Social media is revolutionizing warfare

Social media is revolutionizing warfare

P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking write:

“The exponential explosion of publicly available information is changing the global intelligence system … It’s changing how we tool, how we organize, how we institutionalize—everything we do.” This is what a former high-level intelligence official told us back in the summer of 2016, explaining how the people who collect secrets—professional spies—were adjusting to a world increasingly without secrets.

We were asking him about one of the most important changes in technology and politics today: the rising power of social media. Whether it’s conflicts in the Middle East or political fights over the Supreme Court or the upcoming midterms in the U.S., social networks originally created for fun have instead become crucial battlegrounds. And this source, who had run the Defense Intelligence Agency, had been one of the most respected leaders of America’s recent wars, and had used these same online social spaces to run down terrorists and insurgents.

We didn’t know then that Lieutenant General Michael Flynn would soon also demonstrate yet another side of the social-media battleground—the spread of disinformation—and along the way become one of the most crucial players in a scandal that has divided America.

Open Source Intelligence (known as OSINT) has a long history, being first separated from the classic spy craft of coaxing and interrogation (known as human intelligence, or HUMINT) and the intercept of confidential communications (signals intelligence, or SIGINT) during World War II. The breakthrough came when Allied analysts with the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of today’s CIA) discovered that they could figure out the number of Nazi casualties by reading the obituary sections of German newspapers that were available in neutral Switzerland. By war’s end, these analysts were cataloging roughly 45,000 pages of periodicals each week and transcribing more than 500,000 words of radio broadcasts each day.

In the ensuing Cold War, U.S. intelligence agencies collected OSINT on an even more massive scale, monitoring more than 3,500 publications in 55 languages and nearly 1,000 hours of television each week. But intelligence chiefs traditionally put little faith in what this mass of free data yielded. If it could be acquired so easily, how could it be valuable? And if the Soviet Union was sharing it willingly, wasn’t it bound to be a lie?

The end of the Cold War and the rise of the internet seemed to settle these questions. By the early 2000s, many of the key OSINT programs were shut down; information was simply spreading too quickly online to keep up. Policy makers also began to believe there was no reason to work so hard. For years, intelligence analysts had labored to maintain a sprawling, updated encyclopedia on the regions of the Soviet Union. Now there was Wikipedia.

However, a few forward-thinking intelligence officers took a cognitive leap in the other direction. What if OSINT wasn’t losing its value, they asked, but was instead becoming the new coin of the realm?

The question was painful because the answer could require setting aside decades of training and established thinking. It meant envisioning a future in which the most valued secrets wouldn’t come from cracking intricate codes or the whispers of human spies behind enemy lines—the sort of information that only the government could gather. Instead, they would be mined from a vast web of open-source data, to which everyone had access. If this was true, it meant changing nearly every aspect of an intelligence agency, from shifting budget priorities and programs to altering the very way its spies looked at the world. But when we interviewed him, Flynn felt it was a crucial change that had to be made.

“Publicly available information is now probably the greatest means of intelligence that we could bring to bear,” he told us. Over the course of his career, he had come to a stark realization about the new nature of power. “Whether you’re a CEO, a commander in chief, or a military commander, if you don’t have a social-media component … you’re going to fail.” [Continue reading…]

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