Social Media and National Security

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The onset of twentieth century has witnessed the most symmetric and kinetic wars in the history of warfare, while the twenty-first century dawned with multifold asymmetric and non-kinetic conflicts. Nations lost hundreds of thousands of lives for trivial yards of physical terrain during first World War. But today, state and non-state actors develop multiplex designs to take control of significant place in cyber space having aftermaths for the physical domain. Cyber space today allows these actors to extend their power in the social media domain at a scale and complexity which was thought impossible earlier. Social media, is a technological lifeforce which not only unites, inspires, informs, educates, and delights, but also has the power to maim.

Social media emerged out of the Web 2.0 revolution, which was a set of features and applications that promoted interoperability, sharing, and multiple-way communication. Social media existed before Facebook in the form of MySpace and other platforms, but it took off in a big way after 2004 when Facebook was launched. Social media has helped people globally organize revolutions and riots, recruit terrorists, encourage attacks, glorify gangs and spread violence. To most, social media conjures up thoughts of celebrities tweeting embarrassing pictures, long-forgotten friends connecting with each other on Facebook, and aspiring performers posting videos of their antics on YouTube. Activists and individuals globally have begun using social media to connect with each other, amplify their voices, coordinate actions against government and law enforcement, and publicize their side of the story—actions that have changed the world. The 2011 Arab Spring and 2011 London riots are controversial, yet powerful examples of how social media is impacting matters of national security.

History shows that terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda, extreme right-wing organizations, and otherwise, have long used the Internet to spread propaganda about their ideology and attacks, distribute training guides, and recruit others. They host forums where they discuss how to create bombs, post videos to YouTube demonizing their enemies, and ingratiate themselves with possible recruits by chatting with them over Twitter, Facebook, and even video game worlds like the World of Warcraft.  The terrorist’s groups and their handles on Twitter such as (@HSMPress – al-Shabaab, @almanarnews-Hezbollah, @Alqassambirgade-Hamas, @aBalkhi- Taliban, @alsomood-Taliban, @MYC_Press-AlShabaab are few such examples. 

Today technology has enabled both state and nonstate actors to misuse the marketplace of ideas and beliefs at the speed of algorithms and this nature has changed the battlefield of war at all level globally. If viewed through the lens of ‘hybrid’ warfare, the information warfare is becoming an end unto itself.  Information is being used to assert one’s narrative while disrupting, attacking, distorting and dividing the society, values and culture of other competing nations. With the powerful use of social media, an actor can win the war before it even begins by weakening trust in national institutions, consensus on these values and commitment to those values across the international community. Infact, wars have transformed from periodic conflict to continual competition today. 

According to the US guidelines to secure social media use, the belief prevails that social media brings forth grave threat to national security particularly these threats are associated with social engineering, web application attacks and phishing. As a result, the use of social-media applications such as Twitter and Facebook are banned at government workplaces. The concern for security was raised on occurrences and impacts of social media user accounts being hacked and the economic loss it caused to the national security. For instance, in 2013 the Twitter account of Associated Press (AP) released a tweet falsely stating that there had been two explosions at the White House resulting injury to the President Obama. Within two minutes, the tweet had reached the US stock traders and it dropped over 143 points; the loss was estimated around $136.5 billion. In the same year, the Syrian Electronic Army hacked AP’s twitter feed and released bogus headline. Though tweet was found out to be erroneous and was taken down within minutes but the damage was done. Some of the major social engineering attacks in history are a 15 year old Kane Gamble successfully using social engineering to get into the email accounts of CIA Director John Brennan and James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence; the 2011 RSA SecureID Cybersecurity attack; 2016 Democratic National Committee email leak and the notorious 2014 Sony Pictures hack. 

In August 2012, Indian government faced enormous vandalism to the public order when thousands of workers and students fled several cities in the south and west of the country after the circulation of text messages which contained warning about Muslims counter attacks over ethnic clashes in the northeastern state of Assam. The Government of India blamed Facebook, Google to YouTube videos and Pakistani social media sites resultantly blocked more than 250 websites and social networking sites accusing them of spreading inflammatory content. 

Platforms like Facebook and others pose a threat to National Security. Foreign enemy intelligence agencies use social media as a tool to recruit, communicate and train their members, spread propaganda and radicalization to a great extent. One such example: unknown likes and comments on Facebook can be a trap by Foreign intelligence agencies to extract vital information about National Security. Multiple cases of ‘social media trap’ by foreign agencies have been reported in recent years in which people got trapped through simple likes and comments on their post by unknown people, mainly female accounts. It is used to extract crucial information about enemy’s logistics, operational details, training institutions, details of weapon ammunition, troop movements and other vital information. In such situation, it becomes extremely difficult to monitor every single social media account of armed forces personnel and common people. Furthermore, an impossible task to track which vital information is shared with these intelligence agencies. Due to advancements made in technologies, these intelligence agencies are always finding new ways to trap target citizens.

As information and psychological warfare has moved away from conventional space to cyber space, with advancements in technology, social media platforms have become weapon of choice for nation state actors in defining mass narrative on an issue. It is also being used to change audience behavior and views. We experienced Facebook being used as a weapon in the Brexit campaign as well as the US elections by Cambridge Analytica, a data driven company.

With regards to the usage of social media, it should be remembered that how fast the information can spread and how great the impact of believing false information can be towards national security. The huge relevance of social networks to the major global setbacks spurred the interests of policy makers about the tremendous influence and pressure, social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook, can potentially exercise on domestic and external politics. But nevertheless, one cannot deny the effective usability of it as well. Instead of dismissing social media and perceiving it as a threat to national security, governments should ensure to determine whether the information received via social media can be trusted or not and thus enabling them to leverage the information sharing capabilities of social media.

Image credit: Today Testing (for derivative) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.


About the authors

Hammaad Salik is an entrepreneur and member advisory Strategic Warfare Group. He aims to provide accurate and transparent cyber information to the general public.  His expertise is Cyber Warfare Operations, Kinetic and Psychological Warfare, AI & Big data. 

Zaheema Iqbal is a senior cyber security policy researcher at National Institute of Maritime Affairs, Bahria University Islamabad and member advisory Strategic Warfare Group.  Her interest includes Cyber Warfare and Cyber Defense Planning.