THE BLOG

Social Media and Modern Warfare

11/08/2014 12:27 BST | Updated 08/10/2014 10:59 BST

Wars produce many stories of fiction, some of which are told until they are believed to be true.

Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of General U. S. Grant Ch. 67. (1885)

Just this week we commemorated 100 years since the outbreak of WW1 and nations tried to reflect on the lessons that they had learnt since. I guess one of those is the folly of war and the dangers of a war caused by political agreements and international treaties. It also serves to highlight the danger of radical nationalism. The Great War was, and still is considered to be one of the most tragic events to occur in the industrial and post Industrial Age and rightly so. It was the first war to truly suck in all the major world powers of its era resulting in cataclysmic loss of life and which possibly truly embodied the theory of total war.

The nature of war since then has drastically changed. The advent of new technology means that soldiers don't necessarily need to engage in full-on hand to hand contact and now in some cases don't even need to see other combatants but can launch weapons from afar. Trench warfare has been replaced by precision guided weapons, states war with armed insurgents and standing armies have been massively reduced in size.

The way a government communicates to its citizens and its enemy has always had a part to play in warfare - one only needs to look at the posters and films produced by opposing governments through WW1, WW2 and the Cold War. As the adage goes, history is written by the victors.

The advent of social media has however really changed the way wars are represented and news consumed - and by extension peoples' attitudes towards specific wars. No longer are citizens reliant on official transcripts or field reports of battles, rather information can be gleaned almost instantaneously.

The current/recent Israel-Hamas conflict might just be a watershed moment. With the exception of perhaps the Arab Spring and the Ukraine crisis earlier this year, the current conflict in Israel is perhaps the first time I at least, have experienced an all-pervasive war. We have been inundated with blogs, tweets, status updates, comments on status updates and comments on news reports.

It is also the first time I've seen two sides, at war with one another, so clearly taking part in a social media offensive to discredit the opposition (at this point it's worth pointing out that both sides have had media engagement guidelines leaked on social media too). There's enough material to write a dedicated book about the nuanced tactics and strategies of each side, but perhaps I'll leave my impressions of them for a later date, once the digital dust settles a tad.

Israel's IDF Blog and other sites/individuals have been prolific at sharing info-graphics and images whilst Hamas and its supporters have also used imagery, op-eds and twitter. Claim and counter claim has ensued. What once took place on the streets has now moved online - and to a greater audience.

There are significant dangers though. Social media is particularly vulnerable to false claims and rabble rousing using impassioned language. Israel is a highly emotive subject and what scares me most is how pseudo-intellectuals are able to claim content on social media as legitimate sources.

We've already seen several influential individuals retract comments or forced to confront the reality that their information is false. Whether these individuals are celebrities or not, they appear to have used crowd-sourced information to guide their own impressions of a conflict of which they have limited understanding of. This has only served to further complicate issues and encourage hate around the world. There have also been numerous reports indicating that imagery shared on social media has actually emanated from the conflict in Syria and been purposefully misattributed.

Personally, I think this highlights a major flaw with social media in terms of news consumption and also how quickly it is possible for a modern day digital mob mentality to catch hold.

Liberal technoids may praise the democratisation of media output and consumption but I'm actually not 100% sure that social media inherently is good. Yes, it's possible for people to post real-time news, yes it encourages every individual to voice their thoughts and be accessible but what happens when the social media news agenda gets hijacked? It can become a tool for spreading hate, rumours and falsities. Unfortunately this happens far too often.

It's a dangerous precedent to set. As with language in everyday life, responsible use of social media is - or should be - mandatory. There is unfortunately no easy way to sift through all the dross to find the true facts.