Bin Laden fallout: How Abbottabad tweets reveal changes in modern warfare

Governments are having to change how they carry out and report military operations because of the rise of social media, and the strike on Osama bin Laden was a prime example.

By , Staff writer

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    A computer screen in Singapore, May 2, shows the Twitter page of Sohaib Athar. In the early hours of Monday, Athar reported on his Twitter account that a loud bang had rattled his windows in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad. A few hours later he posted another tweet: "Uh oh, now I'm the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it."
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From the irate Pakistani tweeting about helicopter noise in the nighttime sky over Abbottabad to President Obama's globally streamed announcement of Osama bin Laden's death, social media is transforming military operations and their aftermath in today’s highly interconnected world.

“The military and government can no longer claim informational superiority,” says 27-year veteran Dennis Murphy, who now teaches military strategy at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. “That’s a term we used to have, to mean we control the message in our environment – that we determine what gets said,” he says. “That’s impossible any more, it’s in the dustbin of history now.”

The shift into an information-suffused landscape has changed everything from the strategy of a mission to its execution and sharing with what is now a global audience.

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While there have always been accidental witnesses to history, “The shepherd boy watching Roman soldiers didn’t have a cell phone to tell the entire world right away,” Professor Murphy says with a laugh.

Whereas 10 years ago, the US might have bombed the compound, Murphy says, the new pressures of the social media could have played a role in the decision to launch a surgical, manned strike. The administration has stated that a boots-on-the-ground strike reduced the possibility of civilian casualties, and Murphy notes that photographs of dead non-combatants are powerful recruiting tools online.

Social media also expanded Obama's audience when he addressed the operation, adds Murphy. He notes that Bush's immediate post-9/11 response was addressed to a domestic audience, while Mr. Obama spoke immediately to the global audience.

A decade ago, “the president would not have given a speech describing the military strike with the entire world in mind,” Murphy says. Obama's speech, he says, was a military commander in chief delivering the coda to the operation that he had ordered. Obama, he adds, was careful to send a message to the Muslim world clearly separating the enemy, Osama bin Laden, from Islam.

Today’s information-rich environment also provides welcome innovations that commanders are taking advantage of, says Ken Robinson, a counterintelligence expert who is a 30-year veteran of CIA and special mission units. Before the Iraq war, he says, military analysts delivered long-form reports and had little interaction with one another. But the emergence of social media chat rooms, where those analysts can confer in realtime with one another – sifting data as it emerges – now provides a dynamic overview of the battle as it is occurring.

“It allows commanders visualization of the battlefield to keep pace with the mechanical progress through it,” says Mr. Robinson. “This is light-years ahead of war before social media.”

The military has changed not just what it thinks about, but how it thinks, says Robinson. The mental openness that comes from the broad information flow in social media may be the biggest change wrought on the military mind, he says.

“When you allow a beehive mentality and social interaction, that little creek of information becomes a raging river where you are processing more information,” he says, adding that this allows for many dissenting opinions. If you plan for this rich mix, “then you can begin to find order in what might have seemed like chaos to earlier generations,” he says.

However, Robinson points out, the military has also begun to draw some lines in the digital sand. In the rush to share information among a wide range of agencies and analysts, a level of unfettered access to sensitive information “went too far,” he says, ultimately leading to classified information up on WikiLeaks. To prevent such a leak happening again, the military has instituted checks and balances, limiting what can be downloaded or carried offsite.

As social-media technology continues to evolve, expect even more sophisticated military applications, says Michael Hussey, CEO and founder of PeekYou.com, a search company that monitors individuals' digital footprints. Data monitoring and location-based technologies are exploding across the Internet, he says. For instance, the ability to track social-media chatter at a hyper-local level “could provide a pretty precise idea of who is doing what and where,” he says.

Look for more nighttime operations taking place in much shorter windows of time, says David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, a public relations and political consulting firm. This will limit the military’s exposure, he says.

“We have a world of information where we are getting as much information from some guy with a cell phone as from Brian Williams or CNN,” says Mr. Johnson. He suggests that some of the great military ruses of yesteryear may no longer be possible, such as Patton’s decoy “fake army,” or the double who impersonated British Field Marshal Montgomery in World War II.

“Today,” he says, “the Pentagon no longer controls the narrative.”

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