Perhaps history never quite repeats, but now it definitely retweets. Thanks to Twitter and some hardworking and entrepreneurial researchers, students can relive some of the epochal wars of the past, one foggy moment of farce and tragedy after another. Since August 2011, World War II has been reported in real time, exactly 72 years after it began. Followers of the brilliant @RealTimeWWII project can track each move, each atrocity, each military gambit or folly, all in a style that captures the uncertainty, the fear, the confusion of the time.
The regular flow of tweets, produced by a young British history graduate and a team of international volunteers, convey a surprising sense of immediacy and poignancy. As well as slowly charting the grand strategic trajectory of the war, the telegraphic messages capture the views and fates of ordinary individuals caught up in terrible events beyond their control or comprehension. Miscalculations, mistakes and a recognition that no outcome was inevitable: all are made plain, 140 characters at a time. A similar project, @CivilianWartime, has begun tracking the home front of the American Civil War, and no doubt other such dynamic history lessons are in the works.
But if social media is emerging as a refreshing tool for explaining the wars of the past, how useful is it for illuminating the conflicts and crises of the present? And might it also provide a way of shaping them? Recently, Twitter has begun to feature as a vehicle for strategic communication and information warfare in two armed conflicts: Afghanistan and Somalia.
From Iraq to Afghanistan, jihadists have long made innovative use of media for propaganda and influence. They have sought to shape the narrative of the conflicts, not least by trying to be first with the news, including through promptly posting their footage of attacks online while some Western forces were still clearing their talking points.
With the rise of twitter Twitter in the past few years, the Taliban and its associates have reinforced their internet arsenal with the speed and directness of this microblog. Through spokesmen like @ABalkhi, they have sought to put their own spin on the conflict in Afghanistan. This is most effective when they focus on the most glaring moral failures America’s post 9/11 wars—Abu Ghraib is their custom-made catchcry. But mostly theirs is a perspective that might be mistaken for self-parody were it not so chilling. There are plenty of references to the Americans as “invaders” and “terrorists”. Every damaged vehicle is a “tank destroyed”, foreign soldiers are “eliminated” by “martyrs” with unlikely regularity, and there is the occasional link to a talk by John Pilger.
For months, the US-led forces in Afghanistan chose not to dignify this distorted commentary with a response. This changed when the Taliban sought to seize the media initiative over an attack on the US embassy in Kabul in September 2011. The International Security Assistance Force engaged directly online as well as in the field, challenging Taliban assertions about everything from operational incidents and casualty figures to the very legitimacy of their UN-mandated presence.
Since then, @ISAFmedia has regularly exchanged tweets with the mouthpiece of its lethal foes in front of a direct online audience of many thousands. ISAF personnel even sometimes manage a commendable degree of humour in this deadly serious contest. Some media reports suggest twitter is now the only channel of communication between the two sides.
Certainly twitter has accelerated the tempo of the media war, with each incident or misdeed being reported and magnified almost immediately. Coalition forces now use twitter as an integral part of their rapid response to public relations setbacks and disasters. In January 2012, within hours of the release of a video apparently showing several US personnel grossly disrespecting the corpses of enemy dead, ISAF was actively tweeting links to video statements of its commanders deploring the incident and promising investigation and punishment.
It is hard to say which side this novel propaganda medium suits best. With its minimal start-up cost and personnel requirements, a Twitter account would seem an ideal public relations weapon for the materially weaker party, especially if they have no shortage of zeal and rhetoric. On the other hand, tweets are pure wind unless they can be hyperlinked to sites containing data and evidence, and ISAF is proving effective in confronting its adversaries on points of fact.
Yet, since social media offers asymmetric advantages to materially modest forces, it would make sense for Washington’s smaller coalition partners also to make more use of it in their own decentralised conflict zones across Afghanistan. This is why it is disappointing that, for instance, the Australian Defence Force has been so reluctant to make speedy use of its social media accounts to discredit Taliban reports of actions in Uruzgan province.
The other current conflict where Twitter is emerging, not only as a blow-by-blow chronicle but also a part of the battlespace, is in Somalia. Here, the Kenyan army has intervened to break the power of the extremist al-Shabaab militia. It is proving a bloody, unforgiving conflict, in a place where the world’s mainstream media understandably fear to tread. But Twitter is providing a window on this war—as well as a whole other front. Kenyan military spokesman @MajorEChirchir and al-Shabaab’s @HSMPress regularly seek to outdo one another with pithy updates of operational success, enemy casualties and taunting attempts to demoralise the other side.
In a departure from the traditional script of information warfare, it seems the Kenyan military is not keen to see their foes completely silenced. In a tweet on December 20 last year, Major Chirchir warned that the United States was considering closing down his enemy’s Twitter account. He noted that al-Shabaab “needs to be engaged positively”. And Twitter, he added, was presently “the only avenue”.
Follow Rory Medcalf on twitter at @Rory_Medcalf.
This is an article from the American Review issue "The right candidate" available as an iPad app.