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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

The delineation between intelligence gathering and collection of civil information is always thin but bright. If the collection is utilized for a better understanding of the civil environment and not offensive targeting, it remains an advantage to share common methodology.

Social networks operate within a parameter similar to any other group in real life. Those who share an opinion will tend to congregate online into group think. According to research by Gnip, an analytics firm who conducted research during the 2012 Israeli -Palestinian conflict, out of the 11.5 million tweets reviewed, only 10% of the discussion was among people identifying with opposite sides of the conflict (Brooking & Singer 2016). People, in general, tend to engage in circles of people who feel as they do on topics. With the anonymity easily obtained on the internet, people feel at liberty to self-identify with whatever and whomever they want, allowing for a freedom of expression often not found with the societal constraints of offline life. Social media analysis of these expressions is a large industry outside of the military, integrated into everything from business marketing to election monitoring with teams dedicated to knowing how best to reach their potential customers or voters. Further development of the field is not required for the purposes of the Civil Affairs unit as the ready-made tools and research can be used to build the data sets required for the operational understanding of a potential and actual area of operations.

Spheres of interconnectivity exist within the civil environment, and at its core the social media network is closely modeled after these physical communities that previously mentioned intelligence and business network analysis tools are applicable to. This similarity is both by design and inherent in the pack mentality of groups of people. In fact, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg explained his creation in 2005, he spoke to his goal of having Facebook not create an online community but reflect our current one.

Facebook is currently the number one online social media presence in the world with over 2 billion members (Fiegerman 2017). Unlike the intelligence function of network analysis, in which linking key persons to associates allows for target development, analysis of the nodes within a social media network can demonstrate strength of group emotional resonance towards an event or presence. Number of connections between the associated nodes would demonstrate interest or feelings. For example, when preparing for civil military operations in a region, the proposed social media analysis functions of the CA unit can create a product inclusive of:

• Number of civilians within the AO engaged with social media (to measure depth of potential social messaging and capacity for alerts)

• Most popular social media platform

• Depth of penetration (% of users from total population)

• Trending topics and historical trends

• Utilize geo-location mapping software to identify trends within certain areas

• Network analysis demonstrating trends towards group opinions or group focus (i.e. how people feel toward a particular event, group, policy or government)

All of these functions can be completed with readily available commercial websites and can create an in-depth overlay of the social strata prior to having boots on the ground. In addition, CA cannot be afraid to combine the resources brought to the table by Intelligence, Information Operations, Psychological Operations, and Public Affairs. All of these different branches are integral to understanding (and influencing) the civil environment but often these different teams do not share information common to the good of the group. Once a better understanding of the civil environment based on shared information is complete, ground based validated reporting from the Civil Affairs civil engagements will confirm or update the social media portion of the commander’s operating picture.

Figure 2. Inter-connectivity of Communication Nodes

Applying a Civil Affairs lens to social media has its flaws and opportunity for misunderstanding the core presence behind online movements as we may think loud or aggressive activities are more relevant. Applying the old adage “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” to social media outlets such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and emerging platforms is appropriate, as our attention span in the word of posts is fast and fleeting. Our average attention to posts degrades over time. According to research conducted by the marketing firm Digital Firefly, popular links on Twitter will have half of their clicks in the first 2.8 hours; for Facebook that time is 3.2 hours, and YouTube is 7.4 hours (Firefly 2013).

For example, if a large attack on a community or the civilian reaction to a sudden injection of a military presence within a country gains enough momentum online, people with no core interests in the event will become aware of the issue. This exact reaction occurred with the Nigeria Chibok kidnapping turning into a social media movement. With sharing and liking, additional momentum spins up and creates more “squeak.” With the typical short trending time of a subject, if topical analysis is conducted within the civil environment through the suggested social media frame, a CIM analyst may assume that this event is the predominant concern of the local populace and begin to update their social media contributions to the ASCOPE around the event. In addition, social media, as demonstrated before, can be hijacked. Twitter and other social media platforms are constantly besieged by “farms,” bending online opinion in support of gaining influence (Walker 2015). This will need to be addressed within any CA analysis of the social media civil environment with actual analysis and not just topical scraping.

The world’s population will continue to become more interconnected as globalism and ease of access to technology continues to shorten the time between thoughts and expressions of feelings posted for the world to commiserate with. These integral changes to how the civil environment is freely reflected online in the social media context requires updates and changes to Civil Affairs doctrine, appropriate for integration in the next review.

To enhance the capabilities of Civil Affairs, the following basic tenants and overarching updates to key sections of the Civil Affairs doctrine, organization, training, material, leadership, personnel, facilities and policy are suggested. Refinement of these changes will require a holistic and targeted approach by each organization responsible for the individual DOTMLPF-P sections.

Doctrine: Conduct a capabilities-based assessment to identify the warfighting gaps in our current doctrine and approach, focused on modern social communication and interactions. Integrate the expansive and developing social media component of the civil environment into the next revision of the branch’s doctrine with an additional update to the CIM ATP.

Organization: Update the CIM component of the Civil Affairs unit structure to incorporate a section responsible for social media taskings and coordination with intelligence, psychological operations, information operations, and other related units. Develop interoperability with information operations and military intelligence to integrate and refine the CIM structure with a reach back capability.

Material: Material changes and enhancements required for a more complete understanding and utilization of the social media environment are already commercially available, tested, and require little effort to focus their abilities for civil military operations. These commercial analytical programs are currently utilized within the intelligence, law enforcement and advertising fields and can be contoured to meet the Civil Affairs requirement.

It cannot be discounted that a large portion of the current and potential conflict areas within developing and rural areas are ones that internet connectivity plays a role in establishing communications between embattled groups targeted by seemingly powerful and influential insurgents. Combined with the encouragement wrought by the homophilic online community, groups once relegated to word of mouth can reach a global audience. For every area requiring stabilization and assistance ranging from low intensity conflict to nation assistance, an in-depth understanding of the “new” civil environment will be required. Whether this expertise on the operational area’s human component is in these developing areas or in the rapidly growing large urban cities of the future, with updates matching the growth and change of the online community, Civil Affairs will continue to keep pace with and be aware of the threats of tomorrow.

CPT David L Harrell is a Civil Affairs Officer, with deployments to East Africa and Afghanistan. His civilian occupation is within the intelligence community and he resides in Washington D.C. He is currently the USARAF Civil Military Operations Center Chief in Vicenza, Italy.

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