John Kerry and the social media battlefield

Secretary of state makes statement on Syria


If the world is up in arms about something and it's not on social networks, did it really happen? 

John Kerry's speech about the "risk of doing nothing" in the face chemical warfare in Syria was notable as a prelude to what seems an inevitable war. But what was also striking was his reference to "the social media" as a way of delivering the evidence of Bashar Assad's alleged atrocities. 

It was nothing short of a bow to the growth of an unstoppable force that is shaping the way we consume and share information. 

The secretary of State spoke of "the videos that anybody can watch in the social media," showing the aftermath of the attacks, "and I watched them one more gut-wrenching time. It is really hard to express in words the human suffering that they lay out before us." 

He's right; the videos are so disturbing that even a glance prompts me to turn away. But they are available at the click of a mouse thanks to technology that didn't exist a decade ago. And that's a good thing. 

It used to be that wars played out on living room televisions, with viewers watching and listening silently as anchors delivered the news. Even during the run-up to the Persian Gulf War, I remember office colleagues huddled around a TV set in the conference room as the likes of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf used Pentagon video to show us the impact of the missiles. 

But now Twitter and Facebook have changed the rules of war. 

Regular Joes are playing in the arena, sharing videos, commenting on the debate over Syria and in many cases influencing their social media friends. 

This dialogue -- which includes people in the Middle East -- unfolds at a blistering pace that arguably is as important as anything that government officials say. 

What Kerry instinctively understands is that social media drives actions and attitudes that the administration needs to carefully monitor. There used to be instant media polls -- should we or should we not go to war? -- but now people vote every second, responding to every speech and sound bite. 

Barack Obama has 36 million Twitter followers, but after he spoke about Syria in the Cabinet Room, he and his team had not posted a word on the subject. Because the president knows the power of social media, he may be reluctant to use it until he's made a final decision. 

When George W. Bush was leading the nation to war with Iraq and Facebook was a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg's eye, ordinary people had to rely on newspaper letters to the editor to weigh in on Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction. But these days anyone with a smartphone has the ability to reach a mass audience that includes the president and his secretary of State. Now that's power.