I’m not sure if it’s coincidence or not but the Washington Post and NY Times both recently had very different articles about enemy forces (terrorists or insurgents) using Twitter and our response to it.
The first Washington Post article is actually a retread of a story (which even I wrote about back in September) about the twitter battle between the Taliban and ISAF. I have no idea how the people at ISAF managed to convince the powers that be to allow them the freedom to use Twitter for a real tool of engagement but a big TwShiloh thumbs up for getting it done.
U.S. military officials say the dramatic assault on the diplomatic compound convinced them that they needed to seize the propaganda initiative — and that in Twitter, they had a tool at hand that could shape the narrative much more quickly than news releases or responses to individual queries.
“That was the day ISAF turned the page from being passive,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Badura, a military spokesman, explaining how @isafmedia evolved after the attack. “It used to be a tool to regurgitate the company line. We’ve turned it into what it can be.”
And that’s really the key AND the lesson that I predict will be overlooked by just about everyone. Whether we’re talking about military engagements or terrorist and criminal activity in our neighborhoods, the tendency is to clamp down on information flowing out. It’s not just the more you say, they more you’ll be liable for being wrong. I can’t help shaking the feeling that the public (or, the center of gravity, if you will) is still seen as essentially a nuisance if it’s thought of at all.
I’ve written about this subject quite a bit in the past and I think remains a key indicator arguing that very little we do domestically is ‘intelligence led’. When we refuse to engage an opponent we cede the initiative on that field to them. Maybe that’s a good strategic move and sometimes is the appropriate reaction but that would require some evaluation process by which consequences are determined and a determination is made. I’m not convinced most of our ‘decision makers’ have sufficient orientation to issues like this to even ask the right questions.
And so, what have the results been since ISAF began battling with the Taliban over Twitter and loosening up from the standard ‘Latest press release here’ sort of post?
“If you look at the chronology over the past six months, it does look like there have been some changes in their content and claims,” Badura said. “They realize that we pay closer attention and are going to call them on it when we realize there is something completely sensational or inaccurate.”
Most of the Shabab’s Twitter messages are in English, not Somali, and are clearly meant for an outside audience. American officials said they were worried that the Shabab might be using Twitter to reach potential recruits in the West.
It doesn’t appear anyone has made any sort of decision about what specific action to take but the jist of the article appears to lean towards strong arming Twitter to shut down al-Shabab’s account.
Because shutting down web sites worked so well in Egypt and Libya.
There is an appropriate time to shut down web sites. If, for example, you know a terrorist is going to activate a sleeper cell and launch an attack via a tweet or a comment in a web page, it might be worthwhile to shut that page down, disrupting that communication. But shutting it down simply because you don’t like the content and without a complementary strategy to prevent it fro resurfacing on another account or webpage (either via artful hacking or a well placed drone strike) you aren’t going to be able to do much more than temporarily halt communication.
Otherwise known as whack-a-mole.
It is disappointing, therefore, that there doesn’t appear (based on the article) to be any consideration for engaging in a counter-campaign.
We certainly won’t win or lose a war via Twitter but it costs us virtually nothing to ‘fight’ there. And, if you believe that, at least in part, we’re fighting over the uncommitted middle (the majority of people who aren’t deeply committed to one faction or the other) and their support, why would we abandon an opportunity to present our message to them? Especially, when our opponents are spreading their message?
TSA does a pretty good (if thankless) job on their blog in attempting to communicate with the
livestock traveling public. Why don’t more law enforcement/homeland security agencies do so?
Kind of related, in a non-conflict way, is the recent decision by the Swedish Tourism authority to hand over the official Twitter account (@Sweden) to ‘regular’ Swedish citizens.
“No one owns the brand of Sweden more than its people. With this initiative we let them show their Sweden to the world,” says Thomas Brühl, the CEO of the country’s tourism agency VisitSweden.
Think about that for a minute. Who among us works for a company or agency that would let any employee run their Twitter account (assuming they even have one)? And why not? Are our overlords convinced that they’ve hired a bunch of foul mouthed sociopaths that have been simply biding their time for the opportunity to say offensive things?