Looking at the National Security Implications of Social Media

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of posts by Dr. Eric Rasmussen on the real-world implications of social media on national and global security.

In December 2011 I was asked to keynote a workshop for the Office of Naval Research on a topic I knew rather little about: The National Security Implications of Social Media. Nice chance to go look stuff up and explore a realm I’d so far seen only through my own superficial exposure and the incidental comments of my teenaged daughters and their boyfriends.

The topic was chosen, of course, because others thought the question contained a depth that likely extended far beyond the trivial and into areas that might require alteration of policy, legislation, or mindset. I found far more of value than I expected, and the very real national security implications I eventually drew were in areas I had not considered before my research began.

“Social media” is, as might be expected, a loaded term across the generations with a number of formal definitions. It seems reasonable to go to Wikipedia, an exceptionally good example of social media, for a recursive definition: Social media includes web-based and mobile technologies used to turn communication into interactive dialogue.” Many would add specific mention of the creation and exchange of user-generated content that moves far beyond simple dialogue into entertainment, education, persuasion, and polemic.

I have, of course, a day job, so I first spent several weeks reading a broad range of publications in the evening, drawing a few links, and then talking on weekends with people who actively contribute in spaces reasonably referred to as social media. A listing from Kaplan and Haenlein for example, includes six kinds:

  1. Collaborative projects (e.g. Wikipedia)
  2. Blogs and microblogs (this essay, Twitter)
  3. Content Communities (YouTube)
  4. Social networking (Facebook)
  5. Virtual game worlds (World of Warcraft)
  6. Virtual social worlds (Second Life)

I’ve now explored several examples in all of them.

Historically I have been a casual editor of Wikipedia (like thousands of others); I wrote blogs when I was the CEO of a humanitarian technology NGO; I have Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook accounts; I’ve owned an island in Second Life since 2006; and I have all 1.8G of World of Warcraft’s core engine loaded on my MacBook Pro. But I do very little on any of them and knew next to nothing about any social media-based threats to nation-states, their economies, or their meta-identities like state religion and ethno-cultural mores.

My own experience with social media began with the SMS texting I used while leading a team during the tsunami response in western Banda Aceh, Indonesia in early 2005. That tsunami response is now recognized to be one of the first United Nations relief efforts that did not have HF (analog) radio as its communications bedrock – a great deal was done digitally (mostly, in the early days, by SMS) and much of it for the first time. The result was positive and after-action reports from the tsunami response suggested further development of field-expedient digital communications methods would be reasonable.

Later in 2005 I responded to Hurricane Katrina as the Joint Task Force Surgeon (Forward) for JTF Katrina, working from the Command Center tent in Belle Chase, Louisiana. During those days I kept six different streams of communication active on my desk and on any given day perhaps half worked as expected. It was, to be honest, useful to discover how fragile US communications infrastructure has been and, in many cases, remains. SMS, in Katrina, again proved valuable and my fairly conservative opinion on the value of field-based digital communications began to shift.

My social media experience continued in 2006 as I explored the virtual world Second Life in preparation for a international disaster response demonstration called Strong Angel 3. An “island” in Second Life that was donated to the team for virtual response coordination required a surprising amount of non-content effort as I ran across the digital variant of asking “who knows how to do this?” for the first time. We had no one designated to manage the technology (an ongoing problem, still, in 2012) so even valuable content was presented sub-optimally. For me, the value of virtual worlds for collaboration remained questionable.

A few years later in January 2010 I led a team into the Haiti earthquake response. Within a few days of the quake I became a part of the larger team that established Skype as a critical collaboration tool from our location on the Port au Prince airfield, reaching out to the volunteer communities around the world. Those digital volunteers, a new breed, were suddenly doing wonderful work in a complex emergency, coordinating translation, mapping, imagery evaluation, logistics, and more, using processes and tools unknown three years earlier. In some cases, the processes were developed as the tool capabilities were discovered and those tools were free. It was a remarkable burst of effective digital work, mostly from digital natives, in the service of a great and urgent need, and from it much has flowered.

Though there have been many substantial efforts developed within a global gathering of technical volunteers over the subsequent two years, one stands out for me because I use it daily. During that first week in Haiti, members of the Skype “disaster response” chat room from the UN, the Australian military, Canadian telcoms, OpenStreetMap, USAID and many others formed another Skype chat room called “All Hazards Disaster Experts Group” curated with a light, effective touch by Brian Steckler of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

That group window, now with about 60 members, has remained open on my desktop every day for the past two years. It receives contributions from professional colleagues around the world every few hours and in those eight square inches I hear about deployments, publications, job changes, and interesting conferences. Professional questions appear and are addressed in minutes. In a true emergency like Typhoon Washi, which hit Mindanao in December, we collated a little information in real-time from each of our areas of expertise to build a reasonably coherent picture rapidly, and that helped shape, in a small way, the real-world response.

Such an international conversation has historically been logistically complex and rather expensive, but now Skype has made it intuitive, expected, and free. It is easy to note that such a conversation bypasses all conventional disaster coordination efforts both regional and global; sovereignty does not enter into the collegial equation. Such a capability has some obvious implications for national security (and, perhaps, global security) that seem both positive and negative. I’ll begin to explore those a little – particularly virtual political opposition, virtual outbreak surveillance, virtual currencies, and virtual education – in upcoming conversations.

About the author

Eric Rasmussen, MD, MDM, FACP, is a physician living on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle. He spent 25 years on active duty with the US Navy, serving as Fleet Surgeon to the US Navy’s Third Fleet, and Chairman of the Department of Medicine at a large academic medical center. He directed all three Strong Angel International Disaster Response Demonstrations while a principle investigator with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and has deployed more than 15 times to real-world wars and disasters. Those deployments included three times to Bosnia, twice to Afghanistan, and ten months in and around the Iraq War, in addition to Banda Aceh, Katrina, Haiti, and others. He currently serves as vice-president for Humanitarian Systems at AccessAgility, working with the US and Mexican governments on the protection of highly vulnerable populations in Mexico City. He can be reached at RasmussenE [at] AccessAgility [dot] com.

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