US Military Cyber Warfare

Waging War on Social Media

Weaponizing Likes and Shares

Socal media warfare was a major theme of the Third Future of War conference. Experts from Twitter, the Weaponized Narrative Initiative, Jigsaw, New America and the US Department of State discussed the uses and abuses of social media in the context of global conflict and terrorism at the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center, Washington D.C., on Tuesday, 21 March 2017.

This emerging aspect of information warfare is of special interest to Warfare.Today after we broke the news on Hazaras activists hijacking the Munich Security Conference hashtag #MSC2017 in February. Reporting on this event created our most popular news story to date, with Hazaras activists sharing our story in turn on Facebook and Twitter. In a strange twist, reporting the news also affected the news. This, as we found out at the Future of War conference, is a key aspect of the social media battlespace.

Social Media Jihad 2.0

Terrorism anaylst and former Kronos Advicory Principal and COO, Michael S. Smith, went inside the ISIS global recruitment and incitement campaign with his talk on ‘Social Media Jihad 2.0’.

Smith specializes in the influence operations of Salafi-Jihadist groups like al-Qaeda (al-Qa’ida) and the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/Daesh). Together with Medal of Honor recipient Major General James E. Livingston, USMC (Ret), he founded Kronos Advisory in 2011 to provide irregular warfare support services to US national security managers. In recent years, he has been involved with a variety of collection programs targeting online communications which help improve both strategic and tactical intelligence pictures of threats posed by Salafi-Jihadist elements comprising the Global Jihad movement. His insights on al-Qa’ida’s and the Islamic State’s activities, along with opportunities to counter their recruitment and incitement programs, have frequently been sought by members of Congress, executive branch officials, counterterrorism practitioners in the United States Intelligence Community, and federal, state and local law enforcement officials. In 2016, for his work collaborating with hactivists who have infiltrated Islamic State social media networks and online infrastructure to expose threats to the US and its allies, Smith was listed among Foreign Policy magazine’s “100 Leading Global Thinkers.”

In ‘Social Media Jihad 2.0,’ Smith analyses how the Islamic State has waged the most aggressive online recruitment and incitement campaign of any terrorist group in history. The unprecedented efficacy of this group’s conversions of popular social media technologies into tools used to build and reinforce support is highlighted by the recent wave of terrorist attacks in the West executed by individuals who have not set foot inside the group’s so-called “caliphate.”

War Goes Viral

Co-Director of the Center on the Future of War’s Weaponized Narrative Initiative, Brad Allenby, was joined by Jigsaw’s Director of Research and Development, Yasmin Green, Twitter’s former Head of News, Government and Elections, Adam Sharp, New America’s Strategist and Senior Fellow, Peter W. Singer II, and the US Department of State’s Global Engagement Center’s Principal Deputy Special Envoy and Coordinator, Ahmed Younis, to debate ‘What Does It Mean When Social Media is Weaponized?’

Peter Singer wrote the defining story ‘War Goes Viral’ for The Atlantic in which he outlined the new strategies and tactics available to terrorists:

Like most everything today, the campaign was launched with a hashtag. But instead of promoting a new album or a movie release, #AllEyesOnISIS announced the 2014 invasion of northern Iraq—a bloody takeover that still haunts global politics two years later.

Revealing a military operation via Twitter would seem a strange strategy, but it should not be surprising given the source. The self-styled Islamic State owes its existence to what the internet has become with the rise of social media—a vast chamber of online sharing and conversation and argumentation and indoctrination, echoing with billions of voices.

Social media has empowered ISIS recruiting, helping the group draw at least 30,000 foreign fighters, from some 100 countries, to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. It has aided the seeding of new franchises in places ranging from Libya and Afghanistan to Nigeria and Bangladesh. It was the vehicle ISIS used to declare war on the United States: The execution of the American journalist James Foley was deliberately choreographed for viral distribution. And it is how the group has inspired acts of terror on five continents.

Singer predicted that this was only the beginning of a larger revolution. With Google and Facebook poised to swamp the world with internet connectivity via high-altitude balloons and solar-powered drones, Singer is right to see that this is only the beginning. Social media does not, he argues, challenge biases, but reinforces them, creating ever larger interest groups that refuse to listen to opposing or non-confirmatory voices.

In one of his best lines, Singer asks “Just how did a throwback death cult with a seventh-century worldview come to dominate 21st-century social media so swiftly and completely?” The same way Katy Perry has over 90 million Twitter followers; the same way any modern PR company would advise: emulating Hollywood blockbusters on the one hand, creating authenticity through intimacy on the other.

Battle of the Narrative

As early as 1993, just two years after the first website was created, John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, both defense analysts at the Rand Corporation, wrote a seminal paper about cyber warfare that also included their predictions for the emergence of what they called “netwar.” Netwar was propaganda writ large: opponents would “disrupt, damage, or modify what a target population ‘knows’ or thinks it knows.” It was not just George Orwell’s 1984, but a coming battle of Big Brothers.

Singer points out that today netwar is a daily occurence. In a startlingly prescient statement in the 2016 article he warned that:

After [US] Election Day, we should not be surprised to find a vocal group of internet users with mysterious IP addresses decrying the result as a fraud and driving talk of conspiracy—and even of resistance or secession.

#resist, #theresistance and #resistance are three of the ten most popular Twitter hastags in the ongoing campaign against President Donald Trump. One anti-Trump campaign using #resist now in preparation is currently being retweeted by those refusing to acknowledge the democratic process.

Where netwar aims to destroy the public perception of reality, insights from viral messages on social media show another side to the information war. A study of Facebook activity, “The Spreading of Misinformation Online,” published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the probability of someone believing and sharing a story was determined by how well it matched their existing beliefs and the number of their friends who had shared it before them. Social media did not create new communications so much as replicate beliefs that were already held by their audiences – and, just as importantly, socially reinforced by audience peer networks.

Don’t Forget the Social Media Jihad

What Singer does not see is that the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from Islamic State’s social media successes is not that they have created a new movement, but that they have harnessed something that already existed: deep hatred of the West rooted in religious ideology. This is what makes Islam so dangerous. At any point or time, radicalization may begin.


The talks as given at the Third Future of War conference:

Social Media Jihad 2.0: Inside ISIS’ Global Recruitment and Incitement Campaign
War Goes Viral: What Does It Mean When Social Media is Weaponized?
Brad Allenby Co-director of The Weaponized Narrative Initiative of New America and ASU’s Center on the Future of War
Yasmin Green Director of Research and Development, Jigsaw
Adam Sharp Former Head of News, Government and Elections, Twitter
Peter W. Singer Strategist and Senior Fellow, New America
Ahmed Younis Principal Deputy Special Envoy & Coordinator, Global Engagement Center, US Department of State

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