Matthew Ford is an academic currently focusing on war and the data-saturated battlefields of the 21st century. His lastest book - Radical War (Hurst & Co, London and Oxford University Press, New York 2022) - with Professor Andrew Hoskins from Glasgow University traces war’s data trajectories, from the epicentres of battle out to distant parts of the world, into history, memory and as it is memed into the platforms that mediate digital culture.
Today, the smartphone has become ‘the place where we live’.2 It is an integral part of our everyday existence. Launched in 2007, this one device now makes it possible to record events, find work, manage teams, locate ourselves on the planet, upload our experiences to social media, get a mortgage, read the newspaper, order a taxi, rent a holiday home, buy almost anything and get it delivered to our front door. The smartphone and the platforms, services and applications that form part of the mobile, connected ecosystem have redefined how we experience the world. These changes have not just affected how we think about day-to-day living. It also affects how we experience, prosecute and come to understand war.
All of this has affected the Anglosphere’s armed forces in a range of unexpected and sometimes radicalising ways. Bringing local, national and transnational narratives into new conflict, the smartphone’s information ecosystem helps disaffected constituencies find each other and band together. Military, veteran and activist identities get reframed in these new spaces, creating an important location for sharing frustration and discontent. This has led to several incidents involving serving military personnel being investigated for their connections to extremist and right-wing political groups.3
In this new ecology of war, connected technologies allow everyone the opportunity to participate, whether they are keyboard warriors or broadcasting live from the frontlines. The smartphone, for example, enables us to produce, publish and consume media from the palm of our hands, wherever we can get online. This has accelerated discussions and flattened our experiences. People draw connections between events in ways that only smart devices make possible. It has given us the opportunity to amplify our emotions and created asynchronous engagements with war and violence. Different communities record, reuse and recycle content at different times, locations and speeds.
WhatsApp, for example, is an end-to-end encrypted messenger service owned by Facebook. Instant messaging services like this are used by government ministers looking to avoid public scrutiny4 and targeteers circulating kill lists. Free to download to your smartphone, WhatsApp connects users to war and violence wherever they are in the world. Overseas, WhatsApp was in use among armed forces coordinating Reaper drone attacks in Mosul.5 American forces have been advised to download the app for operational use on their phones,6 and it has also been hacked by Israeli ‘cyber-arms dealer’, NSO Group.7
The same technologies that the military use in targeting operations overseas are the same technologies civilians use to stage, broadcast and record political demonstrations at home. Thus, WhatsApp, Instagram and social media sites like Parler and Gab were used by supporters of President Trump to organise an insurrection and storm the Capitol Building on 6 January 2021. Including veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – one of whom, Ashli Babbitt, was shot dead by Capitol Police8 – the goal was to stop Congress from certifying President Biden’s election victory. Recording and broadcasting events from their smartphones, the data the protagonists produced made it easy for the FBI to identify and subsequently arrest them.
Just as members of the Islamic State now maintain the memory of the State by circulating key propaganda online,9 the events in the Capitol created a digital archive for Trump supporters to look back on and invoke in their ongoing efforts to re-elect the 45th President. Like the proverbial music gig, they’d bought the T-shirt and had the smartphone photos. They had been there on that memorable day. The smartphone and the digital ecosystem it fostered have created all number of entirely new media for war and violence to occupy. People now experience a constantly churning spectacle of opinions and perceptions that spill out and feed back into each other, irrespective of whether they are expressed overseas or at home.
As British Tory politician Johnny Mercer demonstrates, this has given us a window into the emotional tensions prompted by military defeat in Afghanistan. Calling for a military and political reckoning, Mercer cited U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Scheller who, in August 2021, had taken to Facebook to demand that the military and political chain of command be held to account for the decisions they had taken in relation to Afghanistan.10 Knowing that his videos would certainly damage his career, Scheller subsequently recorded a video for YouTube and declared, ‘Follow me and we will bring the whole fucking system down’.11
Just like many veterans of the Global War on Terror, defeat left Mercer and Scheller wondering what the GWOT was all about.12 In the context of the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol Building, however, Scheller’s invocation to his audience not only reflected his emotional response to events in Kabul but also implied a call for action. Although Scheller subsequently denied it, senior officers feared that the Marine Corps colonel wanted to see an insurrection in Washington D.C. and a restoration of Donald Trump to the presidency.13 The reckoning that Mercer called for was reflected in the language used by Scheller. The political and military establishment had stabbed ordinary servicemen in the back. Something had to be done.
In these circumstances, it was inevitable that Scheller’s video would have a political effect in Washington D.C. It would also bring conspiracy theory directly into the heart of Anglo-American politics. Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert and Republican Congresswomen Marjorie Taylor Greene, for example, both spoke in support of Scheller. Both legislators are pro-Trump. Both have links to QAnon, the conspiracy theory that posits, ‘Donald Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media’.14 QAnon supporters were not just outside the Capitol Building. Conspiracy theory had in effect gone mainstream, brought into the heart of politics by those Congressmen and women who looked on defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan as an example of establishment politics gone wrong.
Mercer might not take QAnon seriously but just like in the States, conspiracy theory is now a feature of British politics. In Britain’s case, former members of the Parachute Regiment and veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have been involved in COVID-19 anti-vaccine protests. Having sought to gain entry to old BBC studios in protest against MSM propagating what they consider to be pro-vaccine propaganda, one ex-soldier declared, ‘Basically the men of our unit in our service, believe that we’re pointing the weapons in the wrong direction’.15 Here too the language of the GWOT is spun back at the politicians that directed the military to go to Iraq and Afghanistan. Recorded on a smartphone by an apparent member of the anti-vax political party Freedom Alliance, the soldier went on to say,
“This time now the tyranny is against our people and we can’t see it ’cos it’s on our home soil where it’s never been before. Because [it’s] psychological warfare not bombs, we can’t see it, because [it’s] invisible. We’ve had this experience and used these tactics in other countries to manipulate, divide and conquer and now we’re watching our own government and our own military use it against us. But the only men and women in this country that can resist against that are the ones that have the experience and the training that we use to help us [sic].16“
The smartphone has done a great deal to create the media ecosystems where people who share counter-cultural views can meet and organise. Presented as an affirmation of free speech, conspiracy theory has become the reality, not the exception. In many respects, the effects on political action are not always easy to see. There is every possibility that online echo chambers will lead to a further radicalisation of politics, where the tools and techniques applied overseas become the means by which social division is instrumentalised for political effect at home.
All of this has been amplified online through the connected technologies that both the military and the public use to organise their everyday lives The smartphone’s digital ecosystem has imploded conventional civil-military relations, enabled disaffected veteran soldiers and officers to find each other, and facilitated access to a like-minded audience. Among friends, they now feel comfortable attacking the state in the hope of defending it. In some cases, such rhetoric has bled into and drawn upon conspiracy theory. This has animated the frustration and dysphoria experienced by many veterans now wondering why they bothered to sacrifice themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever happens in the future, blowback from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has spiralled out of the information prisms of the new war ecology in unanticipated ways. As Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen observes, the algorithms built into social media are designed to push people towards ‘extreme content’.17 This is ripe territory for political exploitation. Something politicians should weigh carefully as they call for their reckoning.
Johnny Mercer, 09:23, 27 August 2021 posted on Twitter @johnnyMercerUK, at:https://twitter.com/JohnnyMercerUK/status/1431351799303348235?s=20. Accessed 8 November 2021.
Alex Hern, ‘Smartphone is now “the place where we live”, anthropologists say’, The Guardian, 10 May 2021. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/may/10/smartphone-is-now-the-place-where-we-live-anthropologists-say. Accessed 18 October 2021.
Sian Norris and Heidi Siegmund Cuda, ‘Fantasy of War – far right and the military’, Bylinetimes, 10 November 2021. Available at: https://bylinetimes.com/2021/11/10/the-fantasy-of-war-the-far-right-and-the-military/. Accessed 11 November 2021.
Haroon Siddique, ‘Cabinet Policy obliges ministers to delete instant messages’, The Guardian, 12 October 2021. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/oct/12/cabinet-policy-ministers-delete-whatsapp-messages. Accessed 9 November 2021.
James Verini, ‘How the battle of Mosul was waged on WhatsApp’, The Guardian, 28 September 2019. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/28/battle-of-mosul-waged-on-whatsapp-james-verini. Accessed 23 October 2021.
Shawn Snow, Kyle Rempfer and Meghann Myers, Deployed 82nd Airborne unit told to use these encrypted messaging apps on government cell phones’, Military Times, 23 January 2020. Available at: https://www.militarytimes.com/flashpoints/2020/01/23/deployed-82nd-airborne-unit-told-to-use-these-encrypted-messaging-apps-on-government-cellphones/. Blake Moore and Jan E. Tighe, ‘Insecure communications like WhatsApp are putting U.S. National Security at risk’, 8 December 2020. Available at: https://www.nextgov.com/ideas/2020/12/insecure-communications-whatsapp-are-putting-us-national-security-risk/170577/. Both articles accessed 23 October 2021.
Stephanie Kirchgaessner, ‘How NSO became the company whose software can spy on the world’, The Guardian, 23 July 2021. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2021/jul/23/how-nso-became-the-company-whose-software-can-spy-on-the-world. Accessed 23 October 2021.
Stephen Losey, ‘Woman shot and killed at Capitol was security forces airman, QAnon adherent’, Air Force Times, 7 January 2021. Available at: https://www.airforcetimes.com/news/your-air-force/2021/01/07/woman-shot-and-killed-at-capitol-was-security-forces-airman-qanon-adherent/. Accessed 30 October 2021.
Charlie Winter, ‘Media Jihad: the Islamic State’s doctrine for information warfare’, The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, King’s College London, 2017. Report available at: https://icsr.info/2017/02/13/icsr-report-media-jihad-islamic-states-doctrine-information-warfare/. Accessed 17 August 2020.
Stuart Scheller, ‘To the American leadership. Very respectfully, US’. 26 August 2021. Video on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/stuart.scheller/videos/561114034931173/?t=238. Accessed 30 October 2021.
Stuart Scheller, ‘Your move’. 29 August 2021. Video on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lR7jBsR0D10&t=495s. Accessed 30 October 2021.
‘“We Never Got It. Not Even Close”: Afghanistan Veterans Reflect on 20 Years of War’. Politico Magazine, 10 September 2021. Available at: https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/09/10/politico-mag-afghan-vets-roundtable-506989. Accessed 30 October 2021.
Jeff Schogol, ‘Leaked documents reveal just how concerned the Marine Corps was about Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller’s call for “revolution”’, Task and Purpose, 17 October 2021. Available at: https://taskandpurpose.com/news/marine-corps-lt-col-stuart-scheller-court-martial/. Accessed 30 October 2021.
Mike Wendling, ‘QAnon: What is it and where did come from’?, BBC News, 6 January 2021. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/53498434. Accessed 30 October 2021.
The video was posted on Twitter by Katherine Denkinson at 20:23 on 9 August 2021. Available at: https://twitter.com/KDenkWrites/status/1424813677849415685?s=20. Accessed 30 October 2021.
‘Frances Haugen says Facebook is “making hate worse”’, BBC News, 26 October 2021. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-59038506. Accessed 1 November 2021.
Almost a decade has rolled by since I was asked to pen an open-source scenario on the future of law enforcement, which I titled ‘Welcome to the Jungle’. It was well-loved, and praised, albeit treated in the same manner as the fiction tha...