How Social Media is Changing Intelligence and Information Warfare

social media and war
Social media is transforming the way wars are fought. Credit: Jason Howie / CC BY 2.0 / IDF Spokesperson’s Unit / Wikimedia Commons

With the growing ubiquity of social media in virtually every facet of life, it was inevitable that war would pass through this digital filter sooner or later.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Ukraine War has since been hailed as the “first social media war” or the “first TikTok war” due to the sheer amount of content related to the conflict being shared on social media platforms and apps like X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, YouTube, Telegram, and Facebook. Subsequent conflicts, such as the Israel-Gaza War, have received similar attention on social media.

The filtration of war through the social media lens poses several potential consequences. Two of the most important areas are intelligence and information warfare. For intelligence practitioners, the volume of footage and imagery from conflict zones represents an increasingly viable source of intelligence, whereas for information warfare specialists, this same source of often highly emotive content is a vital tool in the competition to shape the narrative.

Social media and war: from frontlines to smartphones

During the Ukraine War, many soldiers on both sides have filmed their experiences with helmet-mounted cameras. Amateur war bloggers and photojournalists have also contributed large quantities of videos and photos from the front lines. Footage from drones is perhaps even more common. Bird’s-eye view videos of armored engagements, skirmishes in the trenches, and drone strikes have become the emblematic images associated with the war.

War footage from the Israel-Hamas conflict has similarly gone viral. When Hamas initiated its terrorist attack against Israel on October 7, 2023, graphic videos and images circulated widely on X and other social media platforms. Since then, both the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Hamas, and civilian bystanders have shared significant amounts of content from the conflict in Gaza online.

Vast quantities of videos and images from these warzones and others are disseminated to an international audience. Long gone are the days when news traveled slowly from the frontlines. Social media, like newspapers, radio, and cable TV before it, has significantly reduced the time it takes for awareness of events in war to spread, essentially lifting the fog of war.

Open-Source Intelligence

The ubiquity of social media posting from conflict zones has provided a wealth of potential intelligence, both to professional government agencies, corporate analysts, and OSINT enthusiasts. Social media intelligence (SOCMINT) is itself now recognized as a sub-discipline of OSINT.

SOCMINT can be used in a variety of ways but is perhaps most valuable to militaries when paired with other forms of intelligence to reveal the locations and quantities of combatants belonging to the opposing force.

Consider this scenario: a civilian in Ukraine uploads a video showing a Russian armored convoy passing through a village. Upon initial examination, Ukrainian intelligence analysts could extract valuable insights from the post, such as the number and types of vehicles in the convoy, along with the time they passed through, if the video includes an accurate timestamp.

Even without a tagged location, analysts might pinpoint the location by identifying road signs or landmarks visible in the video. If these clues are absent, they could still determine the location by identifying key geographical features and utilizing geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) tools to narrow down potential locations.

The sheer scale of conflict-related content on social media has dramatically increased the potential for intelligence collection. In fact, one of the main problems facing intelligence agencies is not a lack of intelligence, but rather an “information overload”. This places greater emphasis on adequate processing and analysis during the intelligence lifecycle.

Information Warfare

Social media has fundamentally transformed how large segments of the population interact with current affairs and the news. According to data from the Pew Research Center, at least half of adults in the US access news at least sometimes from social media. Other studies have identified similar trends across the world, with younger audiences especially likely to get their news from social media.

Given the clear and present importance of social media for shaping perceptions, information warfare practitioners are increasingly aware that the social media domain is vital ground for controlling narratives.

As IDF spokesperson Peter Lerner told journalist David Patrikarakos in 2017, “If you are absent on the social media space, you cede that space to the enemy. You have to be there to lead the conversation, especially in wartime. If you’re silent on social media, you’re not getting your own message across; and if you’re silent on social media, you’re not giving your supporters ammunition to use.”

There is no greater case study for the intensification of information warfare on social media than the contest between Israel and Hamas to shape international perceptions. Since Hamas’ terrorist attack on October 7, last year and Israel’s subsequent ground invasion, social media accounts officially affiliated with both sides have pumped out volumes of content to win over global opinion. Indeed, The IDF’s international communications office has grown to over 200 people, doubling its size.

Official efforts are bolstered or counteracted by online activists, who also share vast amounts of content on various social media platforms. Pro-Israel and pro-Palestine activists sometimes belong to NGOs or other groups, but many online posters engage on their own volition, driven by their own moral sentiments.

Some of the data indicates that the weight of online support is with Palestine. For instance, there were 39 times more #freepalestine posts than #standwithisrael posts on Facebook. As the war continues, both sides will intensify their efforts to ensure that their messaging is dominant on social media because the center of gravity in this conflict is narrative control.

Israel might win a tactical victory in Gaza with its military, but if incurs international isolation, it will have suffered a strategic defeat. Similarly, strategic success for Hamas is largely dependent on whether international outrage is focused on its October 7 terrorist attacks or civilian deaths in Gaza caused by the IDF. Convincing the world that the suffering caused by the latter outweighs the former is an essential part of Hamas’ strategy.

Key Takeaways

As the recent conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza demonstrate, the social media space is simultaneously an important source for intelligence and a battleground for influence. Videos and images can function both as potential intelligence sources and as the means for information warfare and influence campaigns.

Videos and images posted by combatants and civilians in conflict zones can reveal the types, locations, and numbers of military assets being used in a short amount of time, especially if trained intelligence analysts are able to corroborate SOCMINT with other intelligence tools.

Due to its highly emotive and often distressing nature, content from conflicts shared on social media can equally act as excellent fodder for propaganda and information warfare. As the old saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and an especially heart-wrenching image or video can sway hearts and minds far more effectively than any written or spoken statement conjured up by press officers, politicians, and journalists.

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