Social Media in Modern Warfare, an Interview with Nicole Matejic
Interviewer: Tim Martin, October 2014. Episode #20 from the NET:101 podcast.
TIM: Hello, and welcome to the show. With me today I have Nicole Matejic, who is the CEO of Info Ops HQ. Hello, Nicole.
NICOLE: Hi, Tim. How are you going?
TIM: Welcome to the show. Fascinating background; I’ve been following or stalking you online for a little while now. But rather than me give a boxed summary version, let our listeners know where you’re from and what you do.
NICOLE: Info Ops HQ is a global military think-tank that deals with the information-information environment, which is basically looking at the webinization of social media, which we can see happening currently in Iraq and Syria with ISIL.
TIM: Webinization of social media. Explain that.
NICOLE: I guess in most of my presentations, I now refer to is as tweets and blogs are the new bombs and rockets in cyberspace. If you look at traditional cyber warfare, I think it’s evolved past the usual definition of just cyber in terms of hacking and click-jacking and things like that. And social media actually being used as a weapon of war in Iraq in particular this year, where Twitter was used to basically intimidate people into surrendering or fleeing villages before ISIL rolled into town.
TIM: Amazing. Obviously you can intimidate people in advance. They’re following social, and it could be particular accounts that they’re seeing on each other’s newsfeeds or even hashtags. Or is it being used to boost the morale of forces on the side that’s publishing these posts?
NICOLE: It certainly does feed into their religious and I guess cultural rhetoric and what the group stands for in terms of its extremism. But it also works, I guess, to reinforce a perception that perhaps they’re larger and more powerful than they possibly are.
Obviously, when they commandeer military assets and things, when people leave villages because they’ve seen the abhorring images on Twitter or Facebook and they obviously don’t want to end up like the people in those images – so they’ve acquired a lot of military hardware and they obviously post pictures of that on social media, which gives the impression – it’s kind of like the celebrity culture; it gives the impression that perhaps they’re more well-equipped and organized than they possibly are. Although I think everybody agrees they’re quite a significant and dominant force.
TIM: So the military parade is being replaced by Pinterest boards.
NICOLE: Pretty much, pretty much. Instagram, YouTube videos. We saw with Lend Me Your Eyes, the campaign that’s trying to basically weaponize a prisoner of war against the West, a British hostage. They’re using video in particular to reach large numbers of people around the world.
And it’s not your Al Qaeda style snuff videos, where it’s all shaky and you’re in a cave and the lighting’s not really good; these are full-on Hollywood style productions. They’re really, really putting a lot of effort into creating an ongoing narrative and doing all those things that ordinarily you would do in social media if you were marketing a product. They’re just marketing themselves to a range of people around the world.
TIM: Who’s doing a particularly good/bad job of it?
NICOLE: Obviously ISIL have done a particularly good job at raising themselves to global social media dominance this year. In terms of militaries around the world, the Israeli Defense Force is particularly good at weaving a narrative and encompassing a whole range of different aspects of their military into their social media feeds, which is really good to see. They hold a really, really strong narrative, use a lot of imagery, a lot of videos. And there’s other things in there as well, such as recruitment and the stories of the people that are posted to different places in Israel. Which is a really wholesome kind of way to approach social media.
TIM: I noticed the language around some of the posts the IDF were publishing were quite strident. I mean, it was language from Cold War days, almost. They didn’t speak of them as equals; it was demonizing the enemy.
NICOLE: Yeah, that’s a very common thing in the Middle East. It goes down to cultural nuances and knowing your audience. Obviously, they’ve primed their audience for that kind of language, so that’s how they create effect and impact. That language may not work, for example, on an Australian audience. So if they were trying to reach out to the Diaspora, they would use a different tactic.
TIM: There was a video that I was watching on the Israeli Defense Forces YouTube channel where they showed a live assassination. But the most interesting thing were all the comments underneath that video, and they were fairly intense, by a lot of Israelis.
NICOLE: Yeah. It’s like every society; they’ve got people that are for and against what the government of the day are doing. Obviously, living in a democratized society, you get that freedom of speech, and people on social media aren’t backward and coming forward in terms of their comments and input into that global kind of debate.
I guess you’ve got to remember that. We’ve got armchair generals around the world now participating in these little wars. You don’t have to be in the physical area of operations or in that location where the war is happening to be actively involved in it. You can be a Twitter supporter or be part of someone’s Twitter army or electronic army and have just as much influence and effect as perhaps soldiers on the ground.
TIM: Back in the day when I did my undergraduate degree, I wrote a history paper on Norman Lindsay’s posters to try and get young Australian men to enlist in the First World War.
NICOLE: The good old propaganda posters.
TIM: Yeah, fascinating. But sort of subtle. I mean, there was a strong sexual overtone with his posters there, but the imagery today seems quite confronting. Is that the new normal?
NICOLE: It is the new normal, because that’s what Hollywood have primed audiences to expect. If you’re going to market yourself, Hollywood blockbuster type action flicks where people die in movies, things get blown up and all that kind of dramatic effect, certainly translates into how effective you can advertise, whether it’s a recruitment campaign or whatever it is. Definitely they’re taking a lend of the already-established ways to reach people in ways that they’re ready to consume that information.
TIM: What are the main social media platforms that different forces are using? Are all the usual suspects there?
NICOLE: All the usual suspects. A lot of Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and obviously Facebook. I think the leaning is far more towards visual imagery production, whether that’s video or stills imagery, and sharing that on multiple sources rather than being text-heavy or blog-heavy or word-heavy.
Using words as a weapon is obviously going to work in Tweets and things like that where people can digest it in very short bursts, but the appetite for actual visual imagery is there. And obviously I think as a general population, Hollywood has probably desensitized us to how much violence and abhorrent imagery we can actually stand.
TIM: I noticed that a bunch of the IDF channels, the Israeli Defense Force channels, they seem to be pretty much evenly spread around trying to demonize the Palestinians and trying to prop up themselves. On one post it was “Look how terrible they are” and the other post was “Look at the wonderful things that we’re doing here.” Is that fairly normal?
NICOLE: Yeah, that’s military propaganda 101 from back in the days where they were throwing leaflets out of hot air balloons in the Prussian Wars to create that sense of fear in the enemy so they’d surrender or give up. It goes back to your fundamental skills of basically trying to influence your audience to a particular action.
TIM: Hashtags, are they playing an increasing role in how things are being found and spread?
NICOLE: Can’t go to war without a hashtag these days. (laughs)
NICOLE: #war, #lendmeyourears. I’m just trying to think of some of the Palestinian ones. #israelapartheid. A whole heap of different things that they use. #atrocityisrael. There’s a whole heap of them that they basically fire off at each other in terms of trying to curate the conversation and create some hype around those hashtags. And it works. If you’ve got a really catchy, pithy hashtag, it goes global.
TIM: How do you get around the issue with the other side attempting to hijack the hashtag and use it for their own purposes?
NICOLE: I guess often in cyberspace, it comes down to who speaks loudest and longest. I know in Australia, particularly the political sphere, it’s often the bot mentality of creating those bots to outrun everyone else on that hashtag. You can see that in the AUSPOL feed quite frequently.
That kind of play in a military context obviously is still quite prevalent, but it’s more than just repeating what’s been said over and over again. It’s about creating that narrative and that engagement with people. Obviously they’re trying to influence people, but also engage their own people to a call to arms or a call to jihad kind of thing. So it’s really, really about how they’re creating or spinning that narrative and making it work for them in a public relations sense.
I mean, we saw it early on in northern Africa with Boko Haram, where they really used Twitter during some of their sieges, and ISIL have basically taken that to the next level.
TIM: The National Bank have a social media monitoring setup called – what is it, the Vibe Room?
NICOLE: I think so. I can’t remember.
TIM: So I would imagine that military operations would have an equivalent, a social media monitoring HQ.
NICOLE: If they’re savvy, they certainly do.
TIM: And just basically tracking things live in terms of sentiment and who’s saying what and where and how.
NICOLE: Yeah, absolutely. Tracking your audience sentiment is key to keep pushing on with like a hashtag campaign or something like that, but also in terms of developing rumor. If you look at the website www.emergent.info, they actually measure audience sentiment across rumors such as North Korea is going to war or Kim Jong-il is ill and all those sort of things that are reported in the media, whether it’s fact or fiction. And they give you a bit of an indication about where on social media they’re being shared, positive and negative, for and against.
So it’s a really interesting way to gauge whether the social conversation is actually having an impact, and whether the rumors – and obviously, putting out false rumors is a form of deception, so it can work in your favor if you’re going to hijack someone’s feeds with cat LOLs, for example. But it’s a really, really emergent way to actually verify information online, which becomes really important.
Especially when we look at things happening more recently, like in Russia and the Ukraine, where we see the use of recycled imagery from a couple of years ago with new writing or a new meme, but it’s the same image trying to be passed off as “Look, this just happened.”
TIM: Come back to hashtags. I find that absolutely fascinating how these critters work. Trending hashtags, is that something that the various parties would be very interested in achieving, getting their own hashtag to trend?
NICOLE: Absolutely. It’s definitely a measure of success as to how quickly you can get your hashtag trending. Not just trending in your local area, such as Melbourne or Sydney or even Australia, but trending globally, like #worldcup2014 and things like that, would really, really give you a good indication of just how far your messaging is going and how many people you’re reaching.
TIM: Can that be contrived? Can people game the system to get a hashtag to trend?
NICOLE: Sure, you can employ bots and all sorts of Twitter armies or electronic armies to help you along that path. So it can definitely be gamed to an end state in advance, if you like. They could definitely do that.
TIM: What about numbers? Military has always been a show of strength and respect of numbers on each side; does it matter how many followers particular channels have? Is there a bit of a backroom competition as to who’s got the most Facebook fans on their account?
NICOLE: I think there’s always a bit of competition amongst militaries about who’s got the biggest and best equipment and the most fans and the most likes and all that kind of thing. I think that’s just an inherent competitive nature in what they do.
But I think if you look more into what they’re saying, that’s where you really key into – you might not have the best numbers, but your messages will go further than your adversary simply because of what you’re saying, how you’re saying it, and how you’re sharing it. Obviously multiplatform, visual imagery, that kind of thing reaches a lot, lot further into cyberspace and the social sphere than just a tweet or blog.
TIM: Yeah, so they’re not going to fall into the trap that so many commercial organizations have fallen into, which is to go and buy a couple thousand Facebook likes to boost their numbers.
NICOLE: Well, you can pretty easily check that.
TIM: Yes, you can indeed. More people should be, I think.
TIM: We’ve got a situation, too, don’t we, that these platforms for the most part are American businesses?
NICOLE: They are. Silicon Valley enterprises.
TIM: That’s a little bit of irony there, that people all around the world are able to use basically things that Americans have created against themselves.
NICOLE: Yeah, if you look at what ISIL are doing in Iraq, they’re basically using American platforms and American technology against Americans. Which is very oxymoronic. And nobody seems to be able to figure out how to balance the equation yet, which is even more interesting.
I mean, obviously I do some consulting in NATO and teach on their social media courses, and I’m going over to the States next month to discuss this exact topic. Because getting into the social warfare, the actual battle space after the fact is not helpful, as you would be in any crisis coms situation.
TIM: Must be difficult for businesses like Twitter or Facebook, that they would have some fairly influential or important people suggesting maybe that some accounts should be pulled.
NICOLE: Absolutely. I read an article not too long ago that they were shutting down ISIL’s accounts out of Iraq at warp speed wherever they found them, and apparently the CIA and a couple of intelligence agencies said “No, no, no, please don’t do that. It actually helps us find out more information about these people, find out where they’re operating, what their MO is,” and things like that.
So there’s a real balance between what you let on social media as the owner of that platform and how far people are willing to push the boundaries in terms of what’s acceptable and what’s abhorrent or illegal, and what they’re willing to actually pull the plug on.
TIM: Are these platforms that we’re all familiar with here in Australia – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and so forth – are they the main platforms around the world? Or do we have some localized platforms in different countries that we wouldn’t know about here in Australia?
NICOLE: I think the more localized platforms like you have in China and places where internet access and control is far more controlled don’t have the mainstream breadth. Obviously Russia have their own social media network as well.
But I think it’s more of an adaptation. We’ve seen with ISIL that they created their own app, so you could download the Android app, sign up with your Twitter accounts, and then that would basically be used, your Twitter account would be used as a proxy to retweet things and join the electronic army. You didn’t have to do a lot of work to be able to support them in that way. So they’re using technology in a way that is ahead of the game and how you would use it in a commercial sense or a marketing sense, and they’re just reverse engineering that for their own purposes.
TIM: Is England the de facto language to use on your posts?
NICOLE: By and large yes, but there is a lot of material out there obviously in Arabic and other languages that are native to each country.
TIM: I guess it depends on who they’re trying to talk to and to what end, right?
TIM: Let’s bring it back to Australia. There was an incident recently with Woolworths yesterday, I believe. Can you explain that?
NICOLE: Yeah, Woolworths, I think the term the ABC used was “inadvertently stopped” some t-shirts that obviously have the Australian blue flag color, the Australian flag on the front, and said “If you don’t like it, get out.”
What was really interesting about that when they put up the apology on their Facebook page was that the audience hijacked the conversation and turned it around to talk about not the actual t-shirts, but the issues in Australia being debated about terrorism. There’s lots of comments on there about halal meat and how if the t-shirts were offensive, they should take halal meat off the menu in Woolworths and people shouldn’t have to buy that kind of thing.
So there was a whole range of different comments and ideas coming out of people that had very little to do with the actual shirt stocking themselves.
TIM: That post basically became a lightning rod, I guess, for some other pent-up sentiment in the community.
NICOLE: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think if Woolworths haven’t already taken some of those comments down, they’ll be in trouble with the Advertising Standards Bureau fairly quickly in terms of the legalities around having to monitor your Facebook posts and Twitter feeds, and comments like that have to be removed if they’re illegal, crossing the line.
TIM: Yeah, it’s an interesting point in that whatever the intention of any social media platform that’s been set up by any organization, anyone really can go on it and say anything there, and a whole different conversation can take off through that platform.
NICOLE: Absolutely. As a crisis coms, if I put my crisis coms hat on, we always say hitting the delete button isn’t always the best answer. But certainly there is a moral and ethical responsibility for people to monitor their social media feeds and the Advertising Standards Bureau have said within 24 hours, you must be taking posts down that could be considered illegal at law, like racist or sexist and all that kind of thing. Very interesting to see how far this particular case will go and whether they’ll end up as a case study for the next Bureau mail out.
TIM: We do love a good case study.
TIM: Social media, I think generally speaking, is still in its very early days. Do you see this evolving in a way that will look quite different in the next couple of years in the context of how military organizations generally will use it?
NICOLE: Yeah, I think the move, if you see what Facebook are doing in terms of trying to turn people’s newsfeeds into basically a paid news subscription, we can see that there’s a lot of different ways that you can exploit that to your own advantage in terms of breaking news and creating news.
So cutting out journalism or the news media in a large sense is probably – if we think a lot of journalists are being sacked in Australia over the last 12 months, there are probably going to be even more people calling themselves traditional journalists in the next 12 months and the 12 months following that, as the need for them to create stories lessens, when organizations such as militaries around the world basically just break the news themselves on their social media feeds.
I think the Israeli Defense Force is a prime example of basically cutting out that middle man. They’re no longer at the behest of the news media; they can just create news and break it themselves and have that ability to influence the narrative in a way that they want it shaped, rather than the way the news media think it’ll sell clicks.
TIM: This notion of embedding journalists on the frontline, maybe we’ll see some live tweeting happening from the warfront at some stage.
NICOLE: I think it already happens. I’ll give you a link to a reporter particularly who’s in Afghanistan. I’m not sure if he’s gone to a different area of operation, but he was tweeting live from combat areas in Afghanistan, and he had quite a large following.
TIM: The use of geotags, a lot of social media platforms incorporate that by default. I guess anyone knows that they should be turning that off.
NICOLE: Unless you want some hot and heavy action of the artillery kind, yeah.
TIM: Okay, look, we’ve got our mainstream platforms, Facebook, Twitter, and so forth. Pinterest is a good one, because obviously it allows people to categorize different themes or ideas around the pictures that they’re organizing. How would something like Instagram work?
NICOLE: Instagram is largely like Twitter in terms of hashtag curation. They use that a lot in terms of publishing still images or videos under 15 seconds to capture audiences in that stream. I’ve also seen it used in Tinder, believe it or not.
NICOLE: Yeah, I have. I read a blog a couple weeks ago about someone in the U.S. was basically using Tinder to post – you know you’d post a profile picture of yourself? They were using that to post images that supported the Israeli position in the Palestinian conflict. So you swipe right, swipe left, I’m not really sure.
TIM: Right, I’ve got to think about that. Yep. (laughs)
NICOLE: Yeah, it expands people’s thinking. Online dating is now being weaponized just like social media. I wrote a blog last year called “Forget about cyber warfare, social warfare is flying under people’s radars,” and it hasn’t been until a full 12 months later that people have actually gotten a grasp of what that means. So is internet dating warfare next?
TIM: Right, social warfare. Explain that. What is that?
NICOLE: The weaponization of your social media to create an outcome in your audience. So if you want people to donate money to your cause, you want people to go to Syria or Iraq, pick up arms and join the jihad, they’re using social media as a way to communicate with those people or those target audiences.
And they’re very good at segmenting their audiences in that way to create that precise effect that they want. Just like a marketer would, or just like a brand would want to create the effect of sales, for example, they’re using it to create funds, fundraising, or sending people off to war or getting them to come overseas.
There’s been a lot of talk, especially out of the UK and I think Austria, there were two teenage girls who left their houses and basically ran off to Syria to marry ISIL fighters and join the war, but then turned up on Twitter saying how fabulous it was, and young girls like them should consider escaping from home and running across the world to join them in that kind of ideological lifestyle, the Freedom Fighters, that kind of thing.
So it can create different audiences and different touch points and a whole range of things that we haven’t really seen before.
TIM: And I guess the ability to target based on demographical or more so psychographic, because of course the targeting ability within Facebook is extraordinary.
TIM: So target people based on interests or things that they’ve read or films or whatever it may be.
NICOLE: Absolutely. The pages that they like. And obviously having that narrative coming from a 16- or 17-year-old girl that has left home, converted to Islam, married a Freedom Fighter, and is living the “dream,” for want of a better term, propagating that kind of propaganda can be really powerful to disaffected youth in countries who may be predisposed to religious extremism.
TIM: So as a monitoring tool for authorities to try and nip potential issues in the bud?
NICOLE: Absolutely, absolutely. I think everybody, certainly in the Western world, had cottoned on to the fact that regardless of whether they’re participating in the social media conversation, they need to be monitoring it to make sure that not only things are relatively under control, but they get a forward warning of impending doom as well.
TIM: This cuts both ways. I mean, the ability to push information out to further a cause, but also the ability to listen as to what the other side is saying, but also what your own people are saying and thinking.
NICOLE: Absolutely. Audience sentiment plays a huge part in how your influence works or doesn’t work. It’s the same as a marketing campaign. Once you’ve hit the ground running with your campaign, you need to continually monitor the audience sentiment to see whether it’s working, whether you need to tweak it. Social warfare is exactly the same. Otherwise, you’ve got a hashtag with nobody following it.
TIM: It’s a tree that falls and no one can hear it hit the ground.
TIM: Nicole, that’s great. There’s probably a lot of other stuff that I’d love to tease out of you, but I know time is of the essence here. You’ve got to promise that you’ll come back and give us an update on the state of play, because I’m sure it’s going to change very, very quickly. Let people know where they can find you?
NICOLE: You can find us on Twitter @infoopshq, or you can find me at @nicolematejic. I’ll spell my surname for you, because it’s a doozy: M-a-t-e-j-i-c. So @nicolematejic on Twitter, or I have a Facebook page, Info Ops has a Facebook page. You can find us on Instagram. Visit the website, www.infoopshq.com, and it’ll take you to all the other social networks we’re on.
TIM: Great. Nicole, thanks so much.
NICOLE: Thanks very much, Tim.
TIM: Talk soon.
Nicole Matejic on LinkedIn
Info Ops HQ website, blog, newsroom, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr
@combatjourno on Twitter
Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Pinterest
NET:101 blog post on the IDF’s use of social media