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How terrorists and provocateurs are using social media against western democracies

On the digital front line are guilt-ridden Russian trolls, young women lured by Isis and Facebook Sherlocks in suburbia.

The other week, I was looking at a photograph of a penis-shaped vegetable, wondering about its significance for geopolitics. The picture, and thousands like it, had been posted by a pro-Kremlin Twitter account popular in Germany. But between images of bum-like pumpkins, the handle retweeted horrific photographs of children wounded or killed as a result of the war in East Ukraine, their fates blamed on Kiev and the West.

The amusing vegetables were there to pull in followers; the other images to promote a political cause. Later the Twitter feed transformed, instead retweeting Kremlin state media and far-right parties.

Who was behind the account? The Kremlin itself? Activists? Information war profiteers? I’d come across it when researching foreign (dis)information operations during the German election. The campaigns came from all sorts of places. The German-language arm of Kremlin state broadcaster Sputnik was blatantly biased towards the anti-immigrant, far-right Alternative für Deutschland party. Pro-AfD (and most likely German) automated Twitter accounts would avidly retweet Sputnik stories, pushing them into social media spaces where Kremlin content sat cozily side by side with locally concocted conspiracy theories about how the vote would be rigged against the AfD. There were also US and European alt-right activists who congregated on the message board 4chan, and more obscure sites such as Discord, to create “meme factories”, partnering with German far-right movements to hijack Twitter hashtags. This helped the AfD dominate social media and, ultimately, win seats in parliament for the first time.

The manga-themed, racist memes were then reposted by a network of bots which turned out to be run from Nizhny Novgorod. The hacker behind it said he had done the work for free, as he shared “mutual benefits” with the AfD. He quoted a usual price of €2,000 for 15,000 posts and retweets. The botnet also specialised in smearing Russian opposition figures and promoting escort services in Dubai. Meanwhile, we found that the Epoch Times – a publication originally created to support the Chinese Falun Gong sect repressed by the government in Beijing – had become one of the more profitable “alternative” media outlets in Germany, with a mix of Kremlin-sourced, German anti-immigrant and pro-Falun Gong stories. Indeed, by the end of our research it was clear that one can’t really talk, as one could during the Cold War, of “foreign” information operations launched against a coherent domestic news space. Instead, one has transnational, ever-shifting networks of toxic speech and disinformation, including both state and non-state actors. These can operate for financial, ideological or simply personal reasons, allying and mutually reinforcing one another to pursue quite different agendas. Once upon a time, techno-utopians dreamed of a global information village. We have one. But it’s nasty.

This new worldwide web of disorder is the subject of David Patrikarakos’s timely and talented War in 140 Characters. The author has a suitably global background: as a British-Greek-Jewish-Iranian-Iraqi – and a Poynter fellow in journalism at Yale University – he has the ability to understand local dynamics as he relates stories from the Middle East to the Midlands, Ukraine to the West Coast of the US. He introduces us to the people on the front lines of digital battles, the personalities behind the internet accounts: guilt-ridden Russian trolls; young women groomed online by Isis; Facebook Sherlocks debunking Putin’s lies from suburban English bedrooms.

This, however, is not mere information war tourism. Patrikarakos has a provocative thesis. His argument is that social media is transforming both the nation state and war. No longer can we talk of one nation battling another through propaganda: the field is now swarming with individual actors, each a little propaganda state in their own right. And in this post-national landscape, the idea of war is also changed. There is no longer any clear dividing line between “peace” and “war”, ideas which belong to the logic of relations between nations who have sole authority to wage war and conclude peace. Rather there is a permanent smudge of tension, messy and always unstable.

One chapter brings out the dynamic between traditional state actors and new players particularly strikingly. Alberto Fernandez was the Arabic-speaking US diplomat charged with tackling Isis online. Before he arrived, US online information campaigns had followed a fluffy approach, trying to convince young people drawn towards Isis that the US held no ill will towards Islam, with videos of “happy Muslims” enjoying life in America. This failed. The reality of the US as a bringer of death and destruction to the Middle East was too strong to override. Isis propaganda showed graphic videos of US soldiers torturing Muslims at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Isis also used the cultural power of the US against it, with propaganda videos modelled on American computer games and films which enlisted recruits to the terror group’s cause. It distributed spectacular execution videos which were then amplified by the mainstream western media, while a seemingly unlimited number of social media activists proliferated its work. On social media, it is more important to have viral material which can spread through horizontal networks of users, rather than the “vertical” power of state-run broadcasters which wielded so much power during the 20th century.

Fernandez believed in taking the fight to Isis. He realised the terrorists’ weak spot was the difference between their professed claim of delivering the ideal caliphate, and the grim reality of the society they had created. With a team of 48, he created sarcastic videos such as one entitled “Welcome to Isis Land”. “Run, do not walk to Isis Land,” said the opening line, with footage of fighters throwing bodies of Muslims into a ditch. “You can learn useful skills for the global Muslim community. Blowing up mosques! Crucifying and executing Muslims!” This was followed by close-up shots of blindfolded Muslims tied to wooden stakes and being shot in the back of the head.

The video was a success, being viewed three million times. But Fernandez became frustrated by the logic of government, where messages have to be cleared, where political loyalties meant he could never criticise terrible US allies, where every video was branded with the US government’s logo. “We fell between two stools,” remembers Fernandez. “My vision was too edgy for government and not edgy enough for the space we were in.” He quit.

Patrikarakos’s book offers no easy answers as to how the present messaging mess can ever be cleared up. Top-down censorship is both unethical and unpractical. The only way forward, perhaps, is for tech companies, policymakers, civic groups and the media to team up and define what exactly constitutes unacceptable behaviour online, and how they can all counteract it. We are far away from that now, with governments frustrated by tech companies’ lack of co-operation. In the UK, MPs are pressuring tech firms to explore covert Kremlin digital campaigns. There have been tantalising if very slim signs of activity around Brexit and the Scottish referendum, which have already led to a slapstick face-off between the UK and Russian foreign ministers. More worryingly, researchers at Cardiff University have spotted Russian accounts which look to inflame ethnic and religious tensions after terrorist attacks.

In the meantime, all one can do is hope that groups who believe in spreading the values of human rights and accurate information become as good at acting online as the far right, the Kremlin or Isis. That will require well-meaning NGOs and a public service-minded media to step into the battles of the digital age, understand how their opponents co-ordinate across borders online, and learn to disrupt and counter them with better messages and ideas of their own. At present they are far behind. 

War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century
David Patrikarakos
Basic Books, 320pp, £25

Peter Pomerantsev is the author of “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist