by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Charles Cooke of National Review Online appears as unimpressed as most sentient beings were with the likely impact of a Twitter hashtag on efforts to convince terrorists to free abducted girls in Africa. Still, Cooke explains in his latest column how social media can play a positive role in today’s warfare, even if that role was not anticipated.
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. …
… 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.