The Social Media Myth

If you are reading this article you are probably a user of social media.  If you have been using it for a while, you may even realize the power of social media to inform, shape perceptions, create communities, and of course, to misinform.  There is no doubt we can learn a tremendous amount of things from reading Twitter for example but we often overlook the potential of social media to provide understanding.  There is a myth in military circles, a social media myth, that if we look hard enough, we will find some golden tidbit that will tell us how to win.  No one makes this mistake more often or more decisively than senior military officers seeking accurate intelligence to drive operations.  While most avoid social media themselves, they know it makes available a tremendous amount of information, and to a greater or lesser degree they all give lip service to its importance.  But the disappointing fact is that the vast majority of senior military officers have no idea whatsoever how to maximize social media to benefit their intelligence and operations processes.  Worse, these officers are learning exactly the wrong lessons about social media from faulty training simulations entrenched in military exercise programs.

https://medium.com/i-data/israel-gaza-war-data-a54969aeb23e
A network graph of the 2014 UNWRA School bombing. Note the easily visible relationships between communities of pro-Palestinians (green), pro-Israelis (light blue), journalists (grey), and American conservatives (dark blue). Communities that share more connections appear closer together.

The Social Media Problem

Why do I pick on senior military officers?  Because although they accept social media is important, they almost uniformly resist using it. Their reasons range from concerns about privacy and security, to perceptions that social media is a venue for teenage nonsense rather than the serious business of military commanders.  This lack of engagement and experience with the tool deprives them of understanding and leads to misperceptions.  A perfect example of this is a recent story about a successful air strike in Syria against a command post of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). According to a statement from the commander of US Air Combat Command (ACC), their targeting staff derived the location of the headquarters from an ill-advised post by a Twitter-happy ISIL fighter.  While this sounds like a terrific victory, combing through tweets for actionable intelligence is probably a waste of time and misses the real value of social media sites that are more useful as a source of big data than of targeting data.

Take Twitter as an example.  Twitter averages about 500 million “tweets” per day.  Just to put that into perspective, that’s 6000 tweets per second.  Even with automated tools, finding one tweet that contains useful information is an enormous effort to say the least and it’s only the beginning.  Interpreting the accuracy and reliability of a single tweet will be very difficult indeed.  Here’s why: a tweet is 140 characters of data with extra allowances for hyperlinks, pictures, and location data.  There’s not a lot to go on there and while a tweet is attributable to the person that generated it, that person’s identity can never really be verified.  Let’s ponder for a moment the fact that according to ACC, a military officer somewhere made a decision to drop ordnance based on the digital equivalent of an address scribbled on a piece of paper by an unknown individual and posted on a bulletin board with millions, no, billions of other similar notes. That’s an incredibly low standard by which to make such decisions and the possibility is extremely high that there is more to the story than is available in the tweet. Though we have to assume there were other sources of intelligence applied to verify this target, this is not what ACC’s statement suggested and it does not change the fact that they must have spent an enormous amount of man hours and computing power to find and interpret that tweet. The question is: was it worth it?  ISIL will undoubtedly tighten up its operational security, making this kind of targeting even more rare than it already is.  Worse, ISIL will learn from this. What’s to stop them from falsifying targets, wasting coalition resources or luring it to drop bombs that will cause civilian casualties or worse?  When that happens, and it will happen, the use of single-source data from unverifiable individuals will come into serious question as a basis for targeting decisions.

Reinforcing Bad Habits

Surely the intelligent and well-trained staff officers of the United States Military have figured this out.  But they have not figured it out, or at least the most senior leaders among them haven’t.  Senior military officers that range in age from the late-30s to the mid-60s simply did not grow up with social media as a part of their lives. Some have started to use it but are bucking a military culture that is social media-skeptical.  Secondly, although American officers are generally well-trained, they are trained in the wrong techniques when it comes to social media.  To illustrate, consider one aspect of the synthetic social media environment used in exercises at NATO’s Joint Warfare Center (JWC).

JWC replicates Twitter with a system called “Chatter”.  Chatter is very similar to Twitter in that a “chatt” is a short text message that allows attachment of photos and similar files.  Hyperlinks are not used because Chatter is only available on NATO classified computer networks to prevent leakage of exercise information into the real world.  This is not a trivial point.  Leakage of scenario graphics from a US military exercise in 2015 caused an uproar in Texas when citizens discovered the Pentagon had labelled their state “hostile” for exercise Jade Helm.  Keeping Chatter on classified networks limits its scope to a ridiculously small sample; on average, the volume of chatts in an exercise might reach 300 a week.  While the vast majority of that volume is useless “white noise”, some chatts inject useful information into the exercise to cause a specific response by the training audience.  Needless to say, in an information environment that tops out at 300 inputs a week, intelligence staffs stand a good, yet thoroughly unrealistic chance of finding the needle in the very small haystack.  This sends two very strong and misleading messages about social media to Allied commanders. One is that they can and should expect to find useful bits of actionable intelligence hidden amongst social media posts. Secondly, even if commanders are thinking about analyzing trends and relationships between communities, Chatter is completely incapable of providing the volume of data required to do so.  The system simply discourages commanders from understanding what is arguably the most valuable characteristic of social media, which is that big data can reveal broad truths about an environment.  [For an example of how this can support understanding and decision making, see this fascinating Wired Magazine article.]

Big Data, Not Targeting Data

Continuing to perpetuate the social media myth will further entrench the wrong lessons in the minds of our commanders and ensure that using social media for targeting is the enemy of using it for understanding. Making social media sites like Twitter a useful or reliable source of information will require too much in the way of resources and will produce too few positive results and indeed increasingly negative ones as the enemy adapts.  Western militaries simply must change their approach to social media as a tool, viewing it not as a source of targeting data but as a gateway to big data. Training aides like Chatter must replicate big data but doing so will require involvement of the public. While this is not easy and carries significant risk, it is manageable risk.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. 

Some More Equal than Others

Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, left, transfering power to his wife Cristina on her inauguration day in 2007
Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, left, transfering power to his wife Cristina on her inauguration day in 2007 (Infolatam)

In the midst of presidential election season, life in Argentina today is a bizarre mixture of cries for equality and human rights, contrasted with insidious government propaganda, limits on personal freedom and frustrating consumer choice.

By Jared Wilhelm

In October 2015, the citizens of Argentina will elect a new president. For the past twelve years, the large and resource-rich South American nation was headed by a member of the Kirchner family: first Nestor in 2003 and then his wife, Cristina since 2007. Much in the vein of famous Argentine first lady Eva “Evita” Peron, Cristina is a charismatic, populist figure within in the nation, exerting tight control over monetary policy, the media, and those who oppose her controversial policies.

The election will prove to be important not only for the nation, but also for the world. While Cristina can’t run due to term limits, a victory for one of her Kirchnerismo Party candidates might signal a continuation of some of her edicts, like allowing China to build it’s first overseas military base in Argentine Patagonia, cozying up to Vladimir Putin’s Russia and his houseguest Edward Snowden, and alleged suspicious dealings with Venezuela and Iran.

Uncertain future aside, it is interesting to look past the sensational headlines of corruption and international intrigue to consider the day-to-day life of the average Argentine who lives with the oddities of Kirchnerite rule. Would Argentina’s Founding Fathers- who modeled Argentina’s Constitution almost exactly after the United States of America’s in 1853– recognize the life that Cristina has imposed on the average citizen?

Free Fútbol for Everyone: A Captive Audience

While Argentina is famous for its grass-fed beef, wine and Tango, the key to the average Argentine’s heart is soccer, or fútbol. The Argentine league is the third oldest in the world, and no Sunday afternoon family meal is complete without watching one of the local or national clubs on television.

Since 2009, Argentines don’t need a satellite dish or a cable subscription to see their favorite local team, international tournaments or even the World Cup.  Instead of tuning in to one of the major local networks, fans turn to the government-run TV Publica. Outbidding traditional media conglomerates with a contract nearly double the size of what private companies previously paid, Cristina uses taxpayer dollars to ensure there will be Football for Everyone broadcast on her own personal station.

Since there are sometimes weekends with no national soccer games, in addition to Fútbol para Todos, there are Boxing for Everyone and Racing for Everyone as well. Anyone used to paying $99.99 for a blockbuster boxing match will be shocked to see the broadcast free for all.

Under the guise of providing equal access across the class spectrum and in an effort to compete with opposition media tycoons, Cristina and her propaganda machine waste no time taking advantage of their captive audience. In place of selling advertising time to the highest bidder, the government uses these precious opportunities to reach the people using spots that tout the government’s achievements, or to advertise for the state-owned airline, Aerolineas Argentinas, or the state-owned oil company, YPF. Both of these companies were expropriated from private businesses after takeovers by Spaniards in the 1990s turned sour.

In an almost eerie dichotomy with everyday life, the government’s slickly produced propaganda spots show a country where everything works beautifully and everyone is happy. No matter if the commercials are one-sided campaign ads, showcases of nuclear energy projects, satellite launches or simple advertisements for upcoming free sports broadcasts, one clear message is always sent during the final few seconds of each spot: Brought to you by the President.

While taxpayers are paying for the production and airtime for the Ministries of Education, Tourism, Health or Science and Technology, each commercial includes a not-so-subtle reminder of who is behind it all.
While taxpayers are paying for the production and airtime for the Ministries of Education, Tourism, Health or Science and Technology, each commercial includes a not-so-subtle reminder of who is behind it all.  See an example here.

Journalists estimated in January 2015 that during its six-year existence, the Argentine people  bankrolled a staggering $793 million US dollars worth of government propaganda through the program. Compared to a world where the market demand determines availability and private advertising dollars or subscriptions pay for broadcasts, taxpayer-paid government control of the majority of soccer broadcasting is a small price to pay for the Presidenta to spread her message on a daily basis to households across the nation.

Price Controls

Ever since Cristina expropriated the national petroleum company from Spain in 2012, the government controls the price of gas at the pump. Citizens no longer have to worry about the whims of supply and demand, world events or the decisions of the OPEC nations; instead, Cristina’s government ministers decide the price of a liter and then negotiate with the rest of the privately-owned companies to cap prices for six months at a time.

Price controls don’t stop at the gas pump. In 2014, Cristina launched a nationwide campaign to control prices and combat double-digit inflation on some 470 items in grocery stores, restaurants, airports, and even motorcycle dealerships. Cristina’s economic team decided that instead of letting market forces drive the price of certain items in stores, the government would set the price. What does the Price Guarding program mean to the consumer?

When a shopper visits any grocery chain or Wal-Mart Argentina, a large list of every Price-Guarded item is posted at the front of the store. The store shelves look the same, except there are special Price Guard logos on certain brands of the milk, hotdogs, cereals… even beer. A pack of cookies that should cost $2 is only $1.50- a good savings for the generic, tasteless cookies. Unfortunately, these price controls have unintended consequences. If you don’t like generic, tasteless cookies and instead prefer made-in-Argentina Oreos- well the Oreos that should cost $2.50 now can cost $4.50 or $5.

While businesses are not forced to comply with this scheme, more than 100 nation-wide chains have agreed to participate to maintain competitive market share. But Cristina and her team do not trust big business, so they encourage every day citizens to verify Price Guard prices are followed. During soccer broadcasts, government propaganda spots encourage shoppers to print out the Price Guard list and check to make sure the prices are set at the government’s rate. If not, Cristina has set up a 1-800 number and smartphone-app that allows everyone to report businesses for charging extra. When someone calls to make a citizen’s report, the odds are they probably won’t be using an iPhone.

A Nation without iPhones

Since 2011, Argentina has not permitted the legal import and sale of Apple iPhones. Thanks to Cristina, only cell phones that are locally made can be sold on the legal market. Cristina and her economic team have decided that in order to spark national growth, imports of all kinds will be limited and the local industries will be protected. The idea is to create jobs: now instead of being assembled in Asia, Samsung phone parts are shipped across the Pacific so that they can be assembled in country by Argentines and then considered a legal product. The same goes for televisions, refrigerators, even cars.

If someone really, really wants an iPhone, there are options.  Besides the healthy trade on the black market, one could order the phone (or any other prohibited foreign item) through a site like the US’s Amazon. If the phone costs $300, the buyer is responsible for paying the $300 cost of the phone and shipping to Amazon, and then an additional 50% tax to the Argentine government. A $300 phone will cost around $500 and require a trip to a local customs office for pickup, because Cristina doesn’t allow foreign deliveries to be sent directly to your home. Home delivery makes 50% tax collection complicated.

So if the average citizen of the Argentina has decided to save $300 of his or her hard-earned salary to buy an iPhone, unfortunately that citizen can’t buy one in a local store. Instead, he or she must save $200 extra to order from overseas, or cross the border to Chile or Uruguay to buy one there. Many weekends, especially holidays, there are six to eight hour lines at international border crossings, allowing citizens to purchase Apple Products, Kitchen-Aid Mixers, X-Boxes or Lego toys for their children. On the way back into Argentina, they of course need to hide these products from customs so they don’t have to pay the 50% tax.

While the import substitution policy protects local workers and the economy in theory, in practice it creates a class-based unfairness that even eclipses the most pure free-market capitalist society.  The wealthy, mobile political class can and do afford travel overseas to buy superior products. The average worker has no choice but to buy inferior or obsolete products, based on the rules imposed by the supposedly well-meaning political class. In true Animal Farm style, political leaders artificially determine the market in the name of the “good of the economy,” while jet-setting to the United States or Europe to buy the same products they keep from the people.

The Future of Argentina

Supporters of the three consecutive Kirchner administrations trumpet accomplishments on human rights, reparations from the most recent military junta, equality, social justice and Argentine sovereignty. While Cristina and her husband do deserve some credit, it is not enough to outweigh the restrictions imposed on personal freedom of action and thought as illustrated above. Surprisingly enough, there are many more examples that would elicit similar reactions.

 In 1853, Argentina’s forefathers based the Argentine Republic’s Constitution on the model of the Constitution of the United States of America. By 1914, Argentina had become one of the world’s richest nations.   A century later, Argentina was ranked second out of 108 nations in the CATO Institute’s 2015 economic “Misery Index,” only less miserable than Venezuela and slightly more miserable than Syria, Ukraine and Iran. Ten more pages would be required to even start to explain how a nation- a Republic- based on Constitutional freedoms is embroiled in a “separation of powers crisis” and now looks more like an Orwellian, Big-Brother State. Through a complicated history filled with crises, coups and collapses, Argentina is again in trouble despite its many natural resources and deep cultural diversity.

In addition to continued government meddling, there is also a risk of the pendulum swinging too far in the opposite direction as it has in the past. After twelve years of Kirchnerite rule, international investors are licking their chops, imagining a presidential victory for an opposition candidate that would reopen Argentina to the world market. Some pundits fear a repeat of the 1990s, when neoliberal policies allowed international corporations and investors to take advantage of industry privatizations that did not benefit the everyday Argentine.

Whatever the outcome of the election, an unbiased observer can maintain an cautious optimism for the nation of Argentina that the next executive can prioritize the rights and freedoms of its people above personal ambition, enrichment and control. It may seem trivial to focus on fútbol, price controls and consumer purchasing freedom when the Kirchner administration has been accused of large-scale corruption, repression, and even murder. But the reality for the everyday Argentine citizen speaks more to the state of the republic than the high-level political scandals.   In a nation based on the US model of individual rights and freedoms, the political devolution of all-powerful populist executives has left life in Argentina today far from what her founders envisioned.

Jared Wilhelm is a Naval Aviator who served two deployments in Africa, Central America and Europe as a P-3C Orion Maritime Patrol Pilot. He is currently attending the National University of Cuyo in Argentina as part of the General George Olmsted Scholar Program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Navy, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or the Olmsted Foundation.

Power Project: China’s New Strategy

Taking a page from the Pentagon’s playbook, China last month publicly revealed a new military strategy; a first ever move that advertises how Beijing intends to implement its growing foreign policy in the coming years. Released on May 26th just days ahead of the 2015 Shangri-La Dialogues, the strategy supports China’s three national priorities (safeguarding national unification, maintaining territorial integrity, and developing its economy), and describes a shift away from land power in favor of the air and maritime domains. But the new strategy is about much more than a simple change in emphasis, it embraces joint operations and offensive warfare, particularly in the maritime domain, and introduces security cooperation as a key element of national policy. These are sophisticated concepts associated with power projection and though this may cause concern in some western military circles, they are a recognition of a strategic reality that has been evident for some time already: specifically that China simply must project power if it wants to sustain its increasing importance in the global economy.

Admiral Sun of the PLA Navy at the 2015 Shangri-La Dialogues
Admiral Sun of the PLA Navy at the 2015 Shangri-La Dialogues

The emergence of the air and maritime domains (and by extension the space domain) in Chinese strategic thinking is a natural outgrowth of the country’s new economy. In the 1950s when China set the foundations on its previous strategic concept, the country was an inward-facing rural agrarian society that largely provided all the resource needs of its own economy. Territorial integrity and population resource control within mainland China were the overarching preoccupations of Beijing. An independent, centralized economy and a closed society were basic tools to maintain this control and support the limited foreign policy of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Chinese Dream

Needless to say, that has been changing at an ever-quickening pace since Deng Xiaoping suggested that to be rich is glorious. Since then, China has become an integral player in the modern globalized economy. It joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and now provides labor and infrastructure for an enormous percentage of the world’s simple manufacturing; in effect, China has subordinated its foreign policy to its economy much as western nations have been doing for hundreds of years. In this regard, the new Chinese strategy is a sensible adjustment to globalization.

Thus, power projection has become the unifying principle of Chinese military development affecting all branches of its armed forces. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), traditionally a defensive force, is transitioning “from theater defense to trans-theater mobility”.  It is adapting itself to tasks in different regions of the world and for different purposes. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) will take on offensive missions including air strike, airborne operations, and strategic projection. This last bit was clearly on the minds of generals and politicians in Beijing during the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 which featured PLAAF air and logistical units operating deep in the Indian Ocean from forward bases for extended periods. Though the operation revealed weaknesses in air-sea integration, intelligence fusion, and planning, it was a necessary first step and undoubtedly provided many important lessons. The PLA Navy (PLAN), which in the past more closely resembled a coast guard than a true navy, is making the most visible transition, developing carrier aviation, ballistic missile submarines, and possibly even anti-ship ballistic missiles. Like the PLA Air Force, the PLAN is already experimenting with power projection, operating a national counter-piracy operation in the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden since 2008 and influencing construction of dual-use port facilities in the Maldives, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Notably, PLAN also pioneered integration with Chinese paramilitary units of the Coast Guard and Fisheries Service that are on the forefront of defending territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.

A PLAN J-15 Fighter Takes Off from the Deck of China's First Carrier, the Liaoning
A PLAN J-15 fighter takes off from the deck of China’s first carrier, the Liaoning

Non-Traditional Security

While China’s military evolution is observable and measurable, other aspects of its drive to project power are less so. Chinese cyber units have been attacking American military and commercial activities for years with the latest incident, according to two US Senators, taking place last week when hackers stole security background information of up to 4 million US Government officials. In the realm of security cooperation, Chinese Special Operations Forces (SOF) are also becoming more active and more aggressive. There were credible reports in June 2014 that Chinese SOF helped evacuate their nationals from Iraq as that country came under threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Similar operations took place more recently in Yemen. Chinese naval commandos are known to operate with PLAN task groups in the Gulf of Aden, and other Chinese SOF are busy engaging counterparts around the world.  By early 2012, this activity had accelerated so much that US Intelligence grew concerned this was a systematic attempt to directly counter American influence in Southeast Asia. They had determined that Chinese SOF were engaging Southeast Asian units hot on the heels of similar visits by US SOF teams. While the timing and the targets of these exchanges is impossible to dispute, these patterns probably had more to do with host nation priorities for which units would benefit from the training. Whatever the real motivation, the point is that Chinese SOF are engaging regional neighbors in the exact same manner as US SOF and reportedly with much more flexible rules for investing in their hosts. And while SOF is the most versatile and reliable of China’s tools for security cooperation, it is hardly the biggest or most important. China maintains robust relations through training exchanges in Africa and Latin America and routinely conducts combined exercises with Russia under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The new strategy reinforces these interactions but also specifically recommends increasing military ties with Europe in unspecified ways.

For observers and practitioners familiar with the strategic culture of China in the last ten years, there is a noticeable if hesitant emergence of the Chinese military from the shadows of secrecy and a defensive mindset. While western nations may be very happy to accept China into the global economy, they are less comfortable with the corresponding increase in Chinese military engagement. Western discussions on the management of China’s rise are overwhelmingly presented in economic terms, leaving us to ponder whether the purpose of the newly released strategy is to remind us that we must also consider the rise of China’s military if we hope to keep peace in Asia.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. 

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