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!


3 thoughts on “Zeitzof – How Social Media Is Changing Conflict

  1. Hi Maaike, I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggled to get ‘the point’ of this article! It didn’t make much sense to me, but I tried to be a bit more sympathetic in my comment. I just don’t understand what the article was supposed to be telling us.


  2. @Mike, I am glad to hear that I was not alone with my struggle to hear what point he was trying to make. You make a good point that his way of approaching technology is a weird way to discuss the issue. But he comes from the viewpoint of political science, not of military technology like you and I presumably are. But you have phrased your comments a lot more diplomatically, I should learn from that 😉

    @Josh I am also glad to hear you also thought the glaring lack of Western activity was an issue. I think that the issue of Cambridge Analytica is also an excellent point, but perhaps this article was written before this was published.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I do sometimes wonder with some journal articles if I’m the only one who reacts so strongly to them, so I do try and be careful in the first instance!

    On a related note here, I think any article that talks about social media runs the risk of being out of date before it goes to print. This is one of the major challenges of any sort of academic debate around internet-based technologies that grow and evolve at such pace, when traditional methods of peer-reviewed print-based academia just can’t keep up.


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