Zeitzof – How Social Media Is Changing Conflict

This week, we are looking at social media. Considering that facebook and twitter have changed the world in less than 10 years, there was obviously going to be some impact on our areas of study.

The work we are looking at is “How Social Media Is Changing Conflict” by Thomas Zeitzof, Journal of Conflict Resolution 2017, Vol. 61(9) 1970-1991. The article is available here.

Without further ado, here’s what we thought:

In this article the author aims to frame social media within a context of modern conflict, citing examples of how social media has influenced world events such as the rise of ISIS, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and election of Donald Trump in the U.S.

While this article is certainly useful in drawing attention to the role of social media in conflict, it does seem to confuse cause and effect, and the relationship between technology and use. In one section, the author claims:

‘Communication technology advances do not happen in a vacuum. Rather, they are correlated with advances in military technology and changes in the economy more generally.’  (1973)

The suggestion here seems to be that ‘communication technology’ (i.e. social media) is in some way correlating with military technology, and is being proactively developed and ‘weaponised’ by military forces. Yet this seems to confuse the point. The world’s largest social network, Facebook, is an American creation, yet as the author points out, is being put to use in ways that run strictly counter to American interests. Here, the author is confusing technology with use, suggesting that Facebook and its ilk has developed in line with advances in military technology. However the relationship is far more complex than that, and to claim a clear correlation is to misunderstand technological development and ‘progress’, and the way that these technologies are put to use. Quite simply, you cannot talk about Facebook in the same way you talk about a gun. While they can both certainly be ‘weaponised’, they work, and are used, in completely different ways.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

I found this article interesting. I particularly liked the examination of state actors, or non-state actors paid by a state to use social media in a way which benefits a particular state. The author notes the Chinese ’50 cent army’ who are paid the nominal amount for each pro-Chinese message posted on a microblogging site in order to allow the Chinese state to direct conversations online.

Another interesting aspect that is missing from this article (possibly due to publishing deadlines) is the influence of companies such as Cambridge Analytica in recent elections and referenda. This is not so much to do with conflict, yet. It is not unimaginable that in much the same way that revolutionary political votes have been made recently, that revolutionary movements could be encouraged using similar methods through social media. Indeed, it is not beyond the realms of possibilty that such movements could be encouraged to become violent also.

Something which struck me whilst reading the article was the consideration that the major international players of Russia and China both use people to influence online conversations in the wider world, but what of Western powers? The UK does have the secretive 77th Brigade, which appears to be more focussed on stabilisation, than its peers in the US and Israel. That obviously raises the question of what the US is doing (Israeli actions are covered in the article), if it is not focussed on stabilisation? Whatever it is doing, it doesn’t seem to have done anything to loosen the grip of authoritarian adversaries in Moscow or Beijing.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

I found it very difficult to review this article as I absolutely do not understand what point the author is trying to make, besides that social media affects politics (he calls this conflict but in practice describes mainly election and protests). He tries to present a framework, but the ultimate purpose of this is still unclear to me, as it combines both characteristics of social media, and recommendations on how to study social media. Furthermore, it is completely filled with platitudes such as social media reduces the cost of information spreading. How novel.

The article itself is all over the place, with no clear red line or a narrative. It is filled with random and unsystematic anecdotes, historical examples and mentions of studies, and in each section I struggle to see what point the author is trying to make. Worse though is how the author completely misrepresents the debate on the subject. He claims the issue is understudied, but the subject of social media is extremely popular in both academic and popular literature. The article mentions the January 2017 Women’s March, so it must have been submitted after that – therefore the fact that he frames this falsely as understudied cannot be the fault of long submission cycles, as it was popular long before that. Even worse than that is his complete neglect of substantive bodies of literature on social media and conflict. There is a large body of literature out there on subjects such as participation of militaries on social media, the military-entertainment complex, military portrayal in video games, effect of social media on the framing of war to the home-front, how embedded journalism affects portrayal of war, the large spectrum of cyber operations from social engineering on social media to hacking power plants, to what extent social media lets the victims of war be heard in Western media, the effect of social media on public attitudes on war, the role that the possibility of immediate public backlash due to social media affects military tactics, the role of communication technology in warfare, etc. How can you claim it is understudies and present a framework to analyse the relationship between social media and conflict if you in practice base it on a tiny-tiny subset of conflict: political protests and elections? It is not that the author explicitly states that he only covers those two factors of conflict, as he mentions other aspects of conflict here and there, such as the social media strategy of Israel and Palestine during the 2012 War in the Gaza Strip.

The author furthermore consistently makes the exact mistakes he warns to avoid. First, he consistently misrepresents or even misunderstands different media dynamics, by conflating different categories of social media (for instance when he talks about alternative, non-traditional and social media interchangeably, in contrast to mainstream, tradition and non-interactive media), or different research questions, subjects or modes of analysis (see table 1 or his takeaways), by presenting complete platitudes as novel insights (see the framework), or by lacking a critical analysis and distinction of the different groups in play in media (for example there exists a huge range of groups between elite and mass). The author often does not truly seem to grasp what he is talking about: For example, how can he distinguish between military and communications technology like they are two separate things? Communications technology has been THE military revolution of the past 30 years. Second, he warns not to focus too much on whether social media favours activists or governments, but goes into this in-depth in the article, while the general debate has long moved on from this subject to ask more nuanced and in-depth questions. Third, he warns not to take any data as an unlimited unrepresented firehose. Meanwhile the author called the election of Trump, the Crimean annexation and the rise of ISIS some of the most significant geopolitical events of the 21st century. ISIS is almost defeated by now, we will have to see what the annexation will mean long term, and Trump so far seems to be a lame duck and shows the resilience of the US institutions. These points can all be argued, but it is clear that we do not know what the long-term effects will be, and his claim is therefore overly strong claims on no data whatsoever.

All-in-all this article ignores a gigantic part of the literature, develops a framework full of platitudes with no use whatsoever, and does not truly seem to understand the matter they are talking about. The author has written earlier articles on more specific topics within the subject matter, and social media and political violence is his expertise, so he obviously knows a lot about it. I do not understand how this then leads to this article which simply lacks nuanced analysis and useful takeaways. But maybe I am just fundamentally misunderstanding something here?


Maaike Verbruggen, Vrije Universiteit Brussels

I found this article interesting and definitely worthwhile as an introduction to the role of social media in conflict. The length of the article and the references to historical examples made it an easy and enjoyable read. Yet, as Maaike refers to, I think the title “How Social Media is Changing Conflict” is strange considering the article seems more focused on how social media is affecting politics rather than conflict. Furthermore, some of the claims in the article are hardly groundbreaking. For example, it is self-evident that social media enables the rapid sharing of information and anyone with any experience of social media can identify this. Yet, I believe this article is deliberately written as an introductory overview to some of the issues concerning social media and conflict/politics and therefore I am not overly critical of the specifics.

The author alluded to several ways in which social media has an impact on politics/conflict and the reader will naturally be drawn to the issues that are related to their research focus. Personally, I find the enhanced role of social media in recruiting fighters for non-state actors particularly intriguing. Currently, the ICRC regards a person that undertakes recruitment and propaganda activities as not performing a continuous combat function or directly participating in hostilities. Consequently, that individual is not regarded as a lawful target under IHL. Yet, if social media continues to play such a crucial role in recruitment for armed conflicts, would this necessitate an adaption of the rules of targeting to reflect this importance? The recent drone strike on UK citizen/member of ISIS Sally Jones and the discussions regarding the legality of the strike is interesting in this respect.

Liam Halewood, Liverpool John Moores University 

Thomas Zeitzoff’s article ‘How Social Media is Changing Conflict’ sets out to provide scholars with a theoretical framework for understanding social media and its influence on conflict. Overall, I found the article to be generally informative but rather simplistic in approach. The article comes across as a ‘primer’ for those new to the subject area; something that is echoed throughout the work as the author proposes questions for the concerned scholar to take into consideration when embarking on a study of this particular topic. However, the framework the author forms conjured up some interesting thoughts for me regarding how we think about the relationship between communication technology and conflict. The framework identifies four ‘effects’ of communication technologies that can have an influence on conflict:

  • Lowered barriers to communication
  • Increased speed of information
  • Strategic dynamics and adaptation
  • New data and information

This caught my attention due to the commonalities between this understanding of communication technologies like social media, and how other forms of technology are understood in relation to conflict – specifically, certain tools and weapons used in warfare. To take the example of drone technology; drones are often referred to in relation to conflict using similar terms: potentially lowering barriers to conflict; providing increased speed of information; requiring/instigating strategic or tactical adaptation; providing new data/information. This similarity of ‘effects’ is not really surprising as drones are often used in communicative, data gathering roles; a type of communication technology themselves. However, it got me thinking about the overarching implication of what the commonality between the ways of seeing/understanding these two (very different) types of technology highlights: that increasingly, we are moving towards a landscape in which it is becoming a necessity to view and understand communication technologies such as social media almost as collective ‘systems’ that require similar levels of strategic assessment and understanding as other, more ‘tangible’ weapons of war.

As Zeitzoff notes, the future is likely to bring an increase in social media being harnessed for campaigning, political targeting, the amplification of narratives and an increased coordination between social media and cyber conflict – all of which will be potentially complicated as advances in artificial intelligence make the manipulation of social media easier and more pervasive (p. 1984). This raises some interesting thoughts in relation to our every-day lives and the civilian use of social communication technologies in particular. Specifically, how should we go about understanding and traversing this emerging world in which the social media spaces we inhabit double as conflictual battlegrounds, virtual ‘kill zones’ of political violence in which the general user becomes the prime target during wars of disinformation, perception and narrative? To an extent, this is already very much a reality…but it is crucial to consider how the convergence of AI and cyber in the social media space might give this reality an entirely new dimension.

 Anna Dyson, Lancaster University

Let know what you think in the comments!


The everywhere war – Gregory

Here, we discuss ‘The everywhere war’ by Derek Gregory, The Geographical Journal, 177: 238–250. It’s available here. The piece is open access, so you can read it for free. Please let us know what you think of it, and if you agree/disagree with any of our thoughts.

This paper, along with Gregory’s blog, have become quite influential in social science discussion of drones, and post-9/11 conflict. Also having great impact is Chamayou’s ‘Drone Theory’, both of these are seen by some as the basis for analysis of the phenomenon of drone warfare and global US counter-terrorism. Indeed, it is difficult to find an article from the social science about either subject that does not reference Gregory’s work.

Without further ado, here is what network members think of the piece.

In this paper Gregory builds on Foucault and others reflecting that the battlefield is now much rather the ‘battlespace’, and there is a blurring of boundaries as technologies and methods of warfare change. I was quite interested in the postcolonial angle Gregory adopts here, pointing as he does to the blurring of the (colonial) distinction between ‘our wars’ and ‘their wars’, with ‘our wars’ being supposedly advanced, surgical and sensitive, though on occasion becoming much less so (239). However Gregory doesn’t really address that ‘their wars’ as it were (i.e. the terrorists) have never been surgical and precise – and surely that is the point, their deliberate MO, and something we still need to come to terms with both militarily and as a society.

One interesting point that did stick out for me in this paper was the emphasis on the CIA being created in the 1940s specifically as a civilian agency to counter-balance the influence of the military (241). But from its inception onwards, from the end of WW2 to Vietnam and now the modern day, its actions have been anything but ‘civilian’. Given the ever-present blurring of the distinction between soldier and civilian, we should ask why do we maintain this distinction at all? Is the distinction a legal and social anachronism?

On a related note, I would like to discuss the Hersh quote Gregory refers to towards the end of the paper where he asks ‘If the military is operating in cyberspace, does this include civilian computers in American homes?’ (247). This for me, seems to reach right into the heart of the military / civilian problematic. Is the internet a civilian or a military space? In one respect the internet emerged from military interests to preserve information in the context of a nuclear war, but has been turned over to the civilian. And yet if the military is operating in cyberspace, would that then suggest a kind of ‘martial law’? The problem here of course is that in a practical sense, martial law is something to be enforced by an authority with the power to deliver real violence (or the threat of violence). In cyberspace however, the military does not have the same asymmetric advantage that it has in the case of martial law. In the world of cyberspace, a lone teenager in a bedroom can hack into NASA and more often than not, can exercise more power than the largest of organisations. At what point then does the lone teenager become a military threat, and indeed a military target? To play devil’s advocate here: if every citizen is a potential guerrilla/partisan fighter, either acting on behalf of a State or indeed for their own personal motivations, should civilians ever be classed as illegitimate targets? Why do we maintain the facade that civilians and soldiers are ever separate entities?

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


Gregory builds on an existing body of literature on the changing nature of warfare, discussing how the spatial and temporal delineations of warfare have blurred. In this paper he argues that US military operations are now being conducted in the “shadowy borderlands.”

The cases are very different, with varying causes, consequences, means and methods. Within each case, he references snippets of many different existing debates in those fields. This large variety of issues makes it very difficult to actually make any significant conclusions or assessments about the US operations, besides that they are conducted in the “borderlands.” That leads to the article providing limited explanatory value or new insight on the question of borderlands, as the variety of issues are too diverse to extract higher meaning.

Additionally, I find the inclusion of cyberwarfare highly questionable. Cyberwarfare is difficult to conceptualize within the existing frameworks of international security, and there are arguments to make about cyber being its own separate domain. However, in my opinion, it is mainly a technology, more than a location of military activity.

Finally, I have some problems with the methodology of the article. The different cases are very descriptive, with a lot of information adding little value to the narrative. Furthermore, as he is incorporating so many different academic debates, it ends up with highly selective sourcing. This is evidenced most clearly in the discussion of cyber, where he builds the argument on the opinion of one USAF colonel.

Maaike Verbruggen, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)

Gregory’s use of ‘borderlands’, and ‘grey-zones’ are present throughout this piece, and blend into each other. His conception of pace of the borderland makes me think of potential future operations for (semi-)autonomous weapon systems (AWS).

In literature on AWS, two broad categories of operations are highlighted, the ‘classic’ example of a system operating in an area that could only be a place for the enemy, when civilians are unlikely to be present, ala the Iraqi desert in 1991 and 2003 conflicts. Often, this is contrasted to the ‘complex’ example of terrorists/militants dressed in civilian clothes and fighting a terror campaign/insurgency in an urban environment, ala the Battle for Falluja, or Mogadishu.

For Gregory (and Duffield), such conflict would still both be ‘borderland’ wars, because the potential deployment of AWS is likely to be performed by technologically advanced Western powers. Indeed, it seems that the conception of the borderland here does not depend upon the amount of civilisation in the area of operations. International law scholars working on the issues of drone strike often talk of ungoverned spaces, i.e. those where territorial government has no control and no ability to prevent terrorist activities occurring – The Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan is a good example. This leads to states acting extraterritorially to protect themselves from foreign terrorists (known as unwilling/unable doctrine). Again, this links back to Gregory’s idea of the grey-zone between war and peace  – although legally a state using force on the territory of another state without invitation, consent, or UN security council authorisation has started an intentional armed conflict with the territorial state.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

After reading this article, I did not feel that anything ground-breaking was argued. However, this article was published in a geographic journal as opposed to a legal journal and therefore I can see why the points made in the article would be rather unique for that audience. Nonetheless, the suggestion in the abstract that “much of the discussion of 9/11 has debated its historical significance, but it is equally important to explore the geographical dimensions of the wars that have been conducted in its shadows” is misleading.

Firstly, the historical insignificance of 9/11 is not really debatable for a number of reasons and I doubt that much ‘discussion’ on the historical importance of the event has occurred because it seems totally unnecessary. Secondly, the global war on terror dominates so many international legal topics that it is totally incorrect to suggest that the geographical dimensions of counter-terror wars have not been explored.

One of the major concerns of the war on terror is that the US policy creates a global battlefield and the boundaries between war and peace are blurred. The fundamental argument within the article that the planet is increasingly militarised is one that has been made for a decade prior to the publication of the article.  This does not mean that Gregory cannot add to the arguments and bring new perspectives but the suggestion that the discussions about the militarisation of the planet are not ongoing seems to dismiss years of work that scholars conducted post 9/11.

Liam Halewood, Liverpool John Moores University

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By Disanalogy, Cyberwarfare Is Utterly New – Bringsjord and Licato

‘In our second review, we have looked at ‘By Disanalogy, Cyberwarfare Is Utterly New’ written by Selmer Bringsjord and John Licato in Philosophy & Technology, 2015, Vol.28(3), pp.339358

The paper is available here.

Here is the abstract:

We provide an underlying theory of argument by disanalogy, in order to employ it to show that cyberwarfare is fundamentally new (relative to traditional kinetic warfare, and espionage). Once this general case is made, the battle is won: we are well on our way to establishing our main thesis: that Just War Theory itself must be modernized. Augustine and Aquinas (and their predecessors) had a stunningly long run, but today’s world, based as it is on digital information and increasingly intelligent information-processing, points the way to a beast so big and so radically different, that the core of this duo’s insights needs to be radically extended.

Abstract reproduced under license.


Here are the thought of our network members:

Peter Kalu, Lancaster University

The papers’ authors are working on giving computing machines including robots the ability to reason analogically. They argue that Just War Theory cannot provide a worthwhile critique or framework for cyberwarfare because cyberwarfare is utterly new – so new there is no reasoning by analogy possible. Cyberwarfare activity and potential is increasing to the extent that the old JWT paradigms have been left in the dust and arguing by analogy –that the changes are mere wrinkles, that the deep logic of JWT remains good – wastes time. The authors in the article use mathematics in stating their case. The article concludes that, if the disanalogy argument is accepted, this can be the base for working on a new system of ethics for cyberwarfare, or at least to radically overhaul the old thinking embodied in Just War Theory.

I cannot test the authors’ maths as I cannot understand it. However I am not sure it is necessary to understand the maths in order to understand that cyberwarfare forces radical shifts in how war is understood.  Heading into the extreme case of super- intelligent robots, I accept for the purpose of reasoning the authors’ backing of the MiniMaximality principle over the Singularity principle (roughly: mini in terms of robot imagination exceeding human imagination; maxi in terms of brute computing). Their argument as I understand it, places them at odds with the Hyens authors’ conclusions. The severe meltdown of meaning in such terms as ‘war’ and ‘combatant’ and even ‘State’ that the cyberwarfare and its adjuncts has caused inclines me to accept their proposition. My response is to revisit the science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov’s ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ and invite the authors to consider how these “laws” might be updated. Drones may have already rendered Asimov’s laws obsolete:

Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  1. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  1. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

I admit I struggled somewhat with this paper, as it does not make itself easily accessible to a non-expert audience. However the central argument here clearly, is that cyberwarfare is utterly new, and therefore we need a new approach to the theory of Just War. One of the arguments cited by the authors is that the digital world will eventually enshroud everything (352). The problem here, in my mind, is the direct social implication of such an enshrouding. If everything is connected or ‘enshrouded’ by the digital landscape the simplest way to avoid cyber attacks is surely then just to disconnect. Much as the easiest way to avoid a computer virus is not to connect your computer to the internet (and not to plug any unknown device into it), the same applies for technology. I wonder then (with some future gazing) if the direct response we will witness to this digital enshrouding is a counter-movement in which terrorists and indeed armies are forced to take a technological step back – effectively disconnecting from the benefits of the digital world once cyberwarfare reaches a point wherein state-of-the-art weapons are rendered useless? Either way, I certainly agree in principle with the concept of ‘Enshrouding as hogwash’ (355) – though don’t disagree about the overall direction of the piece being that we need to return to the Just War Theory. The only problem, for me, is that the blurring between friend / enemy / criminal is such now that it becomes increasingly difficult to locate and define a fixed enemy, and even harder still to apportion a broader state-led intentionality to, say, a computer hacker working from their bedroom. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

This paper really poses an important and difficult question: Is cyberwarfare really warfare? This can be difficult to answer, and I think the Tallinn Manual has done a brilliant job. I think a major difficulty in classifying cyber activities is that when most people think of cyber warfare, they think of hacking, spying, and ‘cyber attacks’ that are usually just DDoS attacks putting a website offline. But, those who have research Stuxnet and have future-gazed realise that there is so much more destructive potential in cyber. Rupturing a dam, overheating a nuclear power station, or turning off electricity to major cities are all possible with cyberwarfare. Certainly, actions of such magnitude would normally be an act of war if done via kinetic means, yet the cyber-enemy merely tinkers with data inputs – are they really comparable?

Maybe, this is warfare for the 21st century. After all, do states really want to sell to their public a physical military confrontation with another state where thousands of service personnel might die anymore? It does make sense to some degree to go after critical data rather than bodies. Considering the aim of warfare is to dominate the enemy, and force them to submit to your political will, does it really matter whether that domination might not be in the physical sense?


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