Social Media and UW
Unconventional warfare, meet social media. Future mission success could depend on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google , or iReporting. To pervert Leon Trotsky’s axiom on war, “You may not be interested in social media, but social media is very interested in you.”
Social media — blogs, social-network sites, information aggregators, wikis, livecasting, video sharing — has decisively altered that most extreme of socio-politico acts: revolution. The 2011 Arab Spring revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East were engineered through citizen-centric computer and cellular-phone technologies that streamed web-enabled social exchanges. The Arab Spring has profound implications for the U.S. special-operations mission of unconventional warfare. This article posits that the study, practice and successful execution of future UW must deliberately account for and incorporate social media.
This article first examines the role of social media during the Arab Spring revolutions and uprisings. Next, social media’s profound political effects are woven to the historical and doctrinal practice of UW. Three areas of UW are analyzed: social mobilization, the digital underground and the weapon of the narrative. This article concludes with an appeal for the focused study of the nexus between social media and UW to include the practice of and experimentation with the use of social media enabled by handheld technologies.
The Arab Spring
Labeled alternately the Arab Spring or the Twitter Revolution, the spring of 2011 witnessed uprisings and revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Bahrain, with revolution-inspired, violent demonstrations following in multiple Middle Eastern, North African and European nations. The uprisings were sparked by the Dec. 17, 201, self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, a frustrated Tunisian fruit-and-vegetable street vendor (with a computer science degree).1 Public outrage followed, led by viral social-media postings. Months later, across the Middle East and North Africa, social media achieved another innovative milestone: a decentralized community of web-based activists rapidly coalesced into politically powerful, loosely organized insurgents who produced not just riots, but astonishing revolutionary change.
The uprisings represented a true “starfish”t moment: peer-to-peer relationships generated a collaborative will that sparked defiant acts of resistance spanning two continents. Social media proliferated compelling images and stories that resonated with all classes of citizens, worldwide, inspiring a mix of activism and outrage that ignited revolutionary sentiment.
It is said that revolutions “come, they are not made.”3 Despite the unpredictability of revolutions, the Arab Spring uprisings demonstrated that the medium is as important as — or more important than — the message. Handheld technologies and social media connectivity aggregated small acts of resistance that produced frenzied revolutionary momentum. The lack of a cohesive revolutionary ideology was less significant than the collective thrill of millions of like-minded, networked citizens expressing dissent.
Even if revolution was not the aim, it was the outcome. Social-media collaboration generated accidental revolutionaries. The connected masses forged rapid, digital alliances too dynamic to be ignored and too unpredictable to be countered. In a remarkably short time span, social-media communities viewed their collective action in historical terms, generating the key ingredient required for revolutionary momentum: inevitability.
The pervasive and resilient character of web-based social media enabled rapid social organization that circumvented regimes and inspired bold and effective acts of resistance. Social media demonstrated that it is effective in sparking revolutions. It also showed some proficiency in managing the tactics and flexibility required to sustain spirited, if disorganized, revolutionary momentum. Even the state-sponsored physical violence, media control and comprehensive counterrevolutionary measures could not effectively thwart the uprising.
The inspiring, liberating spirit of the Arab Spring has given way to a long year of discord, civil war and state-on-citizen violence. We are reminded that revolutions are messy, violent affairs, whether delivered by cell phone or pitchfork. Outcomes notwithstanding, the Arab Spring confirms that the digital networks that promulgate social-media content present both an environment and a communication-based weapon system.
To place social media within UW, it is helpful to review the definition of UW, address special-operations responsibilities for the conduct of UW and give examples of UW campaigns.
Going viral: The revolution in Egypt was stimulated by this Facebook page, dedicated to a slain Egyptian businessman. The page continues to serve as a hub for information on events around the world.
UW is defined as “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area.”4 UW is not a mechanism for creating revolutionary conditions — rather, it seizes on and supports existing political, military and social infrastructure to accelerate, stimulate and support decisive action based on calculated political gain and U.S. national interests.
U.S. Army Special Forces are the Department of Defense’s only military unit designed to conduct UW, and are specially trained to operate in politically sensitive, denied areas that characterize UW environments.