Militarisation of Social Media: A New Threat to National Security?

Author Name: Maheen Shafeeq      24 Jun 2021     Cyber

Social media is internet-based applications designed for users to share varied content that could include intra-personal, inter-personal, individual to group’s thoughts, opinions, inclinations, affiliations, and information in the form of photos, videos, or text.

While social media has given a user-friendly platform to friends, families, and like-minded people to stay connected and express their likes and dislikes, it has also provided space to other actors from various fields.

It has been adopted by businesses such as high-end luxury brands to small home-based vendors to attract and reach customers anywhere in the world to generate greater profits. It is being utilized by educational institutions to connect with students, and as well as by employers to engage with their employees.

Governments in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and India to name a few, are actively using social media to reach voters with ease. Similarly, non-state actors (NSAs) are not far behind in setting up their routers to reach like-minded people and societies on social media.

A fifth-generation warfare

On one end, social media is being used for constructive purposes, while on the other extreme end, it is providing equally easy access to social media platforms to state and non-state actors to pursue heinous or corrupt agendas.

According to a recent study conducted by the University of Oxford, about 70 states including India from South Asia, and several Arab and Western ones have been manipulating social media platforms to attain their desired national and foreign policy goals; while 90% NSAs have been using the same for recruitment, fundraising, networking, training, and influencing.

These states and NSAs can now reach and influence the masses due to easy accessibility and limited oversight on social media. Their main agenda is to alter the narratives and accepted truths of the target society which has profound implications for national security. They use social media to influence and alter public opinion regarding the target country’s leadership, government, and even military capacity.

Such pursuit of iniquitous agendas to play mind games with citizens of a target state/society is often referred to as the “militarization” of social media, fifth-generation warfare or non-contact warfare. In such warfare, conquering an adversary without violence or bloodshed and without having boots on the ground is made simple through social media.

Military operations through social media

Social media holds the power to engage and destroy the target’s morale and will to fight. It has blended non-kinetic elements of warfare in a manner that is unique to this era. The classic one-on-one confrontation between militaries is gradually becoming a tale of the past. Future soldiers are likely to narrate confrontations between state and non-state actors that took place through social media.

This progress of warfighting methods has brought militarization of social media under the sharp focus of military and security strategists. For this reason, social media has become the main tool for conducting military operations such as surveillance, Information Operations, and Psychological Operations (PsyOps).

Intelligence and surveillance of potential targets can now be gathered through their social media footprints. It is often alleged that social media sites share their users’ data with state authorities. This is useful in apprehending criminals, however, data sharing of ordinary citizens is a violation of the trust between social media companies and their users.

A user’s data, nonetheless, may be gathered for a number of reasons such as to analyze and monitor his/her present interests and affiliations and make future predictions about their behavior.

This is a non-kinetic method to influence the thinking patterns of an adversary’s people and society. Once online behavioral patterns are determined, the process of influencing and corrupting the truth, and decision-making ability becomes simple and impactful. Such processes are referred to as “Information Operations” by the United States Department of Defense (DoD).

Once a target group is infiltrated online, it leads to a snowball effect. Information collected from social media provides rich content for group analysis. In the future, machine learning could be used to gauge the moods and sentiments of any target group.

Militarization of social media: Psychological Operations

After Information Operations provide voluminous data on interest groups, Psychological Operations (PsyOps) are initiated. PsyOps are operations conducted to unveil selected truth or information to the targeted people to alter their opinions, emotions, objective reasoning, and motives.

This leads to behavioral change in the target group which can be achieved within the desired timeframe. Although PsyOps is an old method employed during World War II and the Cold War, however, in this era, social media has provided a ready medium to amplify their impact. In fact, PsyOps have brought social media to the forefront of military operations as they are used to disseminate selective information cost-effectively and quickly.

The social media feature ‘trending’, for instance, is an effective tool to capture the attention of a particular audience. Using a relatively small team of cyber experts, a hostile state or non-state actor can generate and spread a message that fits their agenda and use bot accounts to share and retweet.

These shares and retweets, propagating selective information, reach the targeted cluster identified using surveillance and Information Operations through the ‘trending’ feature. This leads to penetration of the selected truth (or what is called propaganda), and ultimately alters mainstream opinions and behaviors that can be damaging to national security.

A call for urgent steps

The militarization of social media has provided an open arena to conduct Information Operations and PsyOps on targeted societies. Under fifth-generation warfare, militaries not only need to prepare to tackle the physical capacity of an adversary but also equip themselves to destroy the morale of the latter’s population in order to secure victory.

This means that states and their militaries need to develop timely and viable options to identify and counter fifth-generation Information Operations and PsyOps. States need to develop and regulate an effective social media law that defines the content that harms national security and design methods to censor and eliminate it.

This is achievable only if states invest in people, research, and technology. Only with professional expertise in multidimensional fields such as cyber, data science, text analytics, policy, politics, and culture can the current gap in social media regulation be filled that can counter national security threats.

This step needs urgent attention to strengthen national security in a world of rapidly evolving military strategies, modernizing adversaries, and advancing technology in order to minimize the effectiveness of threats from adversaries.

Maheen Shafeeq is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies, Pakistan. She is a graduate of University of Sheffield, UK; and holds Master’s degree in International Relations. The article was first published in Global Village Space (GVS)She can be reached at cass.thinkers@gmail.com