Special Operators Seek New Social Media Tools
As terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State embrace social media, government entities are seeking to exploit open-source information to improve their own operational tactics.
U.S. Special Operations Command is researching how it can use social media to mine critical intelligence data, said Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who at the time was serving as the commander of SOCOM.
“SOCOM is currently carrying out a series of technology demonstrations to assess innovative tools designed to detect previously unseen patterns in complex social media data; integrate and visualize vast information; and allow warfighters to sense, understand and respond to changes in the information environment in real time,” he said during a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee in March.
Additionally, the command could also use social media to attempt to undermine the Islamic State’s propaganda, he said.
“The ability to conduct effective messaging, as well as counter-messaging, will only grow in importance, given the evolving nature of conflicts,” he said.
Industry is ready to help SOCOM better sift through social media posts to distill nuggets of information, said M. Shands Pickett, director of applied research and technology at Visual Awareness Technologies and Consulting Inc., a Tampa, Florida-based small business that focuses on training and operational solutions for special operations forces and other government organizations.
Social media offers the military, and particularly SOCOM, a way to gauge how certain operations affect a local population, he said.
“What we saw throughout conventional forces, special operations forces and partner forces [in Afghanistan] is an inability to really understand how their operations were having an effect on the local population,” he said.
During conventional operations, it is obvious when a military has won — tanks leave and soldiers surrender, he said. But “when you’re operating in a … counterinsurgency environment or in a irregular warfare environment … the only way you know that is if the local population thinks that you’ve won … because they are determinant of your victory.
“With the proliferation of cell phones, even in areas like Afghanistan, you can get a pretty good sense of what people think about what you’re doing,” he said.
Earlier this year, VATC launched a special operations variant of its simulated intelligence training environment platform, or SITREP, to help SOCOM train its intelligence officers. The system works by pulling information from social media websites such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, and overlaying it with simulated operations.
“You’re seeing all this data … of whether you are achieving the right effects or not achieving those effects, and then it allows you to attenuate your operations in order to improve,” he said.
VATC can simulate a number of target areas around the world, including in Asia, South America and Africa. It also pulls information from social media platforms that are frequently used in certain regions. For example, in China a website known as Weibo is popular.
An intelligence officer can pull up SITREP on a non-classified Internet protocol router network and “it will bring up what looks like Twitter except for it’s the scenario Twitter,” he said. It’s mixed with a synthetic environment that draws on real-world events “plus our scenario variables that we introduce. So it’s realistic for the analyst. … It’s not hokey.”
For example, in one case study, special operators go into a village and conduct a direct action mission and detain a target. The program tells the users whether or not the locals in that area are supportive of this person based on social media data and what the effects of removing him would be.
The company has met with Special Operations Command and Naval Special Warfare Command to discuss the product, Pickett said.
SITREP was originally developed for the Joint Multiple National Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, he said. It has been used in exercises since 2013. Because it was created to work alongside partner nations, it can be translated into languages such as French, Spanish and Serbian.
During the summer of 2015, VATC began work on developing a SOF variant. There is an “order of magnitude difference, because with a conventional force training audience you’re focused on … the basics and you’re getting an intel captain who may or may not have ever deployed,” he said. “Working for a SOCOM audience, the customer is a lot more demanding in terms of the level of fidelity that we produce and also the level of realism that we can replicate.”
Kitware, an open-source software company based in Clifton Park, New York, has developed technology that could be used by special operators to analyze images and videos on social media platforms.
“We can detect images or identify images that have military vehicles in them versus images that don’t,” said Anthony Hoogs, senior director of computer vision at the company. “It might be an image of someone smiling at the camera in the foreground but in the background there is a military vehicle. Or it could be soldiers taking pictures of themselves sitting on their tank.”
Using a software system powered by a concept known as deep learning — advanced algorithms that can enable human-level accuracy in data analysis — analysts can quickly sift through large amounts of data, he said. The algorithms can pick up on camouflage paint on vehicles, or even recognize certain sizes and shapes.
“Deep learning has enabled a significant leap forward in accuracy of image understanding, so now it becomes much more conceivable to have automated analysis of just random media content in social media … and get something useful out of it,” he said.
Images and videos make up most of the data on social media platforms but only recently has there been significant steps toward analyzing it, he said.
Images and videos “for the past couple of years have been, really just as far as the algorithms are concerned, mostly black boxes,” he said. “But with better algorithms that have come along lately we can do more and we can tell whether a photo is an indoor scene or an outdoor one [or] has military content.”
The system could help an analyst detect if certain people are involved with terrorist groups, he said.
“Most of the data in social media is not of intelligence value. It’s a classic needle in the haystack problem,” he said. “If you’re asking your analyst to spend his precious time digging through social media to find something, then they have to have a very targeted search. What algorithms can do is a much more broad-based search.”
Images are only one piece of the puzzle, he said.
“We’re offering this imagery and video analysis piece of it. I think what really is required is a complete solution that also looks at the other two main aspects of this — so one is the text, the Twitter messages and so on that people are sending around, and then also there is a third dimension which is the network itself — so social network analysis and … who is friends with who and who is communicating with whom.”
Kitware is looking for partners for that endeavor, but none have materialized so far, he said.
The U.S. State Department has been one of the most high-profile users of social media in its effort to undermine propaganda disseminated by the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS. In January, the department stood up the Global Engagement Center, which replaces the former Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. Officials at the CSCC — who would reach out directly to ISIL-affiliated social media users and try to counter their message — was criticized by some as being ineffective and bogged down by bureaucratic red tape.
“This new center will shift our paradigm for countering violent extremist messaging. We will move away from a focus on direct messaging and toward an emphasis on empowering and enabling partners, governmental and non-governmental, across the globe,” said Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIL at State. “We will also plan social media campaigns to provide fact-based content and information (such as testimony from defectors) that undermines ISIL propaganda.”
But Muslim countries will have to take the lead on countering these messages, McGurk said. The United Arab Emirates has been “key” in this effort and recently established the Sawab Center, which he described as a “24/7 counter-messaging platform.”
“I visited the Sawab Center last year and was impressed with the dedication of the young Emirati citizens engaged in this campaign,” he said. The organization has highlighted testimony from Islamic State defectors that is meant to shine a light on the brutal nature of the organization and what it is like to live under its rule.
Malaysia is also setting up a center that will focus on the Asia region, he said.
Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said regional partners are better equipped to handle messaging toward Islamic terrorist organizations.
“It’s very difficult for the U.S. government to counter that kind of ideological and theological propaganda because first of all we are infidels” in ISIL supporters’ eyes, he said. “We don’t really have the standing to provide a damaging critique, so perhaps in some ways it’s best to work through or work with Muslim governments or NGOs or experts that would have a greater facility in zeroing on some of the weaknesses of their theological arguments.”
Successes within the State Department’s new effort can already be seen, McGurk said. “When ISIL was overtaking major cities, it had a successful messaging campaign — and our counter-campaign struggled. That is no longer the case. ISIL is increasingly on the defense. Its spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, is no longer touting great victories but rather seeking to explain away defeats. There will be more defeats to come — on the ground and in cyberspace.”
While the group used to claim it had its sight on places such as Rome, for example, it can no longer say that with credibility, McGurk said.
“The messaging gets a lot easier when we are making progress. If you are doing a messaging campaign for the Washington Redskins, it is easier when the team is winning than when the team is losing,” he said.
The State Department is working closely with social media organizations such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, he said. Twitter recently closed 125,000 ISIL-affiliated accounts, he added.