbye Lenin? A monument in Moscow, 1991 ©James Rodgers

They could say what they liked. The week before, an attempted coup by hardliners in Moscow had failed. Mikhail Gorbachev had been released from detention at his holiday house in the Crimea. Yet when he returned to Moscow just after midnight on 22nd August 1991, the Soviet Union he hoped to lead once more was cracked beyond repair, and already in the process of crumbling. As a producer for the television news agency Visnews (soon to become Reuters Television), I was sent to Kiev. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was trying to decide whether it would break away from the Union of which it had been a part for most of the 20th century – not to mention the Russian Empire before that. The session of the rada – the Ukrainian parliament – went on, while the crowd chanted and shouted in the hope of swaying the lawmakers’ decision. It was baking hot. There was little chance of anything to eat or drink. The food supplies of the late Soviet period were so unpredictable there was not much chance of grabbing a snack on the street. Suddenly, the crowd went wild with joy. The Soviet Ukrainian flag was lowered – hammer, sickle, and all – from the pole on top of the parliament. The blue and yellow Ukrainian flag rose in its place.


Formal independence followed, or so it seemed. As the fighting in Ukraine this year has shown, it was not that simple. The incident stays in my mind because the material I sent that day – a few paragraphs of script, and some shaky video material – contributed, in however small a way, to that famous first draft of history. Perhaps I did not fully realize it then – too pressed, as I was, by deadlines, and worrying whether I would beat the opposition – but this was part of one of the events which would define the time in which I lived, and worked as a journalist. For someone born, as I was, in Western Europe in the 1960s, the world as I knew it as a child was to change. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a major milestone on that road of transformation.

Extracted from ‘Second Thoughts on First Drafts’ British Journalism Review, September 2014.
More details on the BJR website, here.

Dark and Dangerous Designs on World Press Freedom

This is my latest piece for the website of The Conversation. You can read it on their site here.

I have recorded a short video introduction to explain why I decided to write the piece.

You can sense the outrage across the centuries. In the first issue of his provocative newspaper The North Briton, John Wilkes championed the “liberty of the press”. It was “the terror of all bad ministers; for their dark and dangerous designs, or their weakness, inability, and duplicity, have thus been detected.”

Wilkes was writing specifically for a British audience. He could hardly have foreseen the news media of today, when his words could have been read on the other side of the world as soon as he posted them. He lived in the 18th century, an era of a different type of globalisation – one driven by ships sailing out to trade or conquer.

Imagine Wilkes were to return to earth now. Let him set aside for a moment his inevitable astonishment at how technology has transformed journalism, and continues to transform it. He would still be dismayed at how little has changed. For there are plenty of “bad ministers” with “dark and dangerous designs” in many different parts of the world.

Judging by the way things have unfolded for the news media in the last two decades especially, many governments continue to see the news media as a source of “terror” – not excluding the UK, which is slipping precipitously down the press freedom rankings.
Guilt by association

Wilkes presumably intended “terror” to mean extreme fear. In the case of Al-Jazeera’s Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed the word has, absurdly, taken on the meaning more often used since September 11 2001.

I should disclose that Peter Greste and I are former colleagues at both Reuters Television and BBC News. Our previous professional association, as much as the reports I have read of his arrest and detention, means I use the word “absurdly” advisedly.

Greste and his colleagues are on trial in Egypt charged with assisting a “terrorist organisation”. Needless to say, they deny the charges. Their trial has been adjourned until May 3 – a date which the United Nations has designated annual World Press Freedom Day.

What is ominous for the cause of press freedom in general, and for individual journalists in particular, is the way reporters are so readily associated with the policies of governments in their home countries. Journalism does not operate in a vacuum separate from politics and diplomacy; in this case, the government of Qatar, which funds Al-Jazeera, supported the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement now driven from office and declared “terrorists” by the country’s current rulers.

Meanwhile, Simon Ostrovsky, a reporter for Vice News, was detained in April by a pro-Russian militia in Ukraine. The reason, according to a report on The Guardian website was that he was “suspected of bad activities”. Thankfully, he was released, seemingly unharmed, a few days later.
Deadly decade

Ever since journalism began to take on its modern form, it has often been in conflict with political and military authorities. Yet the situation seems to have deteriorated in the past twenty years or so – the instability after the the Cold War and the wars which followed 9/11 proving especially hazardous for reporters.

A 2009 report from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) took the title End of a Deadly Decade. The report highlighted areas which are less frequently covered in the western media: the Philippines, Somalia, and the drug wars of Mexico. All were the site of multiple media deaths, and all continue to be lethal arenas for reporters.

Governments today face the challenge of coping with a media environment which is much harder to control than in the pre-internet age. New emphasis is placed upon media messaging, especially in time of armed conflict.

As Shota Utiashvili, a Georgian Interior Ministry official, told me in an interview for the BBC after his country’s 2008 war with Russia: “In this century, and in a conflict where you have a huge power against a small state, I think that’s almost as important as the military battle,”

The point is more generally relevant. Unlike The North Briton, much of today’s journalism is available around the world, around the clock. One consequence seems to be that reporters themselves are increasingly singled out. If you can’t muzzle the medium, you can jail the journalist – or worse.

The result is that attempts to gag the news media have gone global: Egypt detains an Australian journalist working for a Qatari News Channel; pro-Russian forces detain a U.S. citizen reporting from Ukraine.

As the IFJ’s 2009 report noted:

The adoption of Resolution 1738 by the United Nations Security Council in 2006, which called for the protection of journalists in conflict zones and for proper investigation into violent attacks on media, has largely been ignored.

So while World Press Freedom Day is welcome, action would be better. Armed conflict, economic uncertainty, climate change and all the other challenges the world will face this century need to be reported. Trying to do so should not carry the risk of detention or death.

Ukraine and Russia

At the moment, most of my time is spent researching for, and writing, my next book, ‘Headlines from the Holy Land’. I wrote a short post about it last month.

I have also been keeping a close eye on events in Ukraine. As a producer for Reuters TV in August 1991, I stood among the crowd which watched the Ukrainian Soviet flag being  lowered from the roof of the rada, or parliament. The blue and yellow Ukrainian flag was raised in its place.

The events of the last months have shown how much still remains undecided after the collapse of the USSR more than two decades ago. Earlier this week, I shared some of my impressions of the situation between Russia and Ukraine now on Arise TV’s Newshour Programme. You can see it here (my interview starts at 5’05), and my contribution earlier this month here (interview starts at 4’29).