Social Media Threat Or Opportunity?

By Dinesh D. Dodamgoda

According to the secretary of defence, as stated in a lecture delivered at the Kothalawala Defence University a few weeks ago, the rapid expansion and development of social media is a threat to national security and can be used to cause problems by propagating certain ideologies, mobilising and organising people. Yet, is social media a real threat or an ideal opportunity to the country’s national security?

Social media is defined by a number of tools, which includes blogs, Wikis, discussion forums, microblogs (Twitter etc.) and social networking sites (Facebook etc). Since the number of internet users in world is growing, no doubt, the number of social media users is also on the increase. It was revealed, for example, 1.11 billion Facebook users are in the world in March 2013. The Sri Lankan scenario is also not much different and Telecommunications Regulatory Commission’s statistics show more than 1.5 million fixed and mobile internet ‘subscribers’ in the country in March 2013. Amongst them, more than 1.5 million active Facebook users, majority of them are in the age group of 18-24. Moreover, Twitter, blogs and discussion forum users are also growing rapidly.

Social media as a threat

No doubt, social media users have the capability and the opportunity to use social media tools to pose a threat to national security. Amongst those users who can pose a threat locally are national subversive groups, criminal organisations, extra-parliamentary forces and extreme opposition movements, crackers, and extremist religious and ethnic sects. Furthermore, international terrorist groups, transnational criminal organisations, non-allied states, multinational corporations, companies with foreign capital stock can also pose a threat using social media, but the threat they pose has an international dimension.

However, the other national and international users such as political parties, labour unions, companies with national capital stock as well as NGOs, international organisations, hackers, allied foreign states with political, military and economic alliances have the opportunity to pose a threat using social media, although they are not considered generally as groups that pose obvious threats to national security. Ample evidence shows the way groups used social media to pose threats to national security. For example, during civil unrests in the Iranian Green Movement and the Arab Spring uprising, social media had a tremendous impact that threatened respective regimes.

As a British document shows, social media such as Twitter can be used tactically by terrorists even to provide real time updates of government troops movements. Moreover, hostile social media user groups can propagate extremist ideologies among target groups such as youths to radicalise and mobilise them in a manner that can pose a real threat to security.

Social media as an opportunity

Despite the threat social media can pose on national security, it is an unavoidable reality in a liberal-democratic society. Hence, rather than being paranoid by the threat social media can pose, it is much better to perceive it as an opportunity, since there are so many avenues to use social media as an important ‘national security friendly tool’.

Social media provides a rich pool of overt data for intelligence agencies to measure and evaluate the way people think, argue, laugh, cry and shout. Hence, this data can assist even in gauging public opinion and identifying threats to national security in advance as groups that pose threats to national security tend to use social media for internal communication due to convenience and the low cost. As evident, insurgency groups use chatting and discussion forums even for group recruitments.

Therefore, strengthening Social Media Intelligence (SOCMINT) capabilities is of paramount importance in securing a nation as it attains and maintain state’s information superiority. For example, the US Defence Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded US$ 45 million of research in areas of strategic communication and social media. Furthermore, new innovation in SOCMINT comes in; for instance, students at the US Naval Post Graduate School have developed software called ‘Dynamic Twitter Network Analysis’ to pull data from public Twitter feeds.

Therefore, the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry also need to look for new opportunities, however in doing so, a balance between national security and citizen’s privacy online must be safeguarded. For example, illegal hacking into individual’s social media accounts to gather covert information should be avoided and security agencies should mainly rely on overt information analysis, if they are professionals.

In addition to SOCMINT, the country’s national security strategic communication units (if there are) can use social media to disseminate national security friendly information and to counter arguments against hostile propagations. Interestingly, national security is ultimately more or less a battle of ideas. Furthermore, social media can be used as a tool to raise awareness and communicate messages during an emergency or a disaster or even to track criminals and terrorists.

Threat or opportunity?

As evident, social media is an unavoidable reality in a liberal-democratic society and a tool that can be used either positively or negatively. Therefore, national security strategists need to think ‘strategically’ and try to find mechanisms to use social media in favour of securing the country. However, social media fades traditional boundaries of state sovereignty away, hence, the threat that social media poses has an international dimension, too.

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