Tag Archives: Social Media

Industrialization’s Monster: Yes We Can

Considered the founding work of science fiction, Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein has served as explanation and warning across many subjects and issues since it first captured the imaginations of readers. The context within which she wrote, exactly two centuries ago as the Industrial Revolution was gaining speed, was the tumult of Humanity’s first failures against a rising tide. Today, as the casualties of the first years of this new Cyber Revolution fall and the sharp changes already emergent shake our reality, the moment is nigh to revisit Shelley’s warnings, to consider the ramifications of the past upon life and the planet, and to ponder the future.

Published in 1818, Frankenstein is the perfect foil to interrogate the cost of past choices as new ones arise. Shelley wrote the book when the perils of that great socio-economic change were already manifesting even as its promise beckoned. The Luddites of her day, the movement of the first workers displaced by industrial manufacture, were only the first of many casualties across the human and natural landscape. Today, however, as the complex costs and consequences of that advance in human experience are manifest, the work easily stands as a rebuke of Man’s unchecked rush to apply his knowledge and ability to change thereby creating a monster. Although Man rectified many of the Industrial Revolution’s early and simpler abuses of men and nature, its long term effect, and the looming complex climate and human crises it brought, threaten much of the existence we take for granted. Looking at the results of the Industrial Revolution writ large, we must examine the positive, beneficial effects for society against the negatives, most significantly in climate change, pollution, geographic-topographic degradation, and the unsettled terrain of human satisfaction with their daily lot.

Cyber-Industrialization

Looking back on the Frankenstein’s monster of unchecked industrialization, it is worth asking which of the advances might have been challenged in their own time had we known the true costs. Some? Many? None? Surely reason would have promoted a demand for moderation and acted as a brake upon the unchecked application of industrialization to the majority of humanity’s endeavors. At the very least, one might expect governing authorities to impose the costs of the advances upon those who would profit most from them. Such a hypothetical is no mere wistful navel gazing: to reflect on what to rework in the contested present is more than relevant as Mankind stands at the next great socio-economic revolution. As we face a similarly grand reconfiguration of humanity, changes being wrought under the Cyber Revolution offer a means to reconsider the choices for our future and reckon the errors of our past. We would do well to address these storms now rather than later. Looking only at a snapshot of issues arising from artificial intelligence, algorithms, the increasingly networked world, and their further implications on the quotidian purpose of life, the terms of our necessary humility emerge.

artificial intelligence
Science fiction cliches often portray AI as resembling human form, but the reality is that AI will not have the same human limitations. Photo credit: https://expo.co.jp/english/2017/06/06/766.html.

If sentience is mankind’s defining characteristic, then artificial intelligence and the role of algorithms are profound efforts to reproduce our very essence. Controlling significant swathes of life, these human creations hold to capacity usurp sovereignty over human existence. Already the machines taught to converse are learning to do so in self-created languagesit will not be long before they can do so to their human creators’ utter incomprehension. Perhaps worse than the science fiction horror of a world controlled by machines is the banal disaster of a world remade by distrust and unreality. The social media that more and more of the population rely upon are subjected to ever more sophisticated manipulation by algorithms. Created to shape content tailored to an individual’s tastes, the dark side of this phenomenon is algorithms designed to influence the fundamental core of representative governance. And while propaganda and false news are nothing new, the targeting and volume is creating an unprecedented environment of uncertainty about the very terms of reality.

Where humanity organized itself for good and ill in the creation of communities, this urge to connect as applied to the new cyber world cedes even more control to the unknown. The networked world increasingly places critical functions at finger-tap reach of individual and non-state actors whose motives and ends benefit few and harm many. Looking only at recent events, the systems and institutions under siege to the “Internet of Things” are those most critical to society; a window to the perils of this newest ungoverned space. The Equifax hack reported last month, affecting at least 143 million Americans, is only the latest largest data breach in history, and may threaten the financial security of too many. Ransomware attacks are increasingly used to take control of information systems, putting health at risk as hospitals have become targets to virtual hostage taking for money. But the worst may be the peril of the electronic means to our democratic system. The investigation into the possible hacking of the 2016 election illuminates a chillingly effective attempt to interfere with American sovereignty. While the extent of this campaign is as yet unknown, evidence of theft of voter information in Illinois by likely Russian actors has been verified and is under Congressional investigation.

Humanity’s Monster

At a deeper level, the Cyber Revolution attacks the fundamental meaning and experience of what it is to be human. Looking to the single issue of work, so many advances threaten to continue the degradation of this human value begun during the Industrial Revolution. It is an ominous trend. Not merely a Protestant ethic, there is something fundamentally important about work to human existence that links fulfilling a sense of productivity to meaning. Yet as the Cyber Revolution gathers momentum, robots and computers may perilously curtail productive human activity from agriculture to automotive, architecture to artisan cheese. The wisdom of prioritizing more goods at cheaper prices over simple human satisfaction demands a rethink as more radicalism arises from nihilism born of meaninglessness.

These are just the first rounds; this era’s first artisans displaced by factory machines, rivers despoiled, air befouled. Without succumbing to full-fledged Ludditism and the rejection of all advances, there is a need to rethink this headlong rush into the next era of change. The genius of our Frankenstein impulse, the creative imagination to dream and explore, should not be destroyed – but neither should the monsters of this impulse be allowed to rampage unfettered.


Jill RussellDr. Jill S. Russell is a Professor of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College. She has worked extensively in professional military education in the U.S. and the U.K., as well as in defense consulting. Her areas of expertise and research interest are logistics, urban conflict and public order, and strategy and policy. She writes and comments regularly on military affairs and national security for blogs, news outlets, and practitioner publications.

Social Media’s Chinese Boogeyman

China has become a sensation in Western discourse, representing fears of economic displacement, military rivalry, and social upheaval. In many English language social media discussions about China, commentary can quickly escalate to the point that it is alarmist, ignorant, condescending, or racist. China is a vast country, with the largest population in the world, and they have experienced as much social, demographic, and environmental change in just the last generation as the West has in the last 100 years.

Despite what you may read in social media, analysis of China does not easily boil down to 140 characters or less. The “Middle Kingdom” is a vast land of contradictions, and much of what is said about the People’s Republic contain various levels of truth. An example of China’s extreme contrasts: although there is extreme poverty in many rural areas, Beijing just surpassed New York City in number of billionaires. Too often, commentators on social media try to dilute the facts into neat clichés and virtual soundbites rather than accept the complexities of the subject.

In an ever more globalized and interconnected world, words matter. Words and ideas compete  for consideration and propagation on the internet. Opinions are shared, mimicked, and replicated quickly, often reaching unintended audiences, which is why so much commentary about China on social media is alarming. An opinion (educated or not) that is true to some extent in limited context can then be extrapolated and applied to other unrelated situations. The explosion of memes as acceptable political discourse on topics from the U.S. presidential primaries to  the Refugee Crisis is a visible example of the problem of relying on social media for political information.

Where English language opinions are more informed, they are often limited in scope and origin to the expat enclaves of Beijing, Shanghai, and the Pearl River Delta, where Westerners can experience China without the polarizing filter of the media. Popular opinion is therefore a reflection of the shallow observations often repeated by our major media organizations, whose footprints in China are, at best, a field office in Beijing or Shanghai, and at worst, simply echo the opinions of the major papers.

The problem is, the Chinese people are listening very closely. Many Chinese leaders and thinkers view America as an example of a successful great power, and they seek to imitate that success while still preserving their socialist system. The U.S. is observed by many with near obsession, curiosity, and often with some degree of apprehension. Clearly unaware of the impact of their statements in social media, the last thing Westerners, and Americans in particular, should be doing is disparaging or dismissing arguably rational Chinese actions in the media.

Imagine two brothers, where the younger brother imitates the behavior of the elder. If the elder brother rejects and mocks him, how will the younger brother then act in the future? If the Chinese political and economic leadership do not feel like Americans respect them, they may change course and find another less palatable model for future development. The Sino-American geopolitical relationship is the most important one in the 21st Century, and the U.S. should not neglect its leadership role in the region through ignorance and careless internal public dialogue.

china-provinces-map-855
Provinces of the People’s Republic of China. Photo Credit : http://www.nationsproject.org

The Loud Voices in the Room

Here are some examples from social media to demonstrate the problems with careless internal dialogue:

Opinion 1: The Chinese cheat (at business).

cheating?
Commentary below a January 1st People’s Daily post about China’s new aircraft carrier. Photo Credit: www.facebook.com

This type of message invokes a value of fairness, and claims that China is not playing fair: in business, military technology, etc… Allegations of cheating aside, consider that China has leapfrogged the industrial revolution right into the information revolution. While some would argue the fairness of China’s approach to modernization, it is nothing new. The idea of appropriating methods and technologies from more advanced nations has occurred over and over again throughout history as many now-developed nations  also stood on the shoulders of the trailblazers who went before.

Sharing of intellectual property in jointly owned enterprises has been a condition of investment in China since Deng Xiaoping’s open door policy of 1980. Western companies have willingly entered into such agreements, making significant profits while American consumers benefited by being able to buy cheaper goods. Furthermore, a large number of Chinese businesses do not cheat and steal, so their reaction to such insults on social media is predictably and understandably defensive. Dismissive and disrespectful behavior on social media has serious potential to have a negative effect on the economic relationship between the U.S and China.

Opinion 2: Chinese products are terrible quality.

There is a lot of evidence to support the fact that some Chinese goods are low quality. There have been instances of fake milk powder tainted with hazardous chemicals, contractors reducing the quality of construction in schools, and “gutter oil” used for cooking, issues that have instigated mass social movements in China in response.

made in china
Additional commentary following the January 1st People’s Daily post deriding the quality of China’s new domestically produced aircraft carrier. Photo credit: www.facebook.com

However, China as a nation is also capable of producing at high quality. The passenger rail system is not without flaws, but it has come an impressively long way. Most notably, the P.R.C. maintains a  manned space program and in September 2013 sent an unmanned rover to the moon, which set the record in October 2015 as the longest operational lunar rover. When Westerners apply this opinion categorically, it becomes insulting and arrogant, asserting that the Chinese cannot do anything of quality, and the reaction is naturally negative with potential repercussions both in diplomacy and in business.

Opinion 3: China is a global threat.

The following comments came from a Facebook page on the People’s Daily discussing the ongoing fielding of the Liaoning, China’s new Ukrainian-made aircraft carrier:

Asians and Aircraft Carriers
Commentary below a December 31st China Daily post about the refurbished aircraft carrier that China recently purchased from Russia, the Liaoning. Photo Credit: www.facebook.com

This is an extreme instance of this opinion, where the commenter uses the anxiety around China’s rise to compare the P.R.C. to the Imperial Japanese, a comparison sure to promote defensiveness and hostility from Chinese readers. The memory of the brutal Japanese occupation is immortalized in film, monuments, and memorials throughout China, just as the communist resistance to the Japanese is celebrated as a legitimacy narrative. Tensions continue to run high between the two countries as was evidenced by the response to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in 2014.  Arguable racist undertones aside, the commentary on China’s rise seems to swing to both extremes: Either China is a terrifying dragon, or China is a bumbling panda bear.

Rival or Partner?

If China is really a threat, then it could be a very serious one. When analyzing potential threats, analysis should be broken down into two components: capability of doing harm, and intent to do harm in the pursuit of a specific goal. Despite a large military, China has limited capability to threaten others in its immediate vicinity; the benefits of aggressive action are low and international connectivity makes the costs are still too high to make such policies palatable to the Chinese leadership.

The second component of threat analysis is often lacking in most Western discourse about China. Namely, do they even want to cause us harm? If/when they have the capability, would they want to use it? What would they achieve by doing so? Hostile and anxious comments about China shape and promote the kind of defensive hostility in China that the West does not desire. We should expect fear-mongering about China in the West to be mirrored, leading to further aggressive posturing and the increasing possibility of confrontation, perhaps leading to a fostering of the intent to do harm which does not currently exist. 

China Skyscraper
China is quickly modernizing. Will it integrate further into the world’s political and economic systems? Or will the world’s largest economy and most populous nation be turned away by hostility from the system it so desperately wants to become a part of?  Original Photo, Pudong, Shanghai

An Avoidable Collision

Fear-mongering can be counteracted through education. The more accurate information is spread about China, the more we Westerners will realize the limitations of our knowledge. The Chinese people are awakening to the outside world thanks to the influence of the internet, but they remain rooted in their customs, history, and have their own unique challenges. Other countries need not consent to China’s strategic positions or praise their business practices. Understanding the Chinese in  context, and cooperating or challenging as appropriate is the key. The current hostile and dismissive discourse is one avoidable factor unnecessarily escalating tensions between two civilizations which are leading towards an aggressive rivalry, rather than a rewarding partnership.

Mike KendallMAJ Mike Kendall is a U.S. Army Engineer Officer with combat experience and extensive training in forcible entry and humanitarian relief operations.  He graduated from Zhejiang University in Hangzhou China as part of the Olmsted Scholar Program, and is currently attending the German Armed Forces General Staff College and Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg, Germany. He holds a B.S. in International Relations, an M.S. in Engineering Management, and an MPA in Non-Traditional Security Management.  The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation.

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.