Virtual warfare is being waged on social networks with the majority of users unaware that nations and militant groups alike are targeting their hearts and minds.
Modern conflicts are no longer about warring states and control over territory, but more about identity, control of the population and the political decision-making process, argues military researcher Thomas Elkjer Nissen.
This makes Twitter – which is marking its 10th anniversary – ripe for exploitation in any conflict. It is the network users turn to for news, and where news organisations break stories, so interested parties need their version of events to appear on timelines
It has been used most notably by jihadist groups but, increasingly, there are also worries that states such as Russia may be using the network to influence populations without anyone noticing.
The number of supporters of the so-called Islamic State on Twitter is tiny – about 46,000 in total, according to a Brookings Institute survey in 2014.
Despite this, the group has used Twitter to gain and hold the attention of a mass audience, and to attract supporters.
Researcher JM Berger of George Washington University has laid out how the group “grooms” new members: from looking for potential supporters in Muslim-oriented networks, to surrounding targets with a small community that interacts with them and then encouraging a recruit to take action.
“The user often starts with a link in a tweet and is then led further and further into the narrative on blogs, videos and other social media – possibly ending up in a conversation with a recruiter,” says Mr Nissen.
“As one of the big three open social networks used by terrorists – Facebook and YouTube being the other two – Twitter is a quick way to send messages, which are easily redistributed by supporters, linking across different media.”
Keeping it short
Just ahead of its 10th birthday, Twitter’s chief executive Jack Dorsey confirmed it would keep the 140-character limit of its tweets.
“It’s a good constraint for us and it allows for of-the-moment brevity,” he told NBC’s Today show.
The firm had previously indicated it was considering extending the limit to 10,000 characters, or about 2,000 words.
The proposal had met with resistance from its users, with many arguing the restriction was integral to Twitter’s identity and that the firm was pandering to its investors, who wanted faster growth.
Amplifying and inflating
IS communicates very effectively on Twitter. It puts out timely information in several languages and uses a variety of multimedia, from cat images to horrifying killings, to engage its audience emotionally.
When IS captured Mosul in Iraq in 2014 the group aggressively used bots and spammed popular hashtags to ensure its propaganda was visible on Twitter, even to people not looking for it.
Berger has estimated that as many as 20% of tweets from IS supporters could have been created by bots or apps.
And IS is not the only group to use Twitter for propaganda. When Somali terrorist group Al-Shabab attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013, the group crowed over the attack and live-tweeted events, easily creating new accounts every time one was shut.
Such events can create the impression the group is stronger and has more support than it actually does. While IS’s tweets are easily identifiable, some believe a greater threat may come from the anonymous use of Twitter by states.
Several Russian and Western media organisations have documented the experiences of former Russian trolls and their work and reported observations of suspicious behaviour on social media.
There is still a lack of hard evidence linking such activity directly to the Kremlin. The covert nature of trolling makes it difficult to estimate the extent of influence Russia’s trolls may have on Twitter.