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Can the US military fight a war with Twitter?

Kerry Davis | Nov. 9, 2012
Students at a U.S. military graduate school in California are mining social media with new methods that may change the way the armed forces collect intelligence overseas.

"Given the military culture and that warfare is usually attrition of military forces, the Army hasn't, in my perspective, tried to move to understand sentiment of population," said Lucente.

So he's designed the Syria project to harness real-time social media streams as a test for the sort of fast intelligence gathering he'd like to do. Lucente's project started out broadly by researching use of social media in Syria. He found that, rather than the Assad regime, opposition forces are most active online.

Researchers were aided by the fact that Syrian opposition forces have to rely on social media to get the word out on their activities, since they are not traditionally funded. That means there is a wealth of information on public Facebook groups and Twitter profiles, including photos and videos, all ripe for analysis.

"It was unusual because unlike conventional war, these organizations don't have funding or resources," Lucente said. "There are no secure communications radios."

What opposition forces have is a massive online presence, detailing their every move. The "Syrian Revolution 2011" Facebook page has more than 647,000 likes. The affiliated Twitter handle, where attacks, death tolls and sometimes troop movements are routinely broadcast, has more than 78,000 followers.

Though, "for the most part, they are getting themselves out there to teach people who they are and what they're fighting for," Lucente said.

Lucente says high-ranking U.S. military officials are surprised when he points out the extreme wealth of online information available on Syria. The most stunning thing to him is a Google map, updated every 24 hours by revolution forces, which he says would take roughly 100 U.S. intelligence officers to be able to update at the same pace using traditional methods. The map is scattered with pins, many of which have videos associated with air strikes, ground movement and other details, every day. (Take a look at the map yourself, found here.)

"It's a pretty wow-factor map," Lucente said. "They're really leveraging this [social media] stuff."

With the Syrian opposition activities targeted for sheer wealth of information for the project, Lucente narrowed the scope of his project to ask which areas of the country are most at risk for losing nuclear, biological or chemical weapons in the event that Syria's government falls. He and two CORE Lab researchers focused on a city called Homs, an important location with a major highway intersection hub. Lucente says it's in a key position for controlling the rest of the country because whichever group holds Homs controls the highways. Syrian websites that track deaths, like, say that the Homs Province has the highest number of casualties.

Researchers then checked the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit group founded to address risks related to weapons of mass destruction, for how many potential weapons-of-mass-destruction sites exist in the city. They found four: one chemical production site, a fertilizer company, an oil refinery and a uranium recovery plant.


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