Three Videos for Countering ISIS

I’ve continued to post at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and sometimes people ask for the graphics that I post there.  It’s difficult to download from their website so I will post the graphics here for anyone that wants to use them.

The latest article I posted at FPRI is “Are We Our Own Worst Enemy? The Problems in Countering Jihadi Narratives and How to Fix Them.”  I discuss why its so difficult for the U.S. to counter ISIS in social media and my recommendation for three videos for dissemination to undermine ISIS narrative – specifically using a dramatization of defector experiences.  See here for the full article and below for the graphics.

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Tech Companies: Don’t Tell Us How to Reform Government Surveillance

Just before the U.S. holiday season, I wrote a post at FPRI entitled “Post-Snowden: The Hypocrisy of Tech Company Calls for Surveillance Reform“.  For some reason, I got the feeling this posting did win over many people.  But, I stand by my argument, that tech companies, the most pervasive electronic surveillance perpetrators in the world, should not be telling the U.S. government how to reform surveillance.   If anyone is going to be scaling back surveillance, I think it should be the American public – who needs to decide how much privacy they are willing to trade off to maintain their national security.

I’ve usually gotten two criticisms of my argument.

First is that tech companies issue terms of service to their customers explaining how their information is being used. Thus its on the customers, if they don’t like their user information being exposed, then they can quit using the service.  For this, my counter is that the majority of users, even if they did read the terms of service, would not even be able to understand them and tech companies by issuing long terms of service filled with technical jargon are being deceptive about their practices.  From what I understand, there is a court ruling (for which I’m searching for, please post if you have it) that says these terms of service are incomprehensible and users can’t be held to closely to them.

The second argument is usually something like “Tech companies can’t through me in jail, but the government can!” For this I counter with show me the evidence of widespread NSA violation of American privacy resulting in jail time.  I know, I know, some will immediately push back on this, which I’ll follow up in a separate post.  But, I’m not aware of mass American imprisonment coming from NSA surveillance.  If that is happening, please explain, as I’m not aware of it from observing or personally dealing with the U.S. government.

My push against tech companies reforming surveillance hinges on several things I discuss in the article.

  • When tech companies call for government surveillance reform, they do this to protect profits, not customers. My experience with NSA personnel has always been that they put the security and privacy of U.S. citizens above all other interests.
  • Tech companies called for government surveillance reform after Snowden’s revelations and in direct response to U.S./NSA actions.  But these same companies have been penetrated aggressively by countries like China and called for no such reform.  When tech companies are targeted by China, Russia or Iran, they run to the U.S. government for help, but don’t call for reform. I call this two-faced.
  • If tech companies didn’t like the surveillance they were complying with before Snowden’s revelations, they could have banded together to say something.  They could have petitioned legislators to change the laws.  But they did no such thing.  Tech companies only care about privacy after Snowden’s revelations because it might impact their profits.
  • Tech companies across the board, as I discuss in the article, are not transparent about how they mine user information.  They should not demand such transparency from the government if they are not willing to clearly explain their data mining.  The more I learn of the electronic surveillance of companies like Google (See the article), the more I’m convinced Google’s “Don’t Do Evil” slogan is the equivalent of the Fox News slogan “Fair and Balanced”.

Here is the introduction to the article and see the rest of at this link.

The recent call by certain technology corporations to reform government surveillance makes for great public relations, but underneath these calls reek of hypocrisy.  Despite stating the desire for “the world’s governments to address the practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information,” the call clearly comes only after Edward Snowden exposed that these companies were the primary points by which the NSA accessed information for intelligence efforts.  The Snowden revelations shook these companies to their core.  Why? Well, its not about customer privacy, instead its about Internet company business models.”

FPRI Post – The Coup That Wasn’t Tweeted – Looking Back At Egypt’s Social Media Revolution

Today, FPRI again gave me the opportunity to guest blog on one of my favorite topics in recent years – the implications of social media in the Arab Spring and particularly Egypt: The Coup That Wasn’t Tweeted – Looking Back At Egypt’s Social Media Revolution. I’ll post a brief section of the post here, but I also wanted post some of the links to discussions of this topic here at Selected Wisdom and the videos I refer to in the original FPRI post but could not embed in their website.

First, here’s an introduction to the post which is available at this link.

For those that lauded the wonders of social media activism, the coup showed the weaknesses of Facebook revolutions for achieving lasting political change. Social media may have prompted Egyptians to storm the streets in January 2011, but it did not result in Western style democracy. Instead of the more Western and secular elements in Egypt leading change, the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratically elected leaders triumphed at the ballot boxes and further divided the country more than they unified it. Two years later, the failure of Egypt’s “Facebook Revolution” with a return to authoritarian military rule may in fact set democracy in the Middle East back more than it ever progressed it. This brings us to Malcolm Gladwell.

Second, here are some posts related to the progression of Egypt’s social media fueled revolution.
* The Weakness of Twitter Revolts – Jan. 31, 2011
* More Egypt Coverage – Feb. 4, 2011
* Egypt’s Google Dude – Feb. 9, 2011
* Egypt’s Google Dude Illustrates the Weakness of Twitter Revolts – Jan. 18, 2012
* More on Social Media Movement Leaders from ICSR – Jan. 23, 2012

Third, here are the videos from the FPRI post that I could not embed.
* Malcolm Gladwell’s shaky response to the Facebook Revolutions

* Stephen Colbert’s hilarious offer to lead the Occupy Movement

Shabaab Twitter Stalking “Omar Hammami & the Muj” in Somalia

In recent years, Somalia’s al Shabaab has been an early adopter of Twitter and been known in the terrorist world as a leading user of openly available social media rather than closed forums to spread its message. Many analysts saw this as a worrying sign; Shabaab tweets could radicalize previously uninfected young minds.  However, Twitter, unlike other platforms, allowed for the open countering of Shabaab by the Kenyan military and the censorship of Shabaab as the group was kicked off the platform for violating terms of service (as described by @intelwire).

More recently Twitter has again undermined Shabaab as the group’s defectors, realizing the hypocrisy of the Shabaab’s words when compared to Shabaab’s actions, have taken to the social media platform to voice their frustrations.  Apparently Shabaab struggles with the same problems as the U.S. government and other open democracies – controlling message.

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Omar Hammami’s persistent countering of Shabaab on Twitter has likely eroded the group’s appeal amongst foreign fighters seeking to join the struggling group.  Now, Hammami’s band of Twitter dissenters appears to have expanded and the “Muhajir” in Somalia have taken to the Twitterverse to express their resentment to Abu Zubayr (Godane) – Shabaab’s leader.  The “Muhajir” (foreign fighters) continue exposing the rift between local Somali Shabaab members and the global foreign fighters that have joined the group only to be treated as second class.  Here, @jawshan7, a Shabaab loyalist, and @abuu_haajir, a Muj dissenter, illuminate the divisions in Shabaab – in awful Twitter English.

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So what does Shabaab do when foreign fighters in their midst behave badly on Twitter?  The same thing American parents do to their teenagers – They take away their cell phones!

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So the mighty Shabaab, rather than taking care of business on the front lines, is instead Twitter stalking its former “Muj” trying to control their speech. Ahhh, the double edged sword of Twitter.

Should we knock terrorists off the Internet? Maybe!

J.M. Berger published a fantastic challenge to conventional wisdom this week providing some insightful and unique analysis of recent ‘Found experiments’ occurring with terrorists’ use of the Internet and social media. In his Foreign Policy article “#Unfollow”, @intelwire describes the latest revelations of al Shabaab being booted from and then reconstituted on Twitter. Thus far, the outcome of this recent event has countered conventional wisdom about terrorists being denied access to the Internet.

Just a few weeks back, Twitter closed the account of al Shabaab, @HSMPress, for violating Twitter’s terms of service. Shockingly, a terrorist group (al Shabaab) used Twitter to issue “a direct threat of violence”. No way! Who saw this coming?

@intelwire points out that there have been two arguments about why the U.S. should not push terrorists groups offline.

“Stopping terrorists from spreading their propaganda online (using U.S.-based Internet companies to boot) seems like a no-brainer to many. But within the terrorism studies community, there are two common and sincere objections to disruptive approaches for countering violent extremism online.”

As expected, al Shabaab quickly returned to Twitter under a new account name similar to its past one. However, Berger has noted through some excellent charts that so far, Shabaab’s audience has not been sufficiently resurrected. As of today, they have about 10-20% of the audience they had before being knocked off line. At this rate, Shabaab will end up spending a large amount of time regenerating its audience on Twitter suggesting the disruption approach would limit terrorist groups’ reach while also wasting their time. Cool!

As for the loss of intelligence, @intelwire’s piece notes that disrupting Shabaab’s Twitter account may actually result in an intelligence gain. While many followers were lost, the most hardcore supporters of Shabaab returned very quickly effectively outlining where Shabaab’s greatest support resides.

“The former followers who quickly signed up for al-Shabaab’s new Twitter account — just 882 users — have a serious interest in the al Qaeda affiliate’s activities….. We know these users are more likely to be very interested in al-Shabab, and the number is manageable enough that a single analyst can look at each account individually to make a more sophisticated evaluation.”

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I’ve been dismissive of focusing too much energy on disrupting terrorist websites and their more recent migrations to social media like Twitter and Facebook. However, the case of Shabaab on Twitter is quite instructive. I still have a few questions.

  • Is Shabaab an anomaly or a trend? – @intelwire compares Shabaab with the fall of al Qaeda forums in recent months. However, Jubhat al Nusra has maintained a consistent and growing presence online. So, are the challenges found by al Shabaab attempting to reclaim its online audience the result of effective disruption or a side effect of the group’s general decline and loss of audience?
  • On social media like Twitter and Facebook, are terrorist groups inadvertently censoring themselves? – Recent takedowns of terrorist websites have resulted in online extremists encouraging their followers to migrate to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook where they can establish individual accounts that are more difficult to disrupt. However, in doing so, extremists are actually censoring themselves as social media sites are governed by terms of service that restrict the violent images and language so cherished by extremists and critical for recruitment. So, when extremists move to social media, are they actually censoring themselves and over the long run taming their messages and reducing their effectiveness?
  • Is the greatest counter to extremists online actually the public? – Government struggles at disruption of online extremists as it requires considerable resources and creates a tension with civil libertarians that worry about government violations of citizen privacy and restricting freedom of speech. However, the public has no such limitations can identify terms of service violations and report them without much restriction. So, Americans, if you don’t like extremists on line, help Twitter and Facebook police them by reporting violations.

Syria’s Internet Blackout

This afternoon, the Internet went out on the Syrian Revolution.  Many months ago, I discussed how social media and uprisings are a two-way street noting that social media can 1) identify opposition leaders and 2) many countries have gained the capability to disable the Internet – essentially cutting off international connection to the revolt.  Well, today, Syria lost its Internet access.  Many are speculating why Syria took so long to shut off the Internet.  Here’s some thoughts being thrown about at the Washington Post:

Still, maybe one question here is why Syria didn’t do this sooner. Its uprising long ago exceeded Egypt’s and Libya’s in severity by the time those countries had instituted their own blackouts. One possible explanation is that Syria has been far more assertive online, using it as a tool for tracking dissidents and rebels, and sometimes even tricking them into handing the government personal data using phishing scams. President Bashar al-Assad has a background in computers, unlike the much older Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gaddafi, and once even directly mentioned his “electronic army.” Assad’s regime may have seen opportunity as well as risk on the Web, where perhaps the Egyptian and Libyan authorities saw primarily a tool of the uprising. Or, perhaps the Syrian simply feared the economic consequences of an Internet blackout, or lacked the means to conduct it.

Rumor also has it the regime may be going into a serious engagement with the rebels.

So, for the US Government, what is the implication?  The first thing I thought was that the U.S. should quickly build a capability to deploy air-droppable Internet and Mobile Phone hotspots into denied areas.  These would need to be low cost and self powered (solar maybe).  If the U.S. wants to support uprisings and revolutions, especially without arming militias, we should help rebels keep their information campaigns going via social media as this is the lifeblood of these Arab Spring uprisings.  Just my two cents.

Update 0800 EST – An alternative Internet from Afghanistan

After I posted this last night, @El_Grillo1 sent me this article about an alternative Internet for assisting dissidents.  Here is a quote from the article and check out the story here.

The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy “shadow” Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.

Here’s some of the Internet outage charts everyone is excited about on Twitter and an old New York Times graphic showing Internet monitoring by country’s around the world.

Ignatius take on Syria: “Get In There”

Only a few hours after I deliberated when the U.S. would take more aggressive action in supporting the Syrian Resistance against the Assad Regime, David Ignatius wrote an excellent commentary on the same issue referencing his recent trip to Syria.  Ignatius starts off his post where I concluded yesterday:

Left on its current course, America’s sensibly cautious policy toward Syria is unfortunately going to come to an unhappy end: The jihadist wing of the opposition will just get stronger and gain more power to shape Syria’s future.

Ignatius advocates the U.S. getting involved in funding distribution to the FSA – an argument also made by Asher Berman at SyriaSurvey.

If the United States helped coordinate funding, the Free Syrian Army would have several advantages: A better-organized opposition might defeat the regime, it would be better able to govern a post-Assad Syria and it could help the United States control Syria’s chemical weapons. That’s a trifecta — three good things in one.

Finally, Ignatius concludes with an interesting take on how the jihadists in Syria fund their operations through charitable gift packages from the Gulf.

Syrian jihadist battalions continue to raise their own money directly from wealthy Saudis, Kuwaitis and Qataris. The report to the State Department explains how this works. “The battalion rep or commander travels to Turkey, where he meets Gulf individuals or Syrians who live in the Gulf. The battalion presents ‘projects’ that need sponsorship, for example: targeting a checkpoint costs $20-30K, while targeting an airport cost $200-300K. . . . A video taping . . . is required to provide evidence of the operation.”

An interesting read….survey results of what you believe should be out tomorrow.

Egypt & Libya Retrospective: Was it an al Qaeda Attack? Where’s the Arab Spring?

Two looks back this morning –

A year and a half back, I got some awesome hate e-mail based on my comments about the “Revolutions” of the Arab Spring where I questioned the level of democracy that would emerge from the wonderful uprisings taking hold in Egypt and Libya. The Morsi regime in Egypt and the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo have made me look back to what I was writing about with regards to Egypt. (See this post “The Weakness of Twitter Revolts“)

I have lots of questions for the Facebook Revolution this morning: Where are you? I thought this was supposed to be about freedom, democracy, taking steps forward with a country oppressed by a dictator. Instead, the social media wave that supposedly brought the revolution in the beginning may in fact be a barrier to progress for pro-democracy groups. Instead of taking to the streets in mass the way the Muslim Brotherhood has, you’ve retreated to the comfort of your computer hoping to tweet a better future. Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Next Revolution Will Not be Tweeted” argument, shunned in the days of the Arab Spring, is starting to look a lot stronger over time. Overall, I’m still more hopeful for Libya – that fought for and won will be cherished and defended.

As Geoff Porter pointed out in my earlier post this morning, one of the groups potentially responsible for the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi is called “Ansar al Sharia”. Ahh, a familiar name. So was the attack on the U.S. Ambassador an “al Qaeda” attack?

For those that missed the debate a couple months back, I will re-post the question this morning “Who should we call al Qaeda?” (See below) Feel free to cast your vote and you should be able to see the results after you vote. For the summary of the first round of voting see this post and for the resulting discussion just a few weeks back see this post. Here’s the question for those that haven’t seen it several weeks back.

update as of 0900:
I’ve already gotten some confused comments about my stance in the post. My conclusion is this, I’m a fan of the Arab Spring and believe democracy in the Middle East is a good thing. But can the West have the stomach to see it through? Can the U.S. identify and seek its real national security interests in each of the weak democracies while remaining true to its values? I only say this as I believe it will be weak democracies, not failed states, that will present us the most troubling terrorist threats in the near future. Mali, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia will struggle with terrorist groups and unlike in places like Somalia, the U.S. will not have the latitude to directly intervene.

“In the hypothetical scenario described below, would you call the following group “al Qaeda” or an “al Qaeda affiliate”?  A simple yes or no answer.  After you vote, you’ll see the results of everyone that chimed in.
Would you consider the following hypothetical group of armed men to be “al Qaeda?”

  • A group of heavily armed men occupy a remote area in an African/Middle Eastern/South Asian country.
  • 95% or more of the groups’ members are local people from the country where the terror group resides.
  • The group publicly states their intent to institute governance by Sharia law.
  • 2-3% of the group’s members served as foreign fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2001 fighting in coordination with al Qaeda, the Taliban or al Qaeda in Iraq.
  • The group calls itself “Ansar al (fill in the blank)” or “Lashkar e (fill in the blank)” but don’t mention al Qaeda in their name.
  • Some of the groups’ spokesmen, at some point in the past, have publicly praised Osama Bin Laden.
  • It is completely unclear whether any of the group’s members have publicly declared bay’a (allegiance) to Ayman al-Zawahiri.
  • The group records videos of its attacks.  At times, these videos show up on jihadi web forums.  At times, these videos randomly show up on YouTube.
  • The group’s funding streams remain unclear.  News reports of unknown reliability claim the group gets some funding from kidnapping & local extortion and some from Persian Gulf donations.


Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

Components of a Perfect Tweet: Get To the Point, Don’t Be A Drama Queen, Be Credible

For those new media savvy, social networking monsters out there, Megan Garber’s recent Atlantic article “Why the World’s Most Perfect News Tweet Is Kind Of Boring” summarizes the recently published research from UCLA and HP outlining the components of effective news tweets.

 “The algorithm comes courtesy of a fascinating paper [pdf] from UCLA and Hewlett-Packard’s HP Labs. The researchers Roja Bandari, Sitram Asur, and Bernardo Huberman teamed up to try to predict the popularity — which is to say, the spreadability — of news articles in the social space.”

This new research provides the formula for those seeking to make a perfect news tweet.

1. Be Credible!

Just like in real world conversation or print new articles, a relic of the pre-Internet Stone Age days of the late 1990’s, credibility matters.  Tweets that travel through cyberspace must come from a credible source.

“Technology was the most tweetable news area, followed by Health and the ever-shareable Fun Stuff. Also impactful was the name recognition of the text. You can know with some certainty that a story about Lady Gaga will do well, and you can know with even more certainty that a tech story about Lady Gaga will do well. But what led most overwhelmingly, and most predictably, to sharing was the person or organization who shared the information in the first place”

So after all of the “Social Media will change the world” hype about how you have to approach marketing on the Internet in a totally new way, guess what:

“Brand, even and especially on the Internet, matters….Online, the researchers are saying, the power of the brand is exactly what it has been since brands first emerged in the Middle Ages: It’s a vector of trust”

2. Don’t be a Drama Queen!

Here’s the next finding which flies in the face of what I’ve been told by marketing people. Turns out, you don’t need to hype your tweet and put X-games emotion into everything like it’s a Mountain Dew commercial.

“Emotional language doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to predictable sharing. So, by that logic, a tweet that calmly describes what you’ll get by clicking on a link — “Here is some news about Lady Gaga” — will have about the same attentional impact as a tweet that HYPERBOLICALLY SHOUTS IT. Even within the tumult that is the Internet, when it comes to framing the news, objective language does just as well as emotional.”

In conclusion, Twitter content behaves a lot like all other communication content.

On Twitter, It’s Content, Not Contacts That Matter

I’m relentlessly plowing away on survey data this week generating the next round of analysis for the “al Qaeda: One Year After Bin Laden” crowdsourcing experiment.  Polls are still open and I am still seeking input so cast your votes here on the state of al Qaeda a year after the death of its founder.

Meanwhile, I wanted to point out an excellent new bit of research examining ‘influence’ in social media. Jared Keller of The Atlantic reported last month on a new study:

Competition Among Memes in a World With Limited Attention, Indiana University researchers Lillian Weng, Alessando Flammini, Alessando Vespignani, and Filippo Menczer analyzed 120 million retweets connected to 12.5 million users and 1.3 million hashtags.

For the last several years, businesses and narcissists have been trying to capture a measure for assessing individual influence in social media as a means to monetize the new information highway paved by Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.  The goal for developing these measures of influence is to connect with consumers and specified populations in a streamlined, customized way with pinpoint ads.   National security types might call these  “Surgical Advertising Strikes” that efficiently and effectively use key (identified) influencers to further disseminate messages to target audiences.  Well, the simple quantitative metrics relied on thus far (friends, followers, tweets, posts, re-tweets, etc.) may in fact not be that effective in assessing influence.  This excellent study finds that:

“Influence” doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it does. In the age of the social-media celebrity, a glut of Twitter followers or particularly pugnacious sampling of pithy updates are often the hallmarks of an influencer. But new research suggests that influence is situational at best: as people compete for the attention of the broader online ecosystem, the relevance of your message to the existing conversation of those around you trumps any innate “power” a person may have.

I’m sure these findings will make some folks at Klout and Topsy angry as their models appear to rely very much on simple quantitative metrics.

The messages that achieve longevity aren’t just the ones that have the right phrasing but those that are most relevant to the existing conversation of the people near them in the ecosystem….

According to co-author Vespignani, having millions of followers does not denote an important message. Rather, the messages with the most immediate relevance tend to have a higher probability of resonating within a certain network than others. Think of it as “survival of the fittest” for information: those tweets that capture the most attention, whether related to a major geopolitical or news event or a particular interest, are likely to persist longer.

The article concludes:

The research suggests that it doesn’t fully matter who you are or how many connections you have, but what you’re saying relative to the existing conversation is what really matters in spreading knowledge online.

So, much like we’ve seen in almost every influence arena, it’s the quality of content, not the volume of content that matters.  I’ve recently heard some say they need to “increase the social media presence” of something to increase its influence.  I’ve heard this repeatedly in Washington, DC.  That’s true to an extent, social media has taken on a new place in influence.  However, key influencers not participating in social media still do and always will remain in our society.  For example, I often ask the overzealous “where is VP Dick Cheney’s Twitter account at?”  or “what did the J.P. Morgan CEO’s Facebook page say this morning?”  BLUF: Influence can still exist outside of social media as well.

Focus on content rather than contacts if you want to assess influence – competition models are the best for studying this as seen here by this excellent example from NewsPatterns.

In closing, I’m glad to hear that it’s “what you say and when you say it” that matters.  A enduring lesson for us all.