Lebanese supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah movement wave the Syrian flag. Social media is emerging as a tool for gathering information on global hotspots. (Mahmoud Zayyat / Getty Images)
Social media has proven its usefulness in numerous high-profile examples in recent years: Responding to victims of Haiti’s earthquake in 2010 and getting information out to citizens during the Boston marathon bombing in 2013 are just two well-known cases. The Arab Spring that began in late 2010 also proved to governments worldwide that social media can’t be ignored.
In the U.S., defense and intelligence agencies are instead working to embrace social media as a prime open-source tool for fast-moving information from around the world. Whether it’s related to civil unrest, natural disasters, public health or other uses, government agencies are looking to social media to help inform operations and decision-making.
“Because of the complexity it’s actually adding analysis that we didn’t even have five years ago,” Andrew Roberts, senior defense intelligence analysis for open source strategies at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said June 24 at the agency’s Innovation Day. “So that’s critical, especially looking at the operational side – looking at sentiment analysis, the things we can pick up through social media. We look at trends and patterns with regard to the spread of diseases, general heath of populations…those are just a few examples. The commands deserve a lot of credit because a lot of them are pushing in this area; they need this kind of information.”
Officials at intelligence agencies want to capitalize social media for good reason: As an open-source tool, it’s effectively out there and available for the taking, providing a human sensor that offers perspectives unavailable through other means. That can be on the ground just after a natural disaster has struck, or it can be in hostile countries where the U.S. doesn’t have much visibility.
“In hard-to-reach areas it’s a leading indicator and provides insight you can’t gather any other way – it’s very human,” said SAS Federal’s Daniel Boyle. “The Arab Spring was a huge wakeup call. We learned that at a macro level, the volume of Twitter alone can give you an indication. You can see volumes of communications or tremendous drop-offs in communications, which also could indicate something – someone’s listening or something’s about to happen.”
Increasingly, companies like SAS are offering the government ways to quickly collect and sift through huge volumes of social media-based data, a job that has overrun what traditional human analysts are able to process. In April, Twitter acquired Gnip, which provides social data scraped from more than 20 million websites and is a longtime Twitter partner – perhaps an indication of where social media analytics may be headed.
“It used to be that I could sit there and go through my stack of newspapers, but now there’s too much to do that. It really calls for a joint venture, internal and external,” Roberts said. “Data and analysis is now part of the intelligence cycle.”
According to Boyle, social media analysis capabilities dovetail with efforts already under way at agencies like the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, where the concept of human geography is one of the pillars of the organization’s Map of the World effort. NGA officials have declined to discuss their use of social media in intelligence operations, but it’s safe to say open-source tools like social media play a critical role in the agency’s goal to overhaul its intelligence operations and “live within the data.”
“As we develop new methods for capturing and analyzing intelligence, we’re capturing more and more,” said John Goolgasian, who runs NGA's Foundation GEOINT Group and is the lead on Map of the World. “So the intelligence evolution we’re going through in the agency lends itself to really creating this rich, robust environment where we combine online for all users the foundational content that makes up our mapping mission and robust, detailed information from the analytical side of house. That’s what gives you the concept of living in the data.”