Authors: Lieutenant Commander Seán Carnew and Major Jason Furlong
Affiliated organization: U.S Naval Institute (USNI)
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: August 2017
Social media has grown into a disruptive technology that must be considered by militaries and governments.
Technological innovations that become disruptive can go unnoticed at the time of their emergence. In hindsight, it may seem obvious they would result in fundamental changes. Most recently, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and chat boards—originally intended as means of communication for use by the public—have evolved into platforms for advertising, political messaging, and the coordination of social movements.
A Disruptive Weapon
Prior to the advent of social media, public political dialogue was limited to traditional media—print, radio, and television. Use of these mediums was limited through legislation and the requirement for large initial and continuing capital output, resulting in a small number of individuals or organizations controlling the messaging and the resulting dialogue. People may have had views or opinions other than those voiced in the media, but their ability to find, communicate with, and provide support to others with the same views was limited. In addition, it was difficult for a foreign state actor to set or influence the dialogue in a meaningful way without risking exposure.
The Internet, and specifically the proliferation of social media, fundamentally alters this paradigm. No longer do a handful of actors or organizations control the media and the national dialogue. Anyone from anywhere in the world can anonymously create content and post it, making it available to be streamed to almost every citizen within a target group. Individuals can easily find others who hold similar views or opinions and limit their information to those sources, so that nothing challenges their beliefs, regardless of the validity of the evidence used to support those views. The result is a fragmented landscape of mutually supportive microcommunities, each isolated within its own small sphere of beliefs, views, and accepted realities. In this new framework, social media has become an effective tool to fuel disruption. Anonymity and the difficulty of vetting content make it easy for propagandists to establish flash narratives and influence the dialogue.
Evidence of nations using social media as a disruptive weapon has grown in recent years. Russia has developed a reputation for the use of “troll farms”—groups of hundreds of people whose job is to infiltrate message boards and comments sections—to advance Russian national aims or seed discord and disharmony. These farms also create content and messaging that are injected into the online sphere, captured by others, and spread. Fake news stories; hacking and the release of private communications; fabrication of events, statements, or outcomes; and fear mongering have all been used to affect target nations.
If these campaigns of influence are well designed, coordinated, coherent, and carefully managed, their effectiveness is greatly increased. Recent attempted attacks on electronics in Ukraine, Bulgaria, Estonia, the United States, Germany, France, and Austria have been effective in sowing discord among the populous and undermining faith in the government, the media, and public institutions.
No longer do a handful of actors or organizations control the media and the national dialogue. Anyone from anywhere in the world can anonymously create content and post it, making it available to be streamed to almost every citizen within a target group. Individuals can easily find others who hold similar views or opinions and limit their information to those sources, so that nothing challenges their beliefs, regardless of the validity of the evidence used to support those views
Changing Societal Norms and Behaviors
Coincident with the rise of social media has been a change to societal norms and behaviors, including an increase in self-disclosure of personal information that previously would have been difficult to acquire. Social media participation demands a level of self-disclosure and encourages users to broadcast vast amounts of personal information, such as location, habits, preferences, and employment. This personal data can be used to inform, direct, and fine-tune targeting of a desired audience.
Social media pronouncements by individuals can have far-reaching effects. From the sailor who posts that his ship is delayed in deploying to the travel schedules of senior military and political leadership, information that previously would have been protected or difficult to acquire is now often easily attainable. This information and associated embedded metadata are more valuable than ever. Data mining allows information to be processed and analyzed to predict future behaviors and predilections, or to identify individuals susceptible to influence or coercion. Intelligence-gathering operations that previously required a vast network of embedded human intelligence sources can now be conducted remotely, at minimal cost, and at negligible political risk to the targeting nation.
Citizens willing to divulge vast amounts of metadata and information frequently lack an understanding of how large social media operators gather and amalgamate data. Personal data can be mined and sold to the highest bidder or used by paying customers to target advertising to specific groups. This information also can be sourced through direct exploitation (hacking) of social media providers. Individuals or organizations are selectively targeted and exploited despite institutionalized programs to make them more resistant to external influences. It is not difficult, for example, to target Department of Defense software engineers working on Navy fighter programs.
Combining Emerging Technologies
Changes in societal norms and the ability to create, change, or focus the narrative become even more disruptive when combined with emerging technologies. Unmanned air vehicles (UAVs, or drones) have experienced an explosion in capability and availability. Originally the sole domain of technologically advanced militaries and nations, UAVs have spread to the public sector and are advancing rapidly in terms of capability, affordability, and availability. While the capability of publicly available systems is nowhere near that of larger, more complex systems currently deployed by state actors, video technology such as the GoPro camera with high-quality resolution means these commercial unmanned systems can operate as effective electro-optical (EO) devices.
The acceptability of using social media as an instrument of influence will vary among nations. While the populations of Western nations likely would have no issue with use of social media by political actors as a political tool, they might not accept their governments creating false narratives to influence other nations. This certainly would be the case if the outcomes in the targeted nation were contradictory to the political norms of the aggressor (i.e., a democratic nation targeting a popular movement to support an established dictator). There also may be legal limitations placed on governments regarding the use of social media in this context. This does not mean Western nations are inhibited from using social media as an external political or military tool, but their scope will be constrained by their national political environments and legal frameworks.
The acceptability of using social media as an instrument of influence will vary among nations. While the populations of Western nations likely would have no issue with use of social media by political actors as a political tool, they might not accept their governments creating false narratives to influence other nations. This certainly would be the case if the outcomes in the targeted nation were contradictory to the political norms of the aggressor
Social media use has become the norm, permeating every aspect of social, political, and economic life in much of the world. The resulting altered societal norms and behaviors have made the exploitation of the medium increasingly possible and effective. The emergence of other disruptive technologies has amplified the effectiveness of this exploitation and enabled it to be possibly combined with other, more traditional levers of power or military capabilities. Social media has become a disruptive technology that presents both great potential for use by and threat to modern nation-states and the militaries that defend them. State actors and militaries must, at a minimum, understand the capabilities and threats posed by social media and develop strategies to defend themselves when targeted. And, where politically and legally able to do so, develop the capability to employ social media as a political lever of power.
Les Wathinotes sont soit des résumés de publications sélectionnées par WATHI, conformes aux résumés originaux, soit des versions modifiées des résumés originaux, soit des extraits choisis par WATHI compte tenu de leur pertinence par rapport au thème du Débat. Lorsque les publications et leurs résumés ne sont disponibles qu’en français ou en anglais, WATHI se charge de la traduction des extraits choisis dans l’autre langue. Toutes les Wathinotes renvoient aux publications originales et intégrales qui ne sont pas hébergées par le site de WATHI, et sont destinées à promouvoir la lecture de ces documents, fruit du travail de recherche d’universitaires et d’experts.
The Wathinotes are either original abstracts of publications selected by WATHI, modified original summaries or publication quotes selected for their relevance for the theme of the Debate. When publications and abstracts are only available either in French or in English, the translation is done by WATHI. All the Wathinotes link to the original and integral publications that are not hosted on the WATHI website. WATHI participates to the promotion of these documents that have been written by university professors and experts.