Foreign Policy Blogs

Social Media Now on Conflicts’ Front Lines

credit: http://en.alalam.ir

credit: http://en.alalam.ir

The global growth of social media has been so fast, and the effect of ‘trending’ so widespread, that even this observation is outdated. (That was 137 characters, so I could also tweet it.) But while we are living in real-time—and wanting to know now—let us take a few minutes, if this article can hold your attention, and examine some ways social media is now on the front lines of many international conflicts.

In a recent PBS Newshour interview, Nick Rasmussen, of the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) just outside Washington DC, explained how, in the context of searching for a terrorist threat, “increasingly what ‘connecting the dots’ means to me is dealing with the huge volume of publicly available information. The work we’re doing now often doesn’t involve really sensitive intelligence; it involves looking at Twitter, or some other social media platform, and trying to figure out who that individual is behind the screen name.”

Social media started out as a technological innovation but has become a social phenomenon. Since the early 2000s Facebook has become indispensable for families and friends to stay in touch, and people and organizations with large numbers of Twitter followers are able to carve out virtual mini-media empires. Clicks and ‘follows’ are the new version of voting with your feet. The more readers or followers one has, goes the logic, the more influence one wields.

To turn it around, people who actively use social media for every day, non-political reasons are also subject to being targeted.

One of the vulnerabilities (or advantages, to a combatant wishing to recruit people) is that social media accounts usually expose users to invasive scrutiny. Facebook and LinkedIn profiles can carry enough information that, shared with the wrong person, can be used to compromise that person or uncover confidential information about his/her job. Many countries’ military members are now routinely required to not specify their location or activities.

As the years passed of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, jihadi groups increasingly began to recruit through social media. Stories now abound of young adults of Middle Eastern heritage and origin, living in western Europe and the US, who have been contacted by Islamic State through social media and convinced to move to Raqqa, the Islamic State’s purported capital. Some 60 young women from the UK, aged 20 and below, are thought in the past several years to have traveled to Raqqa.

The huge growth in cell phone cameras and the ease of posting pictures to social media has also played a role in tracking and finding various targets. Of recent note, investigative organizations were able to track operatives and military equipment in eastern Ukraine primarily through personal pictures posted to social media and publically available imaging, including open source tracking of the apparent missile launcher used to destroy Malaysian Airlines flight 17 in 2014. This has also been a method to discover the location of various actors in the labyrinthine war in Syria.

Per the previously mentioned PBS Newshour article, many Islamic State fighters simply do not disable the geo-location feature on their phones, which allows those with the right technology to track them.

Intelligence agencies of major world powers now seem to appreciate the importance of social media and its role in ‘information operations,’ a military term that infers the ability of messaging to affect the viewpoints of a target population. Just looking through listings for ‘intelligence analyst’ on several Washington DC—based job boards, foreign language specialists are widely sought for social media and social networking positions.

Of course, it is not only parties to the worlds’ trouble regions that are looking to abuse social media to their advantage. For even a longer time, social engineers and hackers have tried to gather personal information by establishing links online.

If you are uncertain about that LinkedIn invitation you just got, try to verify the person through a known contact. If you are doubtful, ‘ignore’ or ‘delete’ works just fine. If he or she happens to be a colleague whom you meet at the next social, you can safely add them, and actually have a face-to-face conversation, something social media, unfortunately, seems to increasingly discourage.

 

Author

Jason Anderson
Jason Anderson

Jason spent April and May 2014 in Central Asia researching religious extremist groups. He has project experience in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Jason previously served as a trainer for US military and civilians working alongside counterparts in Afghanistan, and as a coordinator with Afghan ministerial advisors on National Priority Program (NPP) funding proposals. Jason speaks Russian and holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.

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