Social Media is a Weapon

By Lieutenant Commander Seán Carnew, Royal Navy, and Major Jason Furlong, Royal Canadian Air Force

Evidence of nations using social media as a disruptive weapon has grown in recent years. Russia has developed a reputation for the use of “troll farms”—groups of hundreds of people whose job is to infiltrate message boards and comments sections—to advance Russian national aims or seed discord and disharmony. 1 These farms also create content and messaging that are injected into the online sphere, captured by others, and spread. Fake news stories; hacking and the release of private communications; fabrication of events, statements, or outcomes; and fear mongering have all been used to affect target nations.

If these campaigns of influence are well designed, coordinated, coherent, and carefully managed, their effectiveness is greatly increased. Recent attempted attacks on electronics in Ukraine, Bulgaria, Estonia, the United States, Germany, France, and Austria have been effective in sowing discord among the populous and undermining faith in the government, the media, and public institutions. 2 These operations are conducted without putting the aggressor at serious political or military risk because of the difficulty in assigning blame. Similar tactics could be used to target different groups across numerous nations simultaneously, with individually tailored messaging in support of a desired outcome. Former Russian commander-in-chief General Yuri Baluyevsky recently explained how a victory in information warfare “can be much more important than victory in a classical military conflict, because it is bloodless, yet the impact is overwhelming and can paralyze all the enemy state’s power structures.” 3

Changing Societal Norms and Behaviors

Coincident with the rise of social media has been a change to societal norms and behaviors, including an increase in self-disclosure of personal information that previously would have been difficult to acquire. Social media participation demands a level of self-disclosure and encourages users to broadcast vast amounts of personal information, such as location, habits, preferences, and employment. This personal data can be used to inform, direct, and fine-tune targeting of a desired audience.

Social media pronouncements by individuals can have far-reaching effects. From the sailor who posts that his ship is delayed in deploying to the travel schedules of senior military and political leadership, information that previously would have been protected or difficult to acquire is now often easily attainable. This information and associated embedded metadata are more valuable than ever. Data mining allows information to be processed and analyzed to predict future behaviors and predilections, or to identify individuals susceptible to influence or coercion. 4 Intelligence-gathering operations that previously required a vast network of embedded human intelligence sources can now be conducted remotely, at minimal cost, and at negligible political risk to the targeting nation.

Citizens willing to divulge vast amounts of metadata and information frequently lack an understanding of how large social media operators gather and amalgamate data. Personal data can be mined and sold to the highest bidder or used by paying customers to target advertising to specific groups. This information also can be sourced through direct exploitation (hacking) of social media providers. Individuals or organizations are selectively targeted and exploited despite institutionalized programs to make them more resistant to external influences. It is not difficult, for example, to target Department of Defense software engineers working on Navy fighter programs.

Social media vulnerabilities are compounded by the constant push to automate and minimize the barriers to interaction, which is a hallmark of social media. Modern information consumers want instant availability with minimal impedance. The result is decreased security and privacy in exchange for access and convenience.

Combining Emerging Technologies

Changes in societal norms and the ability to create, change, or focus the narrative become even more disruptive when combined with emerging technologies. Unmanned air vehicles (UAVs, or drones) have experienced an explosion in capability and availability. Originally the sole domain of technologically advanced militaries and nations, UAVs have spread to the public sector and are advancing rapidly in terms of capability, affordability, and availability. While the capability of publicly available systems is nowhere near that of larger, more complex systems currently deployed by state actors, video technology such as the GoPro camera with high-quality resolution means these commercial unmanned systems can operate as effective electro-optical (EO) devices.

The capability of these types of bolt-on sensors will only increase with time. Drones currently are taking on roles normally assigned to humans, and this transfer shows no sign of abating. Corporate giants such as Amazon, DHL, and Pacific Gas & Electric have announced their intentions to employ drones in the routine operation of their business. 5 As these systems become widespread, populations will cease to notice their presence; they will become a part of everyday background noise. This will enable an agent to deploy drones with little or no fear of repercussion or awareness on the part of the target. Rather than worrying about counterdetection, the drone will be able to hide in plain sight, lost among the other devices routine to everyday life.

When combined with persistent Internet connectivity, which enables anyone or anything to control and send/receive data from anywhere in the world, commercially available drones become highly mobile, deployable, low-detectable sources of real-time data. Unlike the deployment of a Predator or Triton UAV, which could result in a military response or political backlash from a target nation, the commercial drone can potentially provide a user nation with high-fidelity data with little or no threat of political fallout or economic repercussions. The ability to use the data collected by data mining and drones to inform social media targeting and to focus both messaging and timing could be used to devastating effect.

The acceptability of using social media as an instrument of influence will vary among nations. While the populations of Western nations likely would have no issue with use of social media by political actors as a political tool, they might not accept their governments creating false narratives to influence other nations. This certainly would be the case if the outcomes in the targeted nation were contradictory to the political norms of the aggressor (i.e., a democratic nation targeting a popular movement to support an established dictator). There also may be legal limitations placed on governments regarding the use of social media in this context. This does not mean Western nations are inhibited from using social media as an external political or military tool, but their scope will be constrained by their national political environments and legal frameworks.

Social media use has become the norm, permeating every aspect of social, political, and economic life in much of the world. The resulting altered societal norms and behaviors have made the exploitation of the medium increasingly possible and effective. The emergence of other disruptive technologies has amplified the effectiveness of this exploitation and enabled it to be possibly combined with other, more traditional levers of power or military capabilities. Social media has become a disruptive technology that presents both great potential for use by and threat to modern nation-states and the militaries that defend them. State actors and militaries must, at a minimum, understand the capabilities and threats posed by social media and develop strategies to defend themselves when targeted. And, where politically and legally able to do so, develop the capability to employ social media as a political lever of power.

1. Adrian Chen, “The Agency,” The New York Times Magazine, 21 June 2015, .

2. Oren Dorell, “Russia Engineered Election Hacks and Meddling in Europe,” USA Today, 9 January 2017, .

3. “Russian Military Admits Significant Cyber-War Effort,” BBC Europe (BBC News), 23 February 2017, .

4. Wikipedia, “Data mining” by Copyright Law, .

5. Alex Hern, “Amazon Planning to Use Drones to Drop Parcels by Parachute,” The Guardian, 21 February 2017, DHL press release, 5 September 2016, and “PG&E Testing Safety Drones to Inspect Electric and Gas Infrastructure,” PG&E news release 18 May 2016 .

Lieutenant Commander Carnew is a Royal Navy exchange officer currently serving as the Tactics Department head in Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 1 (VX-1) at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. He qualified as a pilot flying the MH60R, but was previously qualified as an observer on the Merlin Mk1. He has completed operational tours in Iraq, Africa, and Afghanistan.

Major Furlong is a Royal Canadian Air Force exchange officer serving as the operations officer at VX-1. He is qualified as a tactical coordinator in the P-8A and previously flew on the CP140A Aurora and the Nimrod MR2. He is a graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada.


Social Media as a Political Disruptor

When combined with other recently emerged technologies, social media has increased potential to cause social unrest. For example: State A wants to create and/or support social unrest within State B to drive or influence the political actions of the leaders of that state. By deploying commercial drones in State B, State A can monitor a protest or rally in real time. State A also can simultaneously monitor the communications of individuals and organizations involved in the events on social media. The real-time data from both sources allows State A to know precisely when its messaging/influence will be of maximum effect (i.e., creating false messaging about an excess use of force by security organizations) and who to target.

Through this real-time targeting, State A may be able to turn a peaceful protest into a violent one and have a direct effect on the political discourse and political actions of State B while minimizing its own political/military cost. These same capabilities could be used to ensure the timing of and effectiveness of other capabilities, such as a suicide bomber or directed weapon strike.

The ability to use social media as a political lever of power is not equal among the governments and militaries of the world in terms of both populations that can be targeted and actors that can conduct the targeting. Characterized by their open political discourse, right to free speech and assembly, and lack of governmental controls on the use and proliferation of commercial technologies, Western societies are more vulnerable to such actions. In contrast, states where these freedoms are controlled or absent are less vulnerable to manipulation by social media messaging.



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