Before the Engagement: Mapping Social Media for Civil Military Operations

Updated: Feb 8, 2020


Today’s United States Army operates in a networked asymmetric world undreamed of in the early years of combating insurgency groups. According to Twitter, 500 million tweets are posted each day. YouTube reports that over one billion hours of videos are watched daily. In this rapidly evolving, saturated social media environment, a revolutionary with little more than an easily available internet connection can tap communications intertwined with billions of people and cause cultural upheaval and change centuries-old dogma. Through extensive social media use, groups revolt, leadership falls, and countries change. Civil Affairs as a branch needs to continue to evolve within the civil environment by formally adding a social media analysis function to its extensive repertoire, critical to maintaining a more complete understanding of current culture. This can be accomplished by examining historical examples of social media influence, exploring CIM expansion within future civil environments, and making updates and changes to Civil Affairs doctrine utilizing a DOTMLPF-P review.

Strong group opinions or opposition toward governing parties, religious factions, and international military presence often fizzle out inside of a local tea shop fearful of discovery. Now these voices and threats become international news, stir the masses, and start changing the world. These types of threats will be fully developed within the future operating environment, in which Civil Affairs is already preparing to fight. Focus on how new and creative alliances could evolve out of social media networks has even been identified by the branch as a topic of discussion in an upcoming draft white paper focused on Civil Affairs Operations in the near and far future. Networked groups, perhaps not yet committed to action, now operate in a disassociated manner similar to the horizontal hierarchy of recent jihadi groups, where ideology discussed ad nauseam online form the core of indoctrination and training. While the usage of social media increases, providing insight into the cultural and civil upheavals of an area in conflict, our understanding of these social expressions and their effects on our operations are not fully integrated into our Civil Affairs units designed to be the subject matter experts of the civil environment.

Recent examples of the internet used as a focused tool, specifically social media, have been far ranged in the last few years. The Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 was supported by the use of Twitter and Facebook armies, moving in conjunction with a state military that has recognized social media as a warfare tool to the point of including it in their new asymmetric strategy.

The Chief of Staff of the Russian Federation, General Valery Gerasimov, recognized the need for control of the information space as part of his “new generation warfare,” labeled the Gerasimov Doctrine by western observers (Murphy 2016). Gerasimov wrote in the Military-Industrial Kurier in 2013 that “…the very rules of war have changed. The role of the nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness…” (Mckew 2017). The United States Intelligence Community has identified recent targets of this information dominance strategy aimed at the 2016 U.S. election, playing a role not yet fully understood. Strategic examples are not the only type encountered. Tactical examples of social media warfare encountered by U.S. military forces engaged in the Middle East and Africa exist as well. According a 2014 BBC article, Al-Shabab’s well-designed social media campaign demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of social media in its recruiting (Hodge 2014).

Social media is no longer a new and untested medium of war but is rapidly becoming a pillar in which insurgency groups, revolutions, or anti-government movements are built on.

With the combined capabilities of the Department of Defense alongside the intelligence community, most of a targeted area’s threats and capabilities can be rooted out, especially with so much of the communication of the modern world occurring on the ever-present internet. But even with the incredible abilities of the intelligence community, the typical analyst often sits far away from this studied environment, seeing actions and movement through raw data on a screen. With intelligence only filling part of the common operational picture for the military commander, Civil Affairs can step in and provide more complete analysis of the future operating environment before the conflict erupts and once deployed collect ground based civil information to verify and update this collection. This is already a function of the Civil Affairs branch, but its capabilities during the planning and pre-execution phase of operations can be enhanced with an increased focus on social media analysis with an update to our doctrine.

Civil Affairs’ greatest tool and contribution to gaining an accurate understanding of the civil environment is the civil engagement. A critical piece of civil engagement is when the Soldier is able to utilize his targeted interactions and focus on the gaps in known information to decipher the civil environment and its effects on military operations. While the engagement at the lowest level of a society allows for the contouring of engagement at governing levels, time and access are the requirements for such engagement with the civilian populace. While prepping for entry into an area is not new in any way, with CA Soldiers expected to be subject matter experts in their area of responsibility, an additional level of preparation can assist with making the Soldier much more cognizant of the social media strata that occupies much of the people and events field of the ASCOPE model. Such focus, while never replacing or subverting the myriad of information gathered from traditional civil engagements, would add another level of understanding.

Similar to intelligence, these requirements of time and access are constantly being minimized with the advent of new technology and tactics, usually in response to an emerging threat. With changes, CA will continue to be at the forefront of the understanding of the intricate world we conduct military operations in. For this to occur, CA must take additional steps to create an informational preparation of the battlefield with increased focus on social media collection and analysis.

Civil Information Management (CIM) has principally and doctrinally been responsible for the collection, collation, processing, analysis and evaluation, production and dissemination of information carefully gained by Civil Affairs units. Utilizing the CIM cell as a fusion center, information gaps in the civil environment essential to the ability of the Commander to make an educated and well-informed decision can be quickly identified and missions can be created to fill these gaps. But with the CIM structure already in place, more can be done in the realms of integrating social media analysis into the collection process. This can be readily done by integrating current U.S. Army doctrine, borrowed from the intelligence world and applied to targeted groups of all types including social network communities.

An example of integrating additional capabilities into the CIM from sister branches can be taken from FM 2-0, Intelligence. More specifically, the intelligence task of Providing Tactical Intelligence Overwatch, a task focused on creating a shared network which extracts information from multiple sources and makes it readily available to the maneuver unit. This task is applicable to social media analysis with the creation of a program or dedicated resources to creating a “social media monitor” within the collection capacity of the CIM cell allowing for near-real time monitoring. Situational awareness of social media and topical monitoring of this aspect of the civil environment has been independently implemented at multiple CA organizational levels but current CIM and Joint CIM doctrine does not formalize its use in this capacity. Additional current joint guidance exists to lead the next step after the identification of the network.

Commander’s Handbook for Attack the Network, a Joint publication that focuses on the degradation of networks from an offensive standpoint, also applies to a Civil Affairs perspective. While Attack the Network focuses on identifying nodes and key persons within a network, the same targeting process applies to social media, which is simply another network with nodes and key persons as well. Through the development of an informational preparation of the battlefield system, the processes already in place through the military intelligence community and the network attack doctrine can be utilized to determine centers of gravity (COG) of the social media strata. Once COGs are identified within an applicable environment, civil-military operations could be purposed towards affecting them in line with the commander’s objectives.

Enhancing the deployable units’ CIM Cells training and ability to conduct in-depth social network analysis would add a layer of understanding to a readily available representation of a civil populace’s concerns and thoughts. Utilizing these tools in a geo-centric manner within a population center in a potential area of operations while monitoring the population’s online presence can provide incredible advantage. Everything from near real time event monitoring to correlating population against number of online persons to gauge depth of penetration of network messaging. In addition to keeping the Commander up to date, monitoring is a means for capturing references to U.S. presence and projects, giving the Commander an understanding of people’s opinions towards our presence and activities. News often breaks on Twitter before traditional media outlets. This application of analysis to determine the patterns of events occurring within an area beat the London police in identifying possible future conflict developments in 2011, according to a study by Cardiff University (Deahl 2017).

Critical Periods of CIM Engagement

Figure 1. Critical Periods of CIM Engagement