Psychological War, Social-Media Style

Posted March 3rd, 2011 at 5:54 pm (UTC-4)
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“Frenemies” and the Uses, or Abuses, of Social Media

We’re currently working on an update of the roiling cyber-theater that is Anonymous vs. HBGary.  Like any great drama the story is complex, has a large cast, and requires time to fully digest.  Sadly we – like many – were a few minutes late to the curtain of this production.  Regardless, our review is coming soon.

In the meantime, there were several stories that caught our eye recently – all relating to what might be termed ‘creative’ uses of social media.   As always, no editorial validation of these stories is implied on our part, other than just being interesting.

#1: ‘Friending’ the Enemy:  This week in the Washington Times, Shaun Waterman detailed the US military’s expanding use of social media in psychological operations.  Specifically, US Central Command’s recent acquisition of software from the slightly shadowy firm Ntrepid that could allow one user to create many fake online personas.  The purpose, writes Waterman:

“The program is aimed at helping troops create and maintain realistic online personalities that will persuade extremists to allow them into chat rooms and bulletin boards by creating the appearance that they are logging on and posting messages or other contributions from anywhere in the world.”

By law, the US military can “…influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp…” enemy communications in foreign settings, but it cannot target US audiences.  However the Internet knows few borders, and the military’s embrace of social media information-war is raising serious questions about who is receiving what messages.   As former CIA director Michael Hayden terms it, it’s a tactic in the “developmental” stage.

#2: Beijing Wants to be Friends, Too:  The Chinese government has a long history of working to scrub the parts of the Internet that it doesn’t like.   Social media, in particular, has been difficult to control – occasionally leading authorities to blunter actions, such as blocking access to the web wholesale.

So it may have surprised some to watch Beijing apparently embracing social networking as a means to controlling its messaging.  This week the Chinese-language micro-blogging site “Weibo” said it had passed the 100-million user mark.

But a closer look suggests all may not be as it seems. “Weibo” is relatively free, but the company clearly operates within bounds proscribed by Beijing.  Witness the recent blocking of search terms “Egypt” or “Hillary Clinton.”

Blogger and democracy advocate David Bandurski goes further, taking Beijing to task for, in his words:

“…some of the ways governments across China are exploring the use of social media to further their own agendas. Microblog platforms, for example, might be effective ways to release timely information on so-called “sudden-breaking public events,” which are often social flash points leaders work energetically to contain.

“Obviously, if official microblogs were just one among many unmediated sources of information, this might be trend to celebrate. But strict control of information about sudden-breaking news events, combined with timely reporting by official media (and restrictions for others, including commercial media), is now policy in China, a strategy President Hu Jintao outlined in June 2008.”

#3: Social, or Mobile, Networks? Blogger Jillian York, who has been tracking developments, digital and otherwise, in the Mideast, this week noted the differences in electronic access in those nations churned by unrest.  As we noted earlier, Libya is not Egypt nor Tunisia – and Internet penetration in those nations is markedly different.

Moving beyond the easily discarded “Facebook revolution” chatter, York advances the discussion by looking at mobile penetration, with surprising results:

“And now to the point of mobile, which is well outside my area of expertise (and thus I invite you mobile advocates to jump in here): Libya was the first African country to reach 100% mobile penetration. It now stands at 150% (which yes, means people own more than one mobile, not uncommon in the Maghreb). Why is this playing second fiddle to the media narrative of soccer and dating sites? Why isn’t mobile the point of focus here? Hell, I ought to ask myself the same question (answer: I’m already spread too thin).

“It seems obvious to me that mobile (150% penetration), and not the Web (5%) is the real champion tool here. So how do we start that conversation? What are the key factors? How do we measure one against the other? Let’s talk about that, please.”

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What’s Digital Frontiers?

The Internet, mobile phones, tablet computers and other digital devices are transforming our lives in fundamental and often unpredictable ways. “Digital Frontiers” investigates how real world concepts like privacy, identity, security and freedom are evolving in the virtual world.

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