August 10, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Geopolitics: The Tweets of August

As of mid-August 2012, the 17-month long conflict in Syria has revealed the challenges that social media poses to governments and news outlets in what is turning out to be an unprecedented fight for the "information battlespace." When technology makes it possible for almost anyone to find online a video that appears to formally announce the death of a Russian colonel in Syria at the hands of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), followed by yet another video of the press conference held by the same Russian colonel to deny his alleged death — with both videos getting widespread media mention — the only clear conclusion that one can draw about the situation in Syria is…that nothing is clear.

The constantly shifting battlefield of hacked twitter accounts and faked footage — in which every report is simultaneously confirmed as reliable and discounted as propaganda — has real consequences for not only how the international community responds to Syria, but ultimately how future crises are covered, addressed, and resolved. While all wars have always been fomented or shaped to a degree by propaganda (perhaps best characterized by Sun Tzu's observation in The Art of War that all conflict is based on deception), what is happening in Syria is different in that it is no longer only governments or their designated proxies that have the means to consistently drive a narrative deep into the mainstream because, increasingly, there is no mainstream; as the result of a torrent of technology, it has overrun its banks and now every smart phone is an uncharted tributary.

This inescapable phenomenon raises a number of compelling questions not only for governments but also for the news media as well.


The questions facing governments include:

• How to fashion proper policy regarding conflicts if public opinion is being dramatically and constantly shaped and reshaped by reporting from an infinite number of unknown and unmanageable actors?

How to conduct effective information operations (IO) against adversaries in this same relentlessly churning environment?

The first question is of vital importance because elected governments tend to respond to not only what drives the zeitgeist, but also to targeted public pressure. Social media and the Internet provide limitless fodder for that zeitgeist, limitless ways for special interest groups to publicize their cause, and limitless means for pressuring their representatives. Whatever the cause — military intervention or support in Syria, for example — social media and the increasing use of blogger-generated news and amateur videos by large-scale media outlets ensures that any group can generate sustained and widely heard chatter (i.e., public statements, breathless reporting, dramatic recollections, etc.) far above their numbers. More troubling is that while this chatter is increasingly manipulated or outright false (or at the least, not at all credible), its impact on its target audience remains real and so, too, the pressure it places on policymakers.

Governments that can no longer rely on publicly available, open-source information due to the fact that an increasing volume of it is inaccurate — either misleading or false — then face the dilemma of resorting to a greater reliance on private or secret information generated from intelligence agencies (which are also vulnerable to false narratives). This creates a disconnect between the public and policymakers, which, in turn, further erodes trust between the two.

The second question — how to conduct effective IO campaigns — is currently vexing governments across the globe. Since there are fewer and fewer trusted sources of news, there are fewer and fewer points of leverage for governments to effectively shape their message. And since the smallest blog or video uploaded to YouTube is available to everyone and increasingly picked up by Western news services, restrictions on influencing domestic audiences (a restriction the U.S. and other governments face to varying degrees) greatly complicate their messaging efforts.

Furthermore, research into the media habits of Americans and others has shown that people are increasingly only watching or listening to news that does little more than confirm what they already believe to be true (or would expect to be true based on an unwavering perspective), which makes it ever more difficult to materially influence opinions. Confirmation bias — an individual's tendency to prefer sources of information that confirm existing beliefs — is seen in the hardening of positions regarding Syria, where each news report, however dramatic, merely validates one sides's opinions and is ignored or dismissed by the other.

The Syrian government, for example, is waging a psychological war directly through planted stories and through its electronic proxy the "Syrian Electronic Army," which has hacked into Reuters, al-Arabiya, and other news outlets to spread pro-Assad and anti-FSA propaganda. These attempts are not only relatively obvious, but also less effective; given the number of alternative news outlets, the attempted hacks are widely reported, turning the government's failed attempts to sway the populace into the larger and more persuasive story.


The questions  facing the news media include:

• How to maintain professional standards while relying increasingly on un-vetted and often anonymous reports and images from conflict zones?

• How to increase audience size when the Internet is shrinking market share while increasing confirmation bias?

The media is exceedingly vulnerable to exploitation and false reports when it comes to reporting on Syria. The very real danger to journalists in many parts of the country, one posed by both sides in the conflict (as well as shrinking budgets), has left Western news organizations dependent on reporting provided by people within the conflict zone. Several major news outlets have broadcast images purported to be of 2012 Syrian massacres that later proved to be from Iraq in 2003, which not only diminishes the credibility of the specific news organizations but also broadcast media in general. These incidents, which sought to portray the regime in a negative light, were doubly damaging to the rebels because it distracted from the all-too real atrocities being committed by the Assad regime. Additionally, computer hackers are systematically exploiting weak network security to take control of twitter accounts and websites, sending wildly false reports from seemingly bonafide outlets, further muddying the situation and eroding trust in the media in general.

In the past, a geopolitical crisis was often a windfall of swelling ratings and revenues for large news organizations, but even this long-standing reality appears to be substantially shifting with the current conflict in Syria, and will likely continue as future crises emerge. The overall market share is falling at the same time viewers are increasingly seen as consumers who prefer news sources that reflect back their own unremitting views (and some news organizations are realizing significant profit in delivering that product). This drives the media to specifically target those preferences with more timely reporting or dramatic footage, which creates further vulnerabilities to false or misleading reporting. And this invariably leads to additional questions concerning credibility.

A deep dive into the almost intractable complexities involved in the Syrian crisis will uncover very few universally agreed upon facts beyond one: people on both sides in Syria are dying while regional powers and rivals are maneuvering based in large measure on incomplete and inaccurate information.



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