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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 / May 5, 2011

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."

David Loh / Reuters

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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.

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“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.

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.

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