U.S. Intel Chiefs Used Social Media to Track Middle East Revolts
Social media has not only played a key role in the popular revolts sweeping the Middle East from an organizational perspective; it has also been used as a tool by U.S. intelligence for monitoring the progress of the uprisings, and will doubtless be an important source of information for historians and diplomats studying the motivations and dynamics (including immediate flashpoints and long-term trends in sentiment) which produced these remarkable and very complicated events.
Social media's utility as a monitoring and surveillance tool was confirmed this week -- with some acrimony -- during hearings held by the Senate Intelligence Committee to address perceived shortcomings in U.S. intelligence gathering in the Middle East. Led by Chairwoman Diane Feinstein, committee members specifically grilled national intelligence director James Clapper and CIA director Leon Panetta (among others) about their use of social media for monitoring the situation in Egypt and elsewhere.
Feinstein specifically suggested U.S. spooks neglected clues in social media pointing to the likely ouster of long-time authoritarian rulers (and U.S. allies) in Tunisia and Egypt. For their part, Clapper and Panetta said they did what they could considering the sheer volume of the social media universe, which currently includes 600 million Facebook accounts, 190 million Twitter accounts, and many thousands of hours of video on YouTube.
Panetta's description of these challenges will probably resonate with marketers overwhelmed by the incredible potential, complexity, and rapid rate of change in this world: "The real challenge is how to be able, going through the diversity of languages, going through the different sites that are out there, how do we look at the relevant websites to be able to draw from them the kind of information that would help us so this involves a tremendous amount of analysis."
I guess it's good members of Congress are trying to keep U.S. intelligence bosses on their toes -- but their expectations are (as usual) rather unrealistic, especially considering the novelty of these events. As far as I can tell, these are the first major revolutions to succeed with social media playing such a large role; in this light, Feinstein apparently expects U.S. intelligence to be able to predict totally unprecedented events, which to some degree surprised not just outside observers but the participants themselves.