A global conference of senior military and intelligence officials taking place in London this week reveals how governments increasingly view social media as "a new front in warfare" and a tool for the Armed Forces.
The overriding theme of the event is the need to exploit social media as a source of intelligence on civilian populations and enemies; as well as a propaganda medium to influence public opinion.
A report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last month revealed how a CIA-funded tool, Geofeedia, was already being used by police to conduct surveillance of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to monitor activists and protesters.
Although Facebook and Twitter both quickly revoked Geofeedia's access to their social feeds, the conference proves that social media surveillance remains a rapidly growing industry with no regulatory oversight. And its biggest customers are our own governments.
The event, the Sixth Annual Conference on Social Media Within the Defence and Military Sector, is sponsored by the Thales Group, the tenth largest defense company in the world, which is partially owned by the French government.
Participants in the conference—chaired by Steven Mehringer, Head of Communication Services at NATO—will include military and intelligence leaders from around the world, especially "social media experts from across the armed forces and defense industry."
Propaganda at home
One panel to be delivered by the Heads of Digital of the British Army, Royal Navy, and Royal Air Force, is titled 'Maximising Media Support to Armed Forces Activities Within the UK', and will explore: "How changing perceptions of social media are enhancing media operations at home."
The panel will also discuss how the UK military can "maintain a wide reach over a valid audience with reduced costs."
"Social Media is increasingly important to the portrayal of armed forces, at home and abroad on operations; raising awareness of institutional issues; and gaining support through successful recruitment campaigns," said conference Chairman, NATO's Steven Mehringer, in an invitation brochure for the event.
The military's goal of using social media to influence the beliefs of populations to win wars is alluded to in the description of other panels. A proposed panel titled 'NATO's Digital Outreach: Creating a Global Conversation', describes NATO's aim of "cultivating a global audience through social media to support The Alliance."
Another panel discussion makes direct reference to the role of social media in covert US military 'psychological warfare' operations—i.e. propaganda—as well as the use of social media to support mass surveillance.
Titled, 'Using Social Media in Conjunction with Other Information Warfare Systems to Deliver Desired Effects', the program description reads:
"Coordination efforts with PsyOps - Manipulation [of] the mind-set of the enemy virtually
Social media as an open source intelligence asset - finding the information hiding in plain sight
A possible gateway for Computer Networks Operations? Opening the web to Cyberwarfare."
Presenters for the panel are listed as NATO's Steven Mehringer; Ben Heap, Senior Expert, NATO Strategic Communications (STRATCOM) Centre of Excellence; and Brad Kimberly, the Pentagon's Director of Social Media and Defense Media Activity.
Real time surveillance
The sole sponsor of the event, Thales, is a major player in the development of new technologies analyzing social media for military and intelligence use.
From 2013 to 2015, Thales partnered with the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada and MediaMiser, an Ottawa-based media monitoring company, to develop tools for security agencies "to automatically process the huge amounts of textual information circulating at any given time, in any number of languages, on blogs, news feeds, social networks and the like."
The research project, 'Countering Security Threats using Natural Language Technology', was funded by the Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP), itself funded by the Canadian defense department's Defense Research and Development Agency.
According to a description of the project on the Thales website, the partners have created a demonstrator tool that is currently being tested with users from security organisations. They said the "Initial feedback is very positive."
The tool is all about "real-time surveillance": social media information coming into the system is "immediately analysed" using Big Data algorithms and techniques "to detect changes, trends or anomalies" and "identify potentially dangerous entities".
The tool is already so powerful, claims Thales, that it takes just 5 to 10 seconds for new information appearing on the web "to show up in the system, so intelligence analysts have up-to-the minute insights into situations as they evolve."
The current dataset has some 70 million documents, with 25,000 new documents added daily, and search results delivered in less than 5 seconds.
Media Miser extracts and filters data on a particular topic as soon as it is posted online. Tools developed by the NRC process this content in real time by translating and summarising the data. The information is then assigned various ratings and descriptions: a tone rating (positive, negative, neutral); signs of emotion (anger, fear, etc.); the geographic location of the source; and the identities of the individuals or groups involved in the making and distributing the content.
All this metadata is stored, along with the content itself, within a system controlled by Thales, where users from the defense and security sectors can use special visualisation widgets to access and explore the information. Widgets include map views, timelines, and network topologies, which can be used to show connections between "documents, people, events, regions or groups".
Thales did not respond to a request from Motherboard for information on its current government contracts for social media surveillance technology. But its 'Countering Security Threats' project provides insight into the Big Brother vision of social media that will be discussed at the upcoming conference in London.
Winning over the natives
The conference agenda also shows that social media is seen as an effective propaganda tool for the US military even in remote regions, where the use of social media is limited.
Africa, for instance, is the subject of a panel titled 'Using Social Media to Reach Diverse Audiences: US Africa Command', to be presented by Nathan Herring, Social Media Manager for US AFRICOM. But only 9% of the population of the entire continent have access to social media.
Nevertheless, the panel summary explains that the US military's goal is "reaching audiences in areas where social media is still an emerging technology" and "getting the right message to the right audience."
As far as military forces around the world are concerned, social media is a new battleground that must be monitored to identify actual and potential enemies, collect intelligence, and influence opinions—but the risk is that what we post everyday is increasingly part of a war being fought without our knowledge or consent.
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