Tag Archives: Social Media

A Proactive Approach to Deploying Naval Assets in Support of HA/DR Missions

Naval HA/DR Topic Week

By Marjorie Greene

In our current information age, there appear to be many trends that are reshaping the naval approach to operations in support of HA/DR.  Among them are the following:

  • The  extremely broad availability of advanced information and communications technologies that place unprecedented powers of information creation, processing, and distribution in the hands of almost anyone who wants them – friend and foe alike;
  • The increasing complexity of missions as naval forces increasingly form partnerships with various civilian agencies and nongovernmental organizations;
  • The rising importance of decentralized operations;
  • The data deluge – the unprecedented volume of raw and processed information with which humans must contend.

All of these trends are reinforced by the rapid rise of social media.  Many naval analysts are conducting research that will give insight into how social networks can be exploited, especially during HA/DR operations.

Deeper Civil-Naval Integration Will Be Needed for HA/DR

To help frame and inform studies about the true value of “soft power” missions in the future, CSIS conducted a study in March, 2013 of “U.S. Navy Humanitarian Assistance in an Era of Austerity.” Chaired by Admiral Gary Roughead (USN Ret.), formerly Chief of Naval Operations, the study discusses the emergence of proactive humanitarian assistance and the need for deeper civil-military integration. This will be a challenge unless the military has the cultural knowledge to know whom to communicate with during these missions.

There are still major barriers to using social media for naval operations when warfighters respond to crises. For example, how can we use social networks for theater operations in such a way that the data can be combined with traditional command and control tools (usually classified) for naval operations? How can we overcome the considerable challenge posed by information overload? How can we reconcile the traditional decision-making of hierarchically oriented commanders with that of the civilian sector which is currently cooperative and collaborative?

Until recently, most basic research has focused on developing technical solutions to filter signals from noise in online social media. But this is starting to change.  There is less emphasis on techniques such as keywords to filter or classify social network data into meaningful elements and more emphasis on introducing new methodologies to come to a conclusion about the importance, utility, and meaning of the data.  

I have also been looking for alternative methodologies to evaluate the impact of incorporating information from social media streams in HA/DR operations. Analyses have shown that naval officers often lack the regional cultural knowledge to know whom to communicate with in HR/DR missions and must build working relationships with new groups of stakeholders and responders for each mission. Naval officers are required to develop the cultural connections to conduct the mission and the operational data shows that this process often takes too long. It may be that social media can facilitate these bonds and relationships.

Social media is changing the way information is diffused and decisions are made, especially for HA/DR missions when there is increased emphasis on commands to share critical information with government and nongovernmental organizations. As the community of interest grows during a crisis, it will be important to ensure that information is shared with appropriate organizations for different aspects of the mission such as evacuation procedures, hospital sites, location of seaports and airports, and other relevant topics. Social media can increase interoperability with non-military organizations and create a faster decision cycle. For example, studies have shown that even using traditional messaging, in the first 14 days of the U.S. Southern Command’s Haiti HA/DR mission, the community of interest grew to more than 1,900 users!

US Navy social media badge

Operational conditions vary considerably among incidents and coordination between different groups is often set up in an ad hoc manner. What is needed is a methodology that will help to find appropriate people with whom to share information for particular aspects of the mission during a wide range of events. A potential methodology might be to pro-actively establish relationships before a crisis occurs and a model for doing this is presented below. The model mimics the famous experiment of social psychologist Stanley Milgram, who provided the first empirical evidence of “six degrees of separation” when constructing paths from friend to friend as in a social network. 

The Stanley Milgram Experiments

In his famous series of experiments in the 1960’s, Stanley Milgram hypothesized that short paths can be found to quickly reach a target destination when an individual mails a letter to someone he or she knows on a first-name basis with the instructions to forward it on in this way toward the target as quickly as possible. The letter eventually moved from friend to friend, with the successful letters making the target in a median of six steps. This kind of experiment – constructing paths through social networks to distant target individuals – has been repeated by a number of other groups in subsequent decades.

The Model

In an approach similar to the Milgram experiments, I propose to use a unique message addressing rule which constructs social networks as events occur. It is an approach to intelligent agent-based computations that builds on behavioral models of animal colonies. These animal models show how colonies can detect and respond to unanticipated environmental changes without a centralized communications and control system. For example, the ant routing algorithm tells us that when an ant forages for food, it lays pheromones on a trail from source to destination.  When it arrives at its destination, it returns to the source following the same path it came from. If other ants have travelled the same path, the pheromone level is higher. Similarly, if other ants have not travelled along the path, the pheromone level is lower.  If every ant tries to choose the trail that has higher pheromone concentration, eventually the pheromones accumulate when multiple ants use the same path and evaporate when no ant passes.

Just as an ant leaves a chemical trace of its movement along a path, this simulated agent attaches traces of previous contacts by means of “digital pheromones” to each message that it sends. This is done by ensuring that all communicators along a path are kept aware of all previous communicators in the path. Suppose, for example, “A”, “B”, and “C” represent three naval warfighters using a social network. “A” starts a path on a particular topic by sending a message to “B”.  “B”, in turn, decides to send a message to “C” on the same topic.  Thus far, this is similar to the Milgram experiment, in which a “path” was created as a letter was forwarded from friend to friend until it reached a designated “target” in the network. However, in this case the target “emerges” from the interaction of A, B, and C. Another major difference is that a simple message addressing rule is used that asks each communicator to “copy” all previous communicators on a topic when it chooses to send a message on that topic.

The diagram below illustrates an analysis of an actual event in which A, B, C, D, and E (who are commands represented on the Y-axis) communicated using traditional messaging during a humanitarian assistance operation. The diagram shows that 7 messages were sent between the commands for this event. (An arrow from A to B means “A sent a message to B”.)  So, for example, message 1 is from command A to his subordinate Command B at 0021 and starts the message path asking for supplies to be sent to the area.  (Command A also sent this message to B’s subordinates “for information”.) In message 2, Command B addressed his own subordinate Command D, as well as Command E, a non-government organization, who ultimately sent the supplies. 

FireShot Capture 76 - (no subject) - dfi_ - https___mail.google.com_mail_u_0_#inbox_153c0e9961e8f7ed

In the event illustrated above, the third message from C to B asks the status of supplies. Because C was addressed in the first message, he knew of the request for supplies.  However, Command C was not copied in the 2nd message from B and did not know about this message. This is why I suggest that a message-addressing rule will be very important in the future use of social media.  It will achieve two major objectives:

  • It will guarantee that all warfighters along the path are automatically kept informed of previous communicators in the path on the topic. This provides the important feedback that socio-technologists have shown to be very important in the control of large-scale coordination during evolving operations;
  • It avoids keywords by defining a topic through communication that represents a path in a social network. This provides a way to deal with changing topics and an uncertain organizational structure in an evolving crisis.


I have developed an approach to coordinate activities during HA/DR missions as naval warfighters continue to see greater use of nonhierarchical communications for complex interactions. Collaboration with external partners is expected to grow when conducting HA/DR missions. If a social network of trusted coordinators were established before a crisis occurred, military and civilian commanders would already have working relationships with each other and could plan HA/DR missions in advance. Deeper integration could be achieved using social media to exchange information and the right group of trusted collaborators would be pro-actively defined.  Such an approach would assist in sustaining planned assistance in an era of global austerity.  

Marjorie Greene is a research analyst at CNA.  She has more than 25 years of management experience in both government and commercial organizations and has recently specialized in finding S&T solutions for the U.S. Marine Corps.  She is active in both the Military Operations Research Society and IEEE, where she serves on the Medical Technology Policy Committee and the Bioterrorism Working Group.

Featured Image Source: Open DNS Security Labs Visualization of Canada’s Internet Infrastructure

Military Strategy for a Twitter War

This article was written for our Strategic Communications Week.

It’s been clear for years now that Twitter, and social media writ large, have become battlespaces, where success is measured one retweet at a time. In 2012, ISAF and the Taliban went after each other in a tit-for-tat that sparked headlines like “NATO, Taliban take war to Twitter.”

Or take the example of the current conflict in Iraq, and ISIS’s (or ISIL’s) sophisticated recruiting campaign that The Guardian dubbed “Jihadi Cool.”

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the number of fighters ISIS has recruited via social media, the mass reach of its message is undeniable. The gruesome executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff first appeared on social media sites, including Twitter and YouTube, and became headline news in a matter of hours.

The U.S. has put its weight behind a social media offensive of its own, and it’s important to note that both sides are taking the social media front seriously. ISIS employs advanced tools, like an app called “Dawn” that autotweets pro-ISIS messages from users that download it, and effective techniques, like hashtagging key phrases, to centralize the group’s message. Both aspects are weapons in the war for influence, and the most influential organizations should be taking notes.

Unfriended: The Challenges of Military Social Media Strategy

Military action and information operations have gone hand in hand since the dawn of warfare. Given the ubiquity of social media, taking IO to the social battlespace seems logical and necessary, but several issues make that leap a tricky act.

First is the “P word” – Propaganda, which gets thrown around every time the military forays into the world of mass messaging. Take the example of DARPA’s study of social networks. Since its start in 2011, the dryly named Social Media in Strategic Communications (SMISC) program has been scrutinized by the media as the groundwork for a social media propaganda machine. Even under the most noble pretenses- protecting troops in the field by studying social media cues, the negative connotations of government snooping on social networks, especially in a post-Snowden era, are good enough reasons for some organizations to limit their involvement with social media.

After Facebook’s psychological experiments on users surfaced in July 2014, The Guardian was quick to draw connections between Facebook’s widely disparaged study and DARPA’s SMISC. The smart defense media planner should take these comparisons into context, or otherwise risk losing valuable messaging opportunities.

A second challenge to military social media strategy is one that not all militaries face. If you’re part of the Israeli Defense Force, you have no problems tweeting the following:

Now if you’re tweeting on behalf of the U.S. military, you just can’t do this. Whereas the IDF has defined itself as a do-anything-to-win organization, the U.S. military places a great deal of effort into avoiding the perception as a killing force. Any media strategy must draw from the organization’s values, and for the U.S. military that means centering its tweets around the values of professionalism, leadership, and technical know-how.

Built to Share = Wider Influence

So amidst the perils of doing social media wrong, who’s doing it right? The first lesson comes from none other than the IDF, which crafts media products that are built for sharing. Their graphics and videos are visually engaging, easily understood, and as a result, perfect for passing on to Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and Youtube subscribers.

The idea that social media products should be shareable isn’t exactly a revelation in strategic communications, but too often, organizations fail to execute on the concept. Take PACOM’s Twitter feed (@PACOM), for example, which is so littered with acronyms and military jargon that it takes a professional military education to understand it. More jargon means a disengaged audience, which in turn means fewer shares and limited distribution.

Promoters, Millions of Them

The second lesson comes from ISIS, which relies on a network of outsiders to promote its material. Instead of a single source as the monolithic voice of the organization, multiple authors carry the water for ISIS. This distributed model lends the appearance of authenticity. It also creates a huge problem for the people attempting to control the spread of ISIS’s messages. Blocking offending users as they pop up becomes a challenge, and squashing violent statements on Twitter brings up meaty questions regarding free speech that are yet to be answered.

While militaries are built on authorities, and their communications strategies on official statements and messaging, the truth of the matter is that in social media, the official line is only the beginning of a discussion. Military topics draw crowds of commentators, and more than ever, official posts should be considered no more  than starting references for all of the conversations to follow.

The Serious Business of Social

A February 2014 Reuters study found that 57% of Facebook users and 50% of Twitter users had discovered, shared, or discussed a news story on the sites in the previous week. Internationally, the number of users who get their news (and arguably, their opinions) from social media will continue to increase, as will the opportunities for the most responsive organizations to communicate their messages in that domain.

Gaining the upper hand in social media requires interest and resources, but the alternative is being left out of the discussion. In strategic terms, that’s handing the initiative to your enemy.

The Rise of the Social-State

As the clock struck midnight on December 31, 2000, at the start of a new millennium, there were approximately 360 million unique internet users. Just 1/1000th of the populations in the Middle East and Africa had access to the internet. Facebook was still but a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye.

Thirteen years later, this has changed dramatically. At nearly 2.5 billion people, the internet is used by more than 1/3 of the world’s population. More than 15% of Africans now have access to the internet – the majority of them getting it through mobile data via cell phones – while a whopping 40% of Middle Easterners are now online. That represents a growth of over 3000% (that’s three thousand) in just over a decade.

At the same time, social media use has risen exponentially. If all the Facebook users in the world were assembled into one place, they would make up the third-largest country on Earth with over 1.1 billion citizens (behind only China and India). While not nearly as numerous, there are over 500 million users of 140-character Twitter, with over 10% of those people in a single country:  China.

A Different World

You forgot the "@" before Mubarak.
You forgot the “@” before Mubarak.

People are no longer left to rely on the state-sponsored dictation of events, or even a few media outlets reporting what they’ve seen. With Twitter, first-hand accounts and pictures can be passed quickly; with Facebook, users can share and collaborate on growing trends; on YouTube, we can see with our own eyes exactly what is happening in Syria, Egypt, or on the streets outside Washington, DC.

The most enduring reality of the past decade has been the rise of the global individual. In 2006, Time‘s “Person of the Year” was the individual (“You,” to be specific). In response to old, slow, unresponsive regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and a host of other countries, leaders were either deposed in a violent way or forced to make significant concessions antithetical to the totalitarian norm.

Global individualism has led to a prioritization of individuals and ideologues over the traditional concept of “nation.” When you can “like” the Syrian Free Army on Facebook or “follow” al-Shabaab on Twitter from the comfort of your own home, it doesn’t matter that you live in the land known as “Pakistan” or “Egypt” or even “the United States of America.” Individuals across the globe are organizing themselves more now by ideas and preferences than by borders or nationality.

This notion is not new in religious lore. In Islam, the organization of Muslims everywhere is known as the “Caliphate.” Before it was a UN-recognized state, Israel was the name of the global community of Jewish people. Today, we might call all fans of the Dallas Cowboys a “Facebook group” and all the internet subscribers of Muqtada al-Sadr his “Twitter followers.” In the 21st century, the diaspora is connected via wi-fi.

The Decline of Nationalism

At a recent gathering of more than 150 American citizens with at least some level of college education, I asked the assembled crowd to identify the corporate logos of Starbucks, Shell, AT&T, McDonald’s, and Fed Ex. 100% of the crowd was able to correctly identify at least 4 of the logos, while around 90% were able to identify all 5.

Immediately afterward, I asked the same 150 people to identify the national flags of Syria, Egypt, Somalia, Libya, and Chad. Approximately 80% could identify 1 flag, 60% could identify 2 flags, 33% could identify 3 flags, 10% could identify 4 flags, and only 1 person (an African studies major in college) could identify all 5 flags.

In an effort to drive the point home, I flashed the flags of five U.S. states: New York, Alabama, Delaware, Indiana, and Massachusetts. If you can believe it, the percentages were actually worse; not a single person was able to correctly identify all five state flags (to be honest, if I hadn’t researched for the event, I doubt I would have been able to guess more than three or four either).

This erudite experiment, though anecdotal and far from scientific, points to a larger global trend:  the decline of nationalism, and the rise of global individualism.

The Ideological Basis of Armies

In light of the recent revolutions that comprised “the Arab Spring,” one must ask:  how are armies fielded? In our textbooks, we are taught that armies are the property of nation-states, who field them in defense of their borders or broader national interests.

But isn’t the original concept of the nation-state simply an ideal? At its basic level, an army is stood by people coming together to protect themselves from harm by a common enemy. It follows, then, that the armies of the 21st century will follow this natural law—that they are fielded to defend ideals—and with that comes a monumental shift in the global political paradigm: the rise of the social-state.

This is not a new idea. In his book Jihad Joe, J.M. Berger estimates that more than 1,400 American citizens have taken part in some form of militant jihad over the past 30 years. As our communication and connectivity brings us closer, our money and internet history drive our future more than the votes we drop in the ballot box.

Yet simple connectivity cannot supplant real action from Internet users. In “Tweeting Toward Freedom,” the Wilson Quarterly noted that, “More than a million people have joined a Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition, but few among them have taken any additional action to help those in Sudan.” The most effective ideologues in this century will be those who can turn words on a computer screen into reliable action from their followers.

The Social State

In a Small Wars Journal article, Richard Lindsey wrote, “There comes a point in any insurgency where it must move beyond the reach of social media, and tangible gains must be made on the ground – positions occupied, personalities deposed, systems replaced, logistics realized, and governments overthrown.” Yet if insurgents and individuals can defend themselves from governments while operating within that government’s borders, they have already made “tangible gains…on the ground.” The positions, personalities, systems, logistics, and governance are provided through wireless or ether connections and supported via the “social compact”—namely, some form of user agreement.

If I can get access to the internet, I can pledge to a cause, fund that cause, and become indoctrinated to that cause. We might call this process “assimilation.” My physical location is only important insomuch as I can carry out actions for that cause in my specific locale or travel to a nearby location to do the same. The “social-states” created by this reality are the future of the world, where citizens are arranged by borders of thought, ideology, and preference.

On its face, this may seem like a unique solution to so many conflicts throughout the world. However, the “borders” created by such a reality are much more fluid, volatile, and confusing, and they will drive our concept of conflict. In the book Warrior Politics, visionary author Robert Kaplan surmises that “the spread of information in the coming decades will lead not just to new social compacts, but to new divisions as people discover new and complex issues over which to disagree.”

Rather than access to weapons and land, the ability to control the electromagnetic spectrum and access to the internet will define future battlefields as the “strategic high ground.” Cyber strike and defense will be the most critical mission sets as friend and foe alike use this medium to achieve not only kinetic effects against their enemies–including CBRNE—but important non-kinetic effects as well, especially those encompassed in the concept of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD).

Without respect for nation-state political borders, these effects will be felt indiscriminately by both supporters and opponents of the cause. Therefore, those who can develop the ability to discriminate their effects will find the most success and support.

The Tough Sell

A new global paradigm isn’t limited to the shores of Africa or the Middle East; it can be seen here in America. The government shutdown is a case study in the inability of governments to respond to large-scale discord in a way that maintains credibility – and in this century, credibility and confidence is currency. Those who cannot control the 24/7 opinion and social media reality will quickly cede their control to the growing social-state underneath.

Therefore, it will be in the best interests of major nations like the USA, China, Germany, United Kingdom, and France, among others, to counter these tendencies and find a way to “sell” the nation-state in a 21st century marked by individual power. More than Nazism, fascism, or communism, the synergistic effects of non-state actors, insurgents, and individuals through social media and collaboration will be the greatest existential threat to freedom as we know it—the kind of freedom nation-states enjoy—that the world has ever witnessed.

In his New York Times piece “The End of the Nation-State?” Parag Khanna reminds us that “[t]his isn’t to say that states have disappeared, or will. But they are becoming just one form of governance among many.” In an age where information and products consume our daily routines, nation-states are faced with a very tough sell, indeed. There are many questions that partisans, policy makers, and populations must answer: Is the nation-state worth fighting for, or is the social-state a better alternative? Are the two mutually exclusive? Is the paradigm shift inevitable?

We will shape the answers to these questions over the coming decades. In the meantime, the only certainty seems to be that we will be uncertain.

LT Roger L. Misso is a Naval Flight Officer (NFO) in the E-2C Hawkeye, recent MAWTS-1 WTI graduate, and former director of the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference (NAFAC). The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

“We’re really stuck.”

Though this quote comes from an Australian, it captures the sentiment of Chinese attitudes towards North Korea as expressed in a recent story on NPR. The alleged hijacking of Chinese fishing vessels by North Koreans wearing naval uniforms (first discussed on NextWar here) exposes the growing rift between these long-time partners. According to the NPR story, transparency between North Korea and China on important issues like the death of Kim Jong Il and North Korean nuclear tests has all but disappeared. Now, it appears that North Korean affronts to China on the high seas threaten popular support for the former by the latter.

Though the United States has long opposed the close relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang, it has also sought to use China both as a means to communicate intentions to North Korea and as a lever to turn the latter’s repressive regime towards gradual reforms. The growing rift between China and the DPRK threatens the tense but relatively stable security dynamic on the Korean peninsula.

Without the support of a great power like China, North Korea may feel increasingly forced into a diplomatic corner, making conflict more likely.

More broadly, however, this series of events demonstrates the increasing importance that events on the sea have upon the fate of governments on the land. In the days of sail, an untold number of acts of theft and violence occurred on the high seas without a word reaching the shores. Even if accounts did reach the land, it would take months to do so. Now, technology enables word of maritime rows to reach the public with great speed and that same technology allows word-of-mouth accounts to shape public opinion as much as government press releases – even in China.

Relations between China and North Korea merit close attention in the coming weeks and months, but the political fallout in China should be taken as a clear sign that the smallest of flare-ups in maritime hot spots could spread quickly and gain a life of its own.

LT Kurt Albaugh is a Surface Warfare Officer and Instructor in the Naval Academy’s English Department. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.