In Assessing Social Media, Context is Everything

Information warfare has been around for years, and social media technology is the latest addition to the practitioner toolkit. A recent Washington Post article tries to put this on-going development into perspective by mentioning Russia’s messaging strategy for the Ukraine conflict before describing the launch of the State Department’s new Share America website. The facts are accurate and the article is largely neutral – but this comparison is the wrong context to analyze both Share America and Russia’s use of technology.

Analysis of social media – or any communication instrument– is dependent on understanding both how and why it’s employed. Russia and the U.S. use social media differently and for different purposes. It’s easy to lump it all together under the umbrella of propaganda, but that does not help us understand why the tools were used or their effectiveness in achieving specific outcomes.

The goal of Share America is to present issues America cares about — “democracy, freedom of expression, innovation, entrepreneurship, education, and the role of civil society.” The content is in English and has links to pieces covering everything from how to apply for a U.S. Visa to popular sports terms Americans use in everyday language – in other words, it’s not about specific American foreign policy.

The dissemination strategy to accomplish this goal is straightforward and doesn’t rely on interagency methods: the content is available for anyone to access while the website says that the State Department bureau that created Share America works with overseas embassies to help get the message out on these topics.

The goal of Russian social media use – as described in the link provided in the WaPo article – is part of a large and multipronged effort to disrupt Western narratives critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. NATO Commander Philip Breedlove called it “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare.”

The story pushed by the Kremlin is about protecting Russian speakers within Ukraine from extremists and their desire to join Russia. Reports made it appear as if a large section of Ukraine wanted to secede – while it was only a small sliver that was invaded – and that there were regular attacks committed against civilians by Ukrainian forces with Western help. Social media plays a particular role alongside traditional media that seeks to create a political reality pushed by Vladimir Putin himself. He has mentioned the creation of “Novorossiya” in Southeastern Ukraine – which does not exist – and maps of this invented region have been disseminated on Twitter. There are several Twitter feeds in both English and Russian that purport to be news sites for this new area, and the government-run Russia Today (RT) English language news station also broadcasts similar messages, including conspiracies of who shot down the MH-17 flight.

Share America and the Russian use of social media cannot be reliably compared due to the difference in purpose, message content, and dissemination. Share America is primarily used by one U.S. Government agency as a tool for soft power and Public Diplomacy – an on-going effort to expose and attract overseas audiences to the Western culture and way of thinking – and in this case is not tied to a specific policy goal or regional audience.

Russia is also using technology for soft power, but it’s combined with hard power – military actions on the ground – to implement a policy decision. Putin is not just using the Internet or social media, but every communication method at his disposal with the cooperation of other government entities to push a specific agenda regarding the legitimacy of his actions in Ukraine. Moreover, his disinformation campaign is designed to confuse and create doubt for both an internal and external audience about what is actually happening.

A better comparison would be to examine the specific efforts of the U.S. to counter the Russian narrative – such as the State Department’s use of Twitter for that purpose – than to categorize Share America in the same realm of information warfare.

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Why ISIS Is So Good At Digital Strategy

The use of technology – particularly of the Internet – is nothing new for terrorist groups. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) used effective online outreach several years ago by departing from standard ideological messaging to showcase battlefield footage and glamorize jihad for potential recruits. The terror group ISIS, which has its roots in AQI, has improved upon those earlier tactics to create “the most sophisticated propaganda machine of any extremist group,” according to the director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Their digital strategy combines their success on the ground with timely and sophisticated social media messaging.

ISIS uses a wide array of digital platforms – including Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, jihad websites, message boards, and many more foreign and lesser-known digital channels – to pump out abundant, often violent material. The content they produce runs the gamut from lengthy professional videos to tweets, message postings, and even oddly humorous pictures of cats with guns. By breaking down specific innovations in their digital strategy, we can better understand not only how it works, but also how to fight back.

The goals of ISIS’s propaganda war are to recruit and fundraise. Analysts characterize their capabilities as sophisticated and innovative because their digital methods have yielded significant results: up to 15,000 foreign fighters in their ranks and thousands of dollars of sympathizer donations in their pockets. And the widespread coverage in Western media has served to legitimize their claim of being a global force in the eyes of potential recruits.

ISIS’s digital strategy success stems from their mastery of three elements: an understanding of their audience, their ability to produce compelling digital content for that audience, and a savvy use of social media platforms for content distribution and engagement. In other words, they know whom they want to reach, how to reach them, and what they want to say when they find them.

Their primary audiences are young Muslim men who either feel angry and alienated because of an identity crisis or are fed up with oppressive regimes. Their desperation makes them susceptible to an extremist world vision that seems the answer to their plight.

ISIS reaches these frustrated and marginalized populations with their media arm and grassroots fighters and directly addresses their grievances with a wide range of content. Professionally produced videos showcase a multifaceted view of the movement; the violent “Flames of War” portrays fighters as brave and pious, “The Best Ummah” (Muslim society), in Arabic with English subtitles, shows religious men building a just society where everyone prays and the needy are cared for.

Along with videos, battlefield tweets and photos show the camaraderie, military success, new uniforms, shiny weapons, and in one case the large amounts of watermelon enjoyed by the fighters at breakfast.

The distribution techniques are where these efforts converge to produce a dramatic effect on potential recruits and a global audience. ISIS has flooded the social media landscape, simultaneously using multiple platforms for its sophisticated content. A recently released video features British hostage John Cantlie acting like a news anchor to announce the first in a series of lectures about ISIS. Popular Twitter hashtags were used to promote that video and the media covered it as well. ISIS has repeatedly used similar marketing tactics, such as spamming the #WorldCup hashtag in June to direct people to its own propaganda. To ensure that users with different Internet speeds can receive videos, they are posted in multiple places in different file sizes, demonstrating an awareness of mobile devices.

What ultimately might weaken the digital strategy of ISIS is what they have capitalized on so well from the beginning: success on the battlefield. ISIS has created a vision that has been difficult to refute, but they will have to quickly adapt their narrative to maintain that mystique if facts on the ground change. The only way to counter this well-oiled machine is to recognize ISIS’s innovative blend of capabilities, and then directly contest the social media space using the same methods and channels. Social media companies should also remain vigilant about enforcing their terms of service, even if it represents a whack-a-mole problem.

A “fight fire with fire” approach presents a challenge for governments given their operating restrictions and bureaucracy’s inability to adapt to technology – at any speed. But interagency and inter-governmental coordination, and partnerships with NGOs to promote efforts like the new #NotInMyName Twitter campaign against ISIS by Muslims around the world would be a good start.

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Enough with travel snobbery. There is no “right way to travel.”

The NYT and The Guardian have recently featured criticism of the idea of “bucket list” and “must see” travel, with the implication that there is a right way and wrong way to experience life and overseas.  There are legitimate criticisms here about the superficiality of packaged tours – and the benefits of immersing yourself in a country and culture – but an over-simplified view that all travelers will only benefit from one prescribed travel style is the same narrow mindedness and arrogance travel is supposed to correct in the first place.

One article not only attacks the idea of listing top destinations, but features places deemed “not worth it.” The reasoning given is beyond a measured suggestion to avoid popular “tourist traps” and adds a definitive “trust us” to erase any doubt that these suggestions might not be for everyone.

The compiled advice from would be savvy globe trotters follows the same opening inflection, and is presented in the smug manner of someone who is infinitely secure that there is no alternative to their own deep well of interests, experience, and conclusions.  They advise, for example, avoiding The Vatican with the same certainty one might intone to caution against hitting your thumb with a hammer:  I’ve tried it, and you definitely don’t want to do it.

I have to wonder if the person complaining about crowds at the Holy See is experienced enough to consider going in the off-season, or possibly in the morning, since that would alleviate the chief complaint.  Maybe its crazy to assume not all travelers are the same, but there was no daylight in the condemnation of wrong travel to discuss time, interest, budget, and savviness constraints and considerations that most people have.

To be sure, I have definite opinions on how to get the most out of a foreign locale, and I certainly wouldn’t spend all my time on the beaten path with other Americans in an all-inclusive tour or resort.  I think that over time there are likely diminishing returns for the worldliness gained if a traveler never moves past the novelty of the check in the box that celebrates a brief visit to yet another well-trodden landmark before piling back onto the bus. I can make that judgment for my own travel preferences now after over a decade of travel, almost half spent living overseas, and visiting many of those landmarks.

I think a quiet side street café with some locally made wine and a few words with the locals could be a transformative experience for anyone, but I still don’t understand how in the world that the first glimpse of the Coliseum for a history or architecture enthusiast could be judged any less impactful just because it’s popular.  The automatic idea of avoiding specific places because they are “touristy” is just as bad as the “must see” lists the authors decry.

I can’t help but think of how I might tell someone that has never been to Paris to not bother, as the article suggests.  I suppose I would describe it exactly as I remember my first visit, but assure them that there is zero redeeming experiential value to be gained from a couple of days strolling around a richly historical and very pretty European capital with world-class museums and a global landmark awash in lights.  Trust me, I’d say, you don’t want to see that.

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Can “Poke” be a new model for thinking about privacy?

The comments at the end of Mike Elgan’s Computerworld article caught my attention because of the views on privacy.  In his post, he discusses the notion of privacy settings and not keeping messages and pictures forever.  He feels there should be more functionality like the new Poke feature that has an expiration for content, and this should be built into our social networking.  The commenters were not looking at it that way.

After the flap from Randi Zuckerberg about a photo of hers that was released, privacy is again being discussed with the addition of “decency.”   However, several of the comments at the end of the article don’t seem to support this view.  The general consensus was that you shouldn’t expect privacy on the Internet at all. Privacy settings were discussed and an app to delete content after a finite amount of time identified as a possible solution, but the reaction was still everything should be expected to be public.  Many people have cautioned for years that there is no privacy on the Internet, and that idea has taken hold to a large extent.  People are now cognizant of the fact that pictures, posts, tweets, etc can come back to haunt you if you aren’t careful.  But that has meant be careful whom you “friend” and of what your privacy settings are for your social networking platform, as much as not posting something you wouldn’t want around in a few years.

It may not be from the readers of this Computerworld post, but I think that there is still quite a bit of interest in having some expectation of privacy on the Internet.  Otherwise, there wouldn’t be the seemingly constant uproar when FB changes its privacy settings.  And this could make Poke a very popular feature, not just for teens who want to “sext,” but for people who want to have some measure of reliable control over their communication with their specific audience.  As Mike Elgan points out, forgetting is a valuable thing, and not having posts around for posterity can be very beneficial, not just for individuals but for everyone.  It gives control and choice.

This idea seems to run counter to the way the Internet was constructed, the evolution of the Cloud, and the all or nothing idea that if it’s on the web, it’s there forever.  Yes, the archival potential of the Internet is amazing, but the potential downside of what that means has been a painful education over the last several years.  The next step in our collective use and understanding of the Internet could be that we not only expect, but demand that we have more control over not only what is public, but what stays and for how long. This will modify the growing acceptance that everything has the potential to be retrieved forever regardless of what you do.

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Making Sense of the “Occupy” Movement

A lot has been written about Occupy Wall Street and what it means. There are several different angles to view this phenomenon from, in terms of its message, conduct, and effectiveness. I have questions about all three, and my biggest question is what progress, if not victory, looks like for the movement. Where does it go and how does it define success? I think Occupy Wall Street needs two things it thus far has resisted in order to answer these questions: Leadership and goals.
Calling this a movement in the first place evokes thoughts of such things as the civil rights movement or the women’s movement. I don’t know if that’s a fair comparison, but I think that gets to the heart of my confusion: I don’t know what the Occupy movement wants. Whereas the other movements aren’t something that you win per se, there were clearly identifiable and verifiable goals (non-discrimination, equal rights under the law, and equal work/equal pay to name a few). I know the taglines and the ideas behind Occupy, and I’m not inclined to disagree with them. Income and wealth inequality, a broken financial system, ineffective regulation, anger at the ‘system’ in general – these are all things that I would say “99%” of us can agree with. But these ideas, while critical, are not practical end states. Everyone will have different ideas of what not only constitutes ‘income equality’ but also how to get there. Any movement I can think of that made a lasting impact in terms of social or other change, had at least one clear overarching goal it was striving toward. Further, if not leaders in the traditional sense, clear organization went with the clearly articulated goal or goals.
I’ve read some people in the movement think that it doesn’t need leaders or goals at this point. Fair enough, but I think at some point if Occupy is to gain traction beyond being a mob of people in various cities it will need to clearly identify what it hopes to accomplish. Others have said that the fact people are paying attention and discussing can be considered a success. I think this has some merit, as it has stimulated the national conversation about the economic crisis we are still going through, the causes for it, people affected by it, and how our society is structured. However, unless this is an ultimate goal of the movement, this would be an intermediary step to changes in laws or regulations. If it’s not, I see it as problematic for two reasons. First, people are talking about Occupy’s participants and their conduct as much, or more, than they talk about their economic and social equality ideas. While any movement and its members will be under a larger amount of scrutiny, I think this is particularly acute here in a negative way. Depending on whom you ask, the Occupy movement stands for any number of things including anti-semitism, 9/11 “truthers,” and people that have left modern society behind. Second, there are quite a few stories about crime and poor conduct by the members in the various places they are camped. I think any movement will have a fringe element to it, and I don’t think these aspects negate the broader ideas or the potential that the Occupy Wall Street movement has. Some attention to these types of stories is inevitable, but at this point there is really little else to talk about in terms of how the movement is progressing. The crackdown by local authorities is a different topic.
Clear goals and leadership would necessarily and beneficially streamline the movement, and that’s what I’d personally like to see from Occupy Wall Street. I think that would make it more difficult for a fringe element to co-opt, advance the conversation on the issues and proposed solutions, and make it easier for additional people to support it. I share the anger and the frustration over the economic meltdown, and I’m glad it’s still being discussed. But I think it’s easy for people to be upset at the economy or to want to have jobs, and just as easy to go yell about it. More difficult is to come up with a cohesive voice and potential solutions that lawmakers or Wall Street can act on. I haven’t seen any politician really embrace Occupy in any meaningful way beyond messages of some kind of supposed understanding, and I think that’s because they don’t know what to make of it. No one has apparently asked them to do anything specific, at least not yet.
I see real potential for Occupy Wall Street in terms of positive change, be it regulatory or social, because of the number of people involved. Their overall message resonates with millions and people are paying attention. In fact, I think there may be so many ideas about social and economic equality generated that I’m not sure if the people camped in the town squares are even on board with all of them. But if the ultimate goal is anything beyond discussion and awareness, I don’t know where it goes. Is it a success? Time will tell if this movement joins the ranks of others that are credited with systemic and lasting social change, but Occupy Wall Street will need to make some adjustments of its own before that determination is made.

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The First Jump

I’ve been posting about social technology but wanted to change gears and detail my first skydive experience.  I went to Skydive New England in Maine, and did the Advanced Free Fall (AFF) course.

The class lasted around 7 hours or so, and covered the basics of body position, hand signals, how a parachute works, safety procedures, emergency procedures, exiting the aircraft, steering your canopy, and landing.

I got suited up in a jumpsuit, helmet with radio, goggles, and my student rig.  Once the plane takes off the ground gets far away pretty fast.  But I kept telling myself that more altitude was really a good thing, better to be up higher where you have a few more seconds to fix a malfunction or cut away your main parachute and pull your reserve than down lower.

For me the most disconcerting aspect probably wasn’t even the height, but the noise.  The drone of the plane and when you get in the door the blast of wind.  It was definite sensory overload.  With two instructors on either side we jumped and after a couple of seconds I started to go through the ‘dive flow’ of maneuvers I was to practice, which included the extremely important practice pulls on the main parachute.  While flinging yourself out of an airplane is pretty easy, its a different ball game when you are trying to do that and stay in the most stable body position possible and go through your various maneuvers.  The instructors were constantly correcting my leg and arm positions as I checked my altitude and bearing.

At 6000 ft. it was pull time for me, so I waved the instructors off and pulled.  A couple of seconds later I was jerked to an upright position and saw my canopy fully inflate with the ‘slider’ coming down keeping the lines separated.  I remember thinking, good canopy – ok, and was floating there for a few seconds.  I then remembered I need to fly this thing to the ground and grabbed the toggles to steer and break with.  After controllability checks making sure I could steer I checked my location and realized I was drifting with the wind too far down the landing zone.  I turned into the wind and hovered there for what seemed a long time; since I was directly in the wind I was descending very slowly.  I did a few turns until the instructor on the radio told me to begin making my approach to the landing zone.

I began to see why flying the canopy can be just as hazardous as the chute malfunctioning.  If you got caught up in the wind or made turns to close to the ground it could be a bad day.  If you drifted too much downwind you may get blown off course and end up in a tree or elsewhere.  But that didn’t end up being a problem.  Approach was guided by instructors on the radio and the last few feet before you touch down are tricky unless someone is helping you.  If you ‘flare’ with your breaks too early you’ll drop down because you are always higher than it looks when you are coming in.  But the direction was perfect for a soft standup landing.

I realized I was concentrating so much on the various parts in freefall and then under canopy I probably didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have, because it was amazing.

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Funny isn’t it? Exactly the point.

I’ve researched and written quite a bit on the role of social media in protest and mass uprising.  I’ve bored many people to tears about the use of Twitter and Facebook in the Middle East and their potential role in revolution.  But, as many have pointed out, I don’t have a Twitter or Facebook account, which strikes many people as amazingly ironic and/or amusing.

In one sense I can understand the confusion.  After all, I’m professing to understand and characterize the use of specific technology, and I’ve spent hours and hours researching it.  However, the more I thought about the way people react to the fact that I do not use the technology I’m writing about, the more I began to realize how this encapsulates the very challenge of characterizing, contextualizing, and understanding social networking technology.  As I’ve written about, platforms like Facebook and Twitter are versatile methods for connecting and communicating with a variety of potential effects.  I am interested in their use in protest and mass uprising, which is a very specific aspect of their use.  I really couldn’t care less about updating my sandwich making status or getting an update from a celebrity in 140 characters or less.

If I were to be Facebooking or Tweeting, would people assume I’m using it to foment mass protests or uprising because that is the subject I’ve been writing about?  As has been becoming more and more clear, the context and purpose all of these tools are used for are the critical pieces people are overlooking.  I text message and email, occasionally watch youtube videos, and sometimes read message boards on various political and technological discussions.  None of this has anything to do with the larger phenomenon of how new media is affecting revolutionary movements or autocratic governments.  There is some important overlap in the sense that I’m of a certain demographic that knows how to use the technology, has access to it, and use it regularly to communicate.  But this is where the important distinctions come in:  I’m not using it for any of the purposes I’m reading or writing about.

If I had a revolutionary bent, wanted to actively support a cause, or promote something along these lines, then yes I could potentially use the tools I already do in addition to Facebook and Twitter to help that.  But that will bring in the much larger questions of what exactly I’m trying to accomplish and whether the tools I’m using will help me achieve those goals in the way I use them.  In other words, the presence and use of these instruments do not amount to very much unless they are addressed in the proper context.  You don’t need to use the Internet and information and communication technology to have a protest or uprising, and the presence of them in autocratic countries will not simply produce regime change.

I understand how people would assume I’m using Facebook all the time and I think it does pay to have familiarity with these technologies.  I am writing about it, and, after all, this is part of the appeal.  ‘Everyone’ has access to these tools and they have powerful potential depending on what they are used for, where, and by whom.  But the important part to remember is its more about what the user wants to do and can do than whether they are just using the tools.

UPDATE 2014.  My Facebook account was reactivated and I established a Twitter account a while ago.  The more I’ve thought about connective technologies as instruments, the more I realized I can use their inherent versatility in much more mundane but useful ways than I’ve been researching.  It takes a little discipline, and I think that is a big part of dealing with the deluge of digital information resources we have at our finger tips.  Limiting time with these tools can make them much more valuable.  Sending messages to friends and family is a great simple use of FB that doesn’t take much time (it doesn’t utilize all the capabilities of the platform, but thats ok).  On Twitter, I really like getting a stream of breaking news and the challenge of condensing my thoughts on specific technology and policy items that I want to share with people.  There has been alot of value in observing the unfolding phenomenon of the impact of technology on society, as there is in participating in its use and figuring out the particular nuances of how it applies in different contexts.

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