It is clear from this discussion that the spread of social media is changing both the character of societies and the nature of armed conflict. Today’s shift towards mobile devices and higher broadband speeds is accelerating these trends. Such changes are said to be just as significant, perhaps more so, than any previous ‘revolution’ in military affairs.
As a source of instant information, social media can be exploited by governments to provide greater situational awareness to military commanders, diplomats and aid workers during periods of heightened tension and conflict. In the future, knowing the ‘mood’ of the enemy through crowdsourcing or data mining may prove to be decisive in battle. But, as contributors to this forum have noted, social media is not benign, it is outside state control, and it doesn’t discriminate. The Iranian Government’s use of the same social networking tools to harass, identify and imprison the Green Movement protesters shows that the internet can have both positive and negative effects.
Terrorist organisations, including al-Qaeda, regularly use social media websites like YouTube and Facebook to disseminate propaganda to a global audience. Their aim is to reach out, recruit and radicalise. Web forums and chat rooms now play a critical role in terrorist communication networks. With near unfettered access to the digital world, terrorists are using the advantages of social media in ways that governments have yet to fully appreciate.
Advances in computer technology have expanded the reach of social media to the point where the exchange of ideas—both good and evil—now occurs on a global scale. For Australia’s national security planners, this information superhighway creates both challenges and opportunities. In a world of ‘active global listening’, a higher premium is placed on the ability of intelligence agencies to sort the background 'chatter' from the more critical and useful information. Many advocates of social media argue that governments will need to be active participants in shaping these global debates, and not just passive listeners. As the recent United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency research on strategic communication has acknowledged, this will require new methodological tools that combine both social science and technology.
The 2011 review of the intelligence community noted that Australia’s military commanders will increasingly require intelligence agencies to provide an understanding of the human terrain. To achieve this, a clearer national strategy is needed to manage the expanding ‘ocean’ of electronic data, including open source information that is available through social media. But, across the Australian national security community, the adoption and integration of social media tools has been slow and sclerotic. Given the comparative data from the US, it is fair to say that Australian departments and agencies have so far taken a defensive approach to social media applications. Proponents of social media demand they do more; skeptics will continue to caution against progressing too quickly.
The debate over social media and national security is still in its infancy. Further research is needed to understand how social media tools can be integrated into war fighting and diplomacy, exploited for intelligence purposes, and improved upon. New analytic tools, utilising both social science and hard science applications to measure linkage patterns and content in new media, offer some hope of bridging this gap. Understanding the role of networks—either online or in person—is an increasingly critical task in dealing with a range of national security challenges from combating terrorist groups to responding to natural disasters. If social media tools can assist in those tasks, then governments should learn to embrace them.
* These are the author’s personal views.