Twitter Is A Battlefield: How Militaries Use And Weaponize Social Media

Photo courtesy of the US Army via Flickr.

For both public and stealthy operations, the militarization of social media is a growing international trend.

The same tools that stir up buzzy void in the hands of the Kardashians have completely different (and much more sophisticated) implications in the hands of military organizations.

For military use, social media can both broadcast messages and provide extensive data for stealthier projects. Lately, it’s been militarized in both ways — to create and spread information in offense, and take and manipulate data in defense.

Public militarization of social media: exemplified by numerous Middle Eastern military groups

Just as companies and celebrities have adopted social media tools to expand their reach and engage users, so too have militaries in conflicted countries.

In Iraq: The Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, executes sophisticated brand management and online presence, using tweets, videos, and Instagram to fundraise, campaign, and spread their message. They even have a Twitter that appeals to cat lovers.

In Syria: Social media has been instrumental in Syria’s civil war, with insurgent brigades branding themselves on YouTube, fundraising on Facebook, and breaking news on Twitter.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Presidency Instagram account spewed propaganda avoiding the very conflict the rebels purported to expose.

In Israel: The Israel Defense Force (@IDFSpokesperson) and its opposition, Hamas’ military wing (@AlQassamBrigade), have essentially live-tweeted their conflict, mirroring and amplifying physical hostilities.

The IDF may have the biggest social media presence of any military worldwide, which it has used to highlight their security threats, spread information, garner sympathy, and allegedly gamify its war tactics.

Hamas, though modest in comparison, accomplished virality by tweeting and posting emotional triggers, such as photographs of dead Palestinians, to contest Israel’s claims, though most of their English accounts have been disabled.

The US, in contrast: a stealthier approach to government and military involvement in social media

With social data acting as a pool for scientific and corporate experimentation as well as NSA probing, it comes to little surprise that the US military keeps a close watch and heavy hand on social media.

Examples include:

The Minerva Research Initiative: Launched by the Department of Defense (DoD), this multi-million dollar program funds universities for various projects that study the social dynamics of movements and online contagions. It researches the behavior of non-violent activists, both foreign and domestic, ostensibly to understand and prepare for mass civil breakdown.

The Minerva Initiative also partially funded Facebook’s emotional contagion experiment, which manipulated users’ moods through news feed algorithm changes.

SMISC: Headed by DARPA, the Social Media In Strategic Communication program tracks how social movements influence behavior on platforms like Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Kickstarter.

Studies focused on the Occupy movement, protests in the Middle East, memes, celebrities, and the spread of misinformation.

ZunZuneo: The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) created an online social media and microblogging platform for Cubans, allegedly in an attempt to foment political opposition to the Castro regime and surveil users.

Operation Earnest Voice: A United States Military Central Command (CENTCOM) contracted campaign aimed at spreading pro-US propaganda on non-US social media websites under false personas.

British spy group GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) has also been found to seed the Internet with poll manipulation, page view inflation, and email impersonation.

The takeaway

As the United States Military and others may discreetly ripple through social media, more overt web-driven tactics are being deployed by armies overseas.

These approaches, though different, are telling of the power, potential, and evolution of social media — both in the hands of government, and those opposing.

The Internet and social media, then, have become platforms wherein organizations (and indeed, anyone equipped) can maneuver, create, and even weaponize information.

What are your thoughts on the militarization of social media? Tweet us @curiousmatic, and answer our survey below on your understanding of this topic.

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Jennifer Markert