How to Use the Power of Social Media to Improve Intelligence Gathering and Distribution


One of the biggest challenges in gathering intelligence about one’s enemies is analyzing the data. The United States collects intelligence from threats around the world. Between terrorists, would-be terrorists, state actors, and other organizations, keeping track of any threats that may impact the security of the United States is a massive undertaking. The US collects plenty of data and we know more about that than ever before thanks to Edward Snowden. I’m reading his book right now and it’s already fascinating. When I was in grad school studying terrorism and asymmetrical warfare, intelligence gathering and analysis was always the choke point of figuring out where the next threat was coming from. I tried to use something I am familiar with: social media, to solve the problem.

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Let Me Take You Back to 2011

Back in 2011, I was running an online marketing and content writing business. It was perfect because I could balance it with grad school. Times were tough thanks to the recession but it got me through–barely. Either way, social media was on the rise. Facebook had been opened to the public and Twitter was on the rise as well. Instagram was still in the future and Snapchat was just an idea. However, early on, I realized that what social media did best was deliver data, tons of it. It was able to get information to millions of people all over the world quickly and easily. Post something on Facebook and soon millions of people could know about it. Keep in mind, this was also before the algorithm, so posting something on Facebook could reach thousands of people within hours with a few simple shares. Facing the intelligence problem, I realized that perhaps such a system could be used to deliver intelligence to the right analysts too. When I made my graduate presentation during my residence in Northfield, VT at Norwich University, many people thought I was suggesting that we used data from social media. I had to explain further that I was proposing something different. Social media data can be helpful but the real trick was to use the system behind social media. At the time, this was not well understood by many people.

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We Have Too Many Intelligence Networks

There are at least 11 major Intelligence networks that the United States uses to gather intelligence and distribute it to the proper agencies. One of the most innovative of these was called Thinthread. What Thinthread did was to take all the metadata of the communications and connections between people and analyze those and build a giant web of all the connections between people. By finding one person, you could pick them out and then see what connections they might have and thereby understand what that network of people might be plotting. However, this system was launched and used even though reportedly it could have predicted 9-11. There is a fascinating documentary about this on Netflix. Instead, we have 11 clunky intelligence networks focused on a variety of areas and often, it is difficult for any one person to get information from all these networks or for a threat to stand out and then be recognized by analysts from across these agencies and networks. However, if these networks can be combined together to feed intelligence into a central system that multiple people can access and add information and connections.

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How An Integrated System Would Work

Social media moves data and info quickly and easily. On this basis, the intelligence networks would feed information. This information would then be fed into a facebook-like news food with short captions like Twitter. A full feed of this kind of information similar to twitter could be helpful as well. Using the system of hashtags would also be helpful to make the information searchable and could help agencies coordinate. Each person of interest could have profiles that would include known associates (like friends), pictures, and basic personal info. This digital dossier could also include the latest posts about them or their latest activity. This system could also easily present on the ground intelligence and the latest satellite images by posting them to the network and then distributing the information to the appropriate people and post to the appropriate profiles.

The best part is that eventually, we could apply AI and machine learning to this and allow machines to help analysts find data quickly and easily. For example, if an agency is tracking a suspect in Pakistan, someone could easily bring up his profile, see his latest cellphone pings, pictures, see his known associates, track their cellphone pings and location and begin to draw conclusions or track meetings and learn more about their next plot. Having this information at the fingertips of an agent can mean the difference between discovering a new connection or a plot and missing important information. By having a centralized news feed that is searchable, organized, and tied to individual profiles with live, incoming data connected, analysts can do a better job of building a case and a potential threat.

Creating A New Intelligence System

Finding and creating new intelligence networks is going to be vital to keeping America safe moving forward. The current intelligence system, especially without Thinthread just isn’t working very well. We need a robust intelligence gathering and distribution system. Using the power of social media, we can create a better and more vital intelligence system.