The Advantages and Challenges of Utilizing SOCMINT for National Security Affairs

June 23, 2020

Gathering and analyzing intelligence from social media platforms (Social Media Intelligence, SOCMINT) is one of the intelligence tradecraft’s newest intelligence gathering methodologies. The ability to understand analyze individuals, public opinion and understand phenomena as they happen is a new and crucial intelligence product in the 21st century.

Tactical applications of intelligence gathering and analysis are enriched by SOCMINT and are known to be relevant for preventing terror attacks, researching individuals and more.

However, utilizing SOCMINT for strategic analysis that often combines numerous methodologies to provide both comprehensive research and actionable insights has lagged due to doubts as to the utility of SOCMINT at the strategic level.

The “Arab Spring” and chiefly the uprisings in Egypt illustrated the importance of SOCMINT at a strategic level to intelligence agencies, as well as the inefficacy of traditional intelligence sources and methodologies. SOCMINT’s strength, in this case, is its ability to capture the zeitgeist, and if analyzed properly, provide deep insight into trends in ways that targeted and traditional intelligence gathering cannot. Traditional and targeted intelligence gathering tend to focus on key stakeholders and powerbrokers in any given country, thus presenting a partial picture that is only applicable to the elites and not the general public at large, let alone other relevant groups such as political opposition organizations.

Integrating SOCMINT into the intelligence cycle as a key and foundational source can enrich any intelligence organization’s research processes and products, thus acquiring a more accurate and holistic view of any given situation. However, is SOCMINT truly a panacea for the ails of traditional and staid intelligence organizations? Can social media content be effectively translated into a reliable intelligence product? Does cyberspace influence the physical realm?

Generally speaking, the capabilities of modern social media platforms have made them key tools for governmental organizations, or any other actor, which wishes to communicate with the general public on a mass scale. Social media provides any individual or organization direct access to any given target audience as well as the tools to better understand said audience by analyzing their own activity. The benefits of utilizing SOCMINT, however, are only accessible at a scalable and efficient level to those organizations that are capable of developing or purchasing relevant technological solutions that provide them with said capabilities of analyzing social media chatter.

  • The advantages of analyzing social media chatter for strategic purposes are thus clearer, and enable:
    • Easy, convenient, and secure access to social media platforms and activity on them.
    • Accessibility to social media big data that can be analyzed and turned into an actionable product by a small number of analysts.
    • Predictive capabilities enhanced by AI processes that enable organizations to identify indicative elements prior to events occurring.
    • Fast identification of “influencers” on platforms that both encapsulate public opinion and can be utilized to influence it.
    • Identification of “pain points” in public discourse that can be effectively addressed by government messaging strategies and disseminated by utilizing relevant keywords and hashtags on relevant platforms.
  • These advantages are offset to an extent by certain analytical challenges inherent to social media , including:
    • Closed networks – in many cases, key influencers and organizations utilize closed networks inside of publicly accessible open networks to protect their own identity, thus making it more difficult for intelligence agencies to identify these individuals and their discourse. Oftentimes analysts investigating social media networks are directed by chatter to closed groups.
    • Lack of general knowledge – while most are aware of mainstream social media platforms, there is a plethora of lesser-known yet equally important social media platforms which are underutilized by intelligence agencies at best and unknown to them at worst. The lack of awareness and knowledge means that many agencies are missing a significant portion of relevant internet chatter at the local, regional and global levels.
    • The rise of bots/avatars – Bots and avatars, or fake profiles, have become commonplace on all social media networks. It is often difficult to differentiate between a real or fake profile, making it harder to draw relevant conclusions.
    • An exceptional amount of chatter translating to an endless mass of big data to analyze.
    • The main question still remains – how effectively and reliably does social media translate into current activity and can it enable analysts to predict trends? The level of social media penetration in some states is comparatively deep and in some is shallow, to what extent if at all does social media penetration in a given area impact the final product? How effectively does social media represent the general public and not just certain layers of society?

These issues can be remediated by certain capabilities that should be developed for enhancing social media analysis:

  • Bot/Avatar identification tools that enable quick and easy filtering of avatar related content. Some tools exist and are available for public use but must be scaled up to be relevant for intelligence agencies.
  • Developing methodologies to better understand access-controlled content.
  • Expanding understanding and coverage of social media platforms comprehensively and leaving traditional social media behind to provide a more comprehensive overview.

At the end of the day, analyzing social media platforms is a key element of the intelligence tradecraft that can enhance and expand any given organization’s understanding and perspective. SOCMINT, despite its importance and capabilities is not a panacea, and thus should be integrated into traditional intelligence disciplines such as SIGINT, VISINT, HUMINT and more. Understanding SOCMINT’s advantages and disadvantages enable agencies to harness its capabilities while mitigating its downsides with other intelligence disciplines to be able to provide a more comprehensive, effective and actionable tactical and strategic intelligence product.

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