(This story was originally published in 2015)
Social media as an analytical tool is all the rage. Yet there are some who are yet to be convinced of its utility. If we fail to see the value it has as a rich source of analytical insight then we fail to succeed in a future where it will be an essential starting point for analysis. This is a key reason why I have been developing new training programmes at Atlas Analytics focused on open source information and especially social media. But what is its power and does it offer genuine insights? And in an age of increasing information overload how can it be harnessed?
In January 2014 an article I wrote was published in a government publication produced for the analytical community. Focussing on the use of social media to help inform decision-making, I cited evidence and case studies I had gathered over nearly two years about Jabhat Al-Nusra, a Sunni jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaeda.
I looked at the group’s professional use of social media, managed through its dedicated media division, to advertise its successes, promote its cause, and therefore communicate with the world, and how it has helped establish it as one of the most visually recognisable of all the armed opposition groups in Syria.
At the time of writing social media revealed that the group was well equipped, well trained and had an effective command and control structure. It also had good administration; files leaked online indicated that it had a logical system of documenting its growing inventory of equipment and personnel, including personal attributes and characteristics of its fighters.
Now, a year later, the media talks far less about Al-Nusra, but the whole world knows the name Islamic State (ISIS).
Just like their previous allies and later foes (Al-Nusra and ISIS in its former guise of Islamic State in Iraq endured a very public break-up, much of it well-publicised through their respective Twitter channels) it is Islamic State’s use of social media channels and online supporters combined with semi-professional image and video editing skills that have helped propel it to the front pages.
ISIS is not unique. Syria and Iraq have become the world’s leading jihadist battlefields and similar groups manage social media accounts for exactly the same reason; seductive Facebook pages expose viewers to ideology and, according to Newsweek, can help turn ‘angry dispossessed outsiders into romantic freedom fighters’.
The last statement is perhaps truer now than it was when written more than a year ago, and if the instigators of the tragic events of Sydney, Paris and Copenhagen were not partly inspired by online messaging of extremist groups then the groups themselves have used the events to promote their own cause. In the latest issue of Dabiq, ISIS’ online propaganda-filled magazine published in late February 2015, the following appeared: “Indeed, you saw what a single Muslim did with Canada and its parliament… and what our brothers in France, Australia and Belgium did – may Allah have mercy upon them all and reward them with good on behalf of Islam.”
Other organisations, too, know full well the power of social media. Syrian President Bashir Al-Assad’s government maintains a heavy presence across social media including Instagram (@syrianpresidency, 36,000 followers as of February) with regular, professionally executed updates, pushing back at rebel groups in Syria with its own version of events, and helping to motivate its supporters.
For news and intelligence organisations this information is valuable. It provides useful source material for analysis and enables better prioritisation of more expensive assets.
Regardless of whether your audience is the public or a policy maker, the effective fusion of multiple, relevant sources of intelligence can contribute to more robust assessments.
Organisations that do not do this, risk being at a disadvantage compared to their competitors, whoever they may be. But there are concerns about using this sort of information. Here are two of the most significant:
Too Much Information: In current conflicts all sides are using social media to promote their cause. Analysts face a glut of images, videos, Tweets and blog entries, and the task of assessing what is truth, fiction or propaganda is difficult.
Inadequate Security: The Internet has become a digital battlefield, a virtual civil war, and the more rebels in Syria try to win support by posting videos of attacks the more Pro-Assad forces like Syrian Electronic Army push back with hacking. For the analytical community, we need to be more aware of how our digital footprints can be used against us.
But if the way wars are fought and global events are controlled and covered has evolved and social media is integral for both the participants and the observers, we can’t afford to not fully utilise it. Therefore here are four of my suggestions for helping us to do this:
1: Deliver appropriate social media analysis and online tradecraft training to analysts. This should include skills for first identifying relevant sources of information, and crucially a rigorous analytical process for questioning the relevance, reliability, credibility and accuracy of the content – a process which we at Atlas Analytics have already designed and are helping our clients to use.
2: Identify and implement technology requirements for secure browsing. By first understanding an organisation’s information requirements and the ways in which they either do or plan to access open source information, relevant technology can be identified to help the analyst do their job as well as they can.
3: Regularly practice fusing social media intelligence (SOCMINT) with other sources of information through ongoing developmental training. Analysts should be confident in their ability to fuse multi-source information and produce a robust assessment, even if that assessment is; “we don’t know”, which, if true, is as important to be able to state with confidence and credibility as answering the intelligence question given.
4: Finally, fully understand any legal implications in researching social media and other digital sources. This will help a clear and easily understandable doctrine to be implemented, to both keep the analyst and the organisation’s reputation safe, and to help ensure that only appropriate information is used for analysis. This will also help produce assessments that can be used with confidence, for example in a court, in other media, or with international partners.