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April 30, 2009

United States of America

Diagnosing the Swine Flu Infodemic

The Impacts of Information - And Misdiagnosis of Social Media - Surrounding The Swine Flu Outbreak

By Adam Elkus | April 30, 2009

No matter the product involved, the hype cycle is always the same. First comes excessive adulation and praise, then mass buy-in, and finally critical backlash. Just like a once-hip New York indie rock band, Twitter is suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Mainstream media critics, alarmed by the online panic over the swine flu, are attacking Twitter as a breeding ground for irrational hysteria.

Foreign Policy's techblogger Evgeny Morozov has written the most trenchant Twitter critique, pointing to a horror show of tweets ranging from conspiracist speculations about germ warfare to fallacious "simple cures" for swine flu sufferers.

Don't believe the hype. Mass panics are as old as human civilization and Twitter is neither a cauldron of hysterical ignorance nor a completely neutral technology. Twitter and other social media tools are only one part of a complex and imperfect information ecosystem that nevertheless possesses the potential for positive collaboration.

Facilitated by either stagecoach messenger or Friendfeed, communication can amplify popular fear into mass hysteria. And with every panic comes the same hyperbolic criticism of communication technology, employing imagery of mindless crowds driven into a frenzy by mass media's siren song. Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno famously proclaimed that popular media constituted a "culture industry" that stresses uncritical obedience, Situationist activist Guy Debord saw media as a tool of mass consumer culture behind the "society of the spectacle," and media critic Neil Postman went as far as to claim that media is slowly "amusing us to death." Countless other critics have derided various forms of the "idiot box" in substantially less articulate language.

No matter the time, place, or ideology, the criticism of media and mass man boils down to the fear that the irrational mob will destroy civilization. It's the same narrative of the barbarians at the gates, except this time the invading Huns have Bluetooth-equipped iPhones instead of battleaxes. But the mass culture critique ignores social media's strengths and misdiagnoses its weaknesses.

Twitter neither originated the swine flu hysteria nor substantially amplified it. Instead, sensationalist reporting by mainstream media outlets stimulates popular hysteria by saturating the public with wave after wave of distorted information. Swine flu undeniably poses a major threat that requires urgent and comprehensive response, but media reports lack any sense of perspective, caution, or restraint. The common cold kills 36,000 Americans a year, averaging out to about 150 deaths per day during the eight months of the flu season. So far, the only casualty of the current crisis outside of Mexico has been a young Mexican boy visiting Texas. But you'd never know this from the tenor of MSM coverage, always on the verge of declaring that a snout-faced horseman of the apocalypse has descended to cleanse the unbelievers. Since blogs and microblogs are parasitic mediums, the MSM tsunami of fear and terror inevitably creates ripples in the social media ecosystem.

But while Twitter isn't the hotbed of hysteria commonly portrayed in the media, it also isn't an entirely neutral medium. If the rise of a globalized world has facilitated the rapid spread of diseases and viruses, viral mediums like Twitter help spread "infodemics." As Carnegie Endowment fellow David Rothkopf argues, these panics are fueled by the complex interaction between differing forms of media:

"An infodemic is not the rapid spread of simple news via the media, nor is it simply the rumor mill on steroids. ...[I]t is a complex phenomenon caused by the interaction of mainstream media, specialist media and internet sites; and "informal" media, which is to say wireless phones, text messaging, pagers, faxes and e-mail, all transmitting some combination of fact, rumor, interpretation and propaganda. It can be rendered more difficult to understand by multiple languages, cultures and attitudes toward the free and open flow of information. It involves consumers of information ranging from officials to private citizens who have varying abilities to see the whole information picture, varying degrees of sophistication about what to do with the information they have, little opportunity to authenticate data before acting on it, and little if any training in understanding or controlling the rapidly changing information picture."

Twitter is merely one element of a media infosphere that emergently constructs infodemics, and infodemics give form to what UCLA Professor Douglas Kellner calls the "media spectacle"--a massive drama that puts societal values, fantasies, and fears on public display. The swine flu plays into the disaster-movie narratives of inescapable contagion, infection, and apocalypse that have been present in global media discourse for decades. Like terrorism, pandemics are cast as annihilating events that demonstrate the inherent fragility of the ordering systems that govern everyday life. The shattering of these protective linkages exposes us to the threat of chaos, predation, and extinction.

Twitter plays a special role in the media spectacle because it is fundamentally a performative medium. Like other social media forms such as Facebook or LiveJournal, Twitter places a high premium on performance and role-play as a means of both individual self-expression and group socialization. The downside is that Twitter also gives fearful individuals the means to both act out individual nightmares on a grand stage and find comfort and community in the mass panic of the crowd. Hashtag groupings are instrumental means for users to share in and co-produce common experiences, a phenomenon first observed in the famously crowdsourced coverage of the Mumbai attacks.

Unfortunately, government action isn't likely to stop infodemics. The global infosphere is too vast and dispersed for the kind of message management that public relations firms excel at. Similarly, President Obama is unlikely to quell the panic by channeling his charisma and popularity into Web 2.0 rehashes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's famous "fireside chats." The best governmental institutions can do is provide correct information and an appearance of competence, using new media forms to try to shape the narrative and respond to public concerns. As Shlok Vaidya blogs, government has largely impeded effective response by placing its own biodefense visualization tools behind a "secrecy wall."

The cure for the infodemic is likely to come from developers and social media users. Crowdsourcing applications and websites can help make sense of raw data and facilitate positive collaboration between general users, subject-matter experts, and social media developers. These information aggregation, visualization, and collaboration tools can help reduce entropy within the information ecosystem by acting as controlling mechanisms that organize and govern the flow of information. But as Vaidya argues, we need a tool to aggregate productivity as well as help families and communities deal with the crisis by distributing data.

Even without such a system, the current swine flu crisis is an opportunity for users and developers to evolve existing capabilities through trial and experimentation. Let the Twitter haters hate. The most important thing is that we all keep the hand sanitizers at the ready.

April 25, 2009

United States of America

Kissing Intelligence Goodbye

"Instant Closure" Will Be The Death of More of Us

By Michael Tanji | April 25, 2009

Most national security tragedies are the result of - or directly associated with - a failure of intelligence, that is to say, the apparatus we have built and charged to find us the most valuable information possible has come up short. Some key examples of why intelligence has failed us include:
  • Reliance on satellites, which take great pictures, but reveal nothing of human emotion or intention.
  • Reliance on only angels and boy scouts, when the greatest threats come from demons and malcontents.
  • Adherence to a system that rewards quantity, not quality; promotes generalists and relegates expertise.
Intelligence (the information and the apparatus) isn't solely to blame for failures and tragedies. It doesn't matter how good the information is, or how insightful the analysis, if those who it is delivered to misuse or abuse it for their own purposes. However, this is less a comment on 'who lost country X' or 'why did we get surprised by development Y' as it is a reflection on our seriousness with regards to what needs to be done to obtain the information necessary to avoid surprise and save lives.

A few days ago the President announced that he was not going to subject those intelligence producers who treated terrorist detainees harshly to investigations and possible prosecutions. Shortly thereafter it was announced that those who approved of the harsh treatment and conditions could very well be investigated and prosecuted. Today we learn that the government will be turning over photos of alleged abusive interrogations to the ACLU, who will no doubt make the photos public in short order. We can go round-and-round about what constitutes torture and where respective moral lines should be drawn, but the bottom line is that if you are about improving intelligence, the best course of action is - for the time being - to shut up about all of this.

No clear thinking intelligence officer can interpret the political actions associated with terrorist interrogations any other way than this: shut up and color. This is not about condoning torture or approving of harsh treatment, nor is it about going all-in on the good-cop school of interrogation. This is about recognizing that in a sufficiently challenging situation, under the most intense pressure, swimming in a sea of known and unknown unknowns, are we going to give people the room to maneuver - and make mistakes - as we march towards a goal of an effective and righteous solution?

If we are not, well, you know what that means:
  • We will almost assuredly go back to relying on technical means to gather intelligence, losing any ground we gained in the human arena.
  • We will continue to be blindsided by demons and malcontents.
  • Intelligence's slide towards run-of-the-mill government bureaucracy will be complete; "managers" will focus on headcount and budget, driving leaders and risk-takers out of business.
Almost nothing remains secret forever. Before there was 9/11 there was Pearl Harbor, and we know about all there is to know about the failures of our intelligence (and decision-making) apparatus. Heck, we even bring some vindication to those we initially vilified. This idea that we have to immediately solve or somehow bring closure to every intelligence-related "scandal" is so amazingly short-sighted and counter-productive it makes one wonder if this nation has the will or the intestinal fortitude for an intelligence apparatus at all. True, you can get 90% of what you need to know to deal with the world legally and cheaply (if not for free), but that last 10% is what is supposed to help you avoid the sneak attack.

Rooting out and divining that 10% used to be what they paid us for.

April 13, 2009


Getting Past Somalia Inanity

Being Right Today For The Wrong Reasons Makes For Bad Tomorrows

By Steve Schippert | April 13, 2009

There is something going very wrong in Washington, and you need to be aware of it. You don't have to be a Somalia expert or even a national security or counterterrorism expert to follow along here. And follow you must. For the thinking you are about to witness is hazardous to your - our - national security.

The Somali pirates' attempted hijacking of the Maersk Alabama has captured much of America's collective attention this past week. It has also likewise commanded much attention within the national security community as well. Crises tend to have that effect. This is a good thing.

But, regarding the greater issue ashore in Somalia, it is difficult to just cast aside the pointlessness of the pondering by "several" anonymous "senior national security officials" afforded space by the Washington Post story, "Obama Team Mulls Aims Of Somali Extremists".

The very first graph stops you so dead in your tracks that you find yourself reading it over and over just to be certain you haven't fallen to sudden temporary dyslexia. But the text, in fact, appears just as it was written.

Senior Obama administration officials are debating how to address a potential terrorist threat to U.S. interests from a Somali extremist group, with some in the military advocating strikes against its training camps. But many officials maintain that uncertainty about the intentions of the al-Shabab organization dictates a more patient, nonmilitary approach.

Not sure about al-Shabaab's intentions? And "many" officials? Who are these people?

The al-Shabaab terrorist group is (not was) actively recruiting from within the United States and threatening attacks, possibly through newly trained terrorists returning to America. Al-Shabaab has concrete links to al-Qaeda. In fact, it was widely expected in counterterrorism circles that al-Shabaab would finally just come out and officially announce its franchise status within al-Qaeda early this year.

Shabaab's military commander - until he was killed in a US missile strike in May 2008 - was Aden Hashi Ayro, who trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and maintained close ties. Al-Qaeda has been trying to secure their foothold in East Africa through first the ICU and now it's offshoot al-Shabaab ('The Youth'). It regularly publishes video propaganda of its aims and deeds, and draws praise from the highest echelons of al-Qaeda's senior leadership. What 'uncertainty' causes such pause?

Wading into Somalia guns-ablazin' in short order is not an option. That said, it is one thing to pause and weigh options and paths to address the situation based on resources available, running contingencies, and the pressing context of the nexus of global counterterrorism operations. But to pause because of "uncertainty about the intentions of the al-Shabab organization"?

Want more on the battle of the brains holed up in DC?

Some in the Defense Department have been frustrated by what they see as a failure to act. Many other national security officials say an ill-considered strike would have negative diplomatic and political consequences far beyond the Horn of Africa. Other options under consideration are increased financial pressure and diplomatic activity, including stepped-up efforts to resolve the larger political turmoil in Somalia.

Financial pressure? On quite possibly the poorest country on Earth? Is this not akin to threatening a burn victim with fire? And how in the world can anyone see the light at the end of the "stepped-up efforts to resolve the larger political turmoil in Somalia" tunnel without first (or coterminously) physically defeating radical al-Qaeda-linked Islamists armed to the teeth, blowing up anything in their path and running half of Somalia?

You seriously cannot make this up.

Is this not akin to our Secretary of State saying early on in the Maersk Alabama hijacking incident that the Somali piracy problem requires another "international resolution" from the United Nations? She must mean like the Iran and North Korean crises are being justly solved through paperwork. Feckless resolutions are not the answer. They just happen to be what Secretary of States do, so they are the first words out of their mouths in crises. "UN resolutions" in fact more often hinder actual "conflict resolution" in such instances because they breed inaction by others assuming there is already some sort of action afoot, and often prohibit action by others who see otherwise.

When you read the whole of the Post article, even the marginally informed must walk away realizing that some otherwise smart people talking to the Washington Post are hard at work out-thinking themselves into a position of indecisiveness, inaction and uncertainty when they ought not.

With all of the critical information, details and data floating around in their heads, it appears the obvious is obscured and sacrificed for the self-indulgent quest to find a nugget of brilliance in some nuance that simply does not exist. Surely not to the degree that "uncertainty of intentions" is the cause for "a more patient, nonmilitary approach."

These folks tossing the Washington Post their DC-insider nugget may be right to at least pause, even if wrong to outright exclude a clearly necessary military component. But they would be right for all of the wrong reasons. And this means that the next decision with the next crisis is just as fraught with calculable error as this one. And the odds of hitting the right output with the wrong input twice in a row are stacked heavily against them.

And that means odds stacked against your security, not just some obscure analytical counterterrorism scorecard tucked away in a file cabinet.

April 9, 2009


Somali Piracy: A Solution

Security Aboard Ships - Not USS Sledgehammers - To Fight At Point of Pirates' Attacks

By Steve Schippert | April 9, 2009

The news of an American vessel, the Maersk Alabama, being boarded and commandeered by pirates off the coast of Somalia has brought the Somali piracy issue to the front burner for Americans. Still, the piracy has long been the most widely covered news out of Somalia for Americans. And for this reason, many of them might be shocked to know that al-Qaeda's Somali franchise al-Shabaab actually controls much of the country. But I digress.

It's time for a solution. It's time to get pro-active on the maritime security front. Certainly good folks somewhere have put many hours into contemplating this, and it would be particularly bad form to trumpet here as presumably the only genius with an idea. But, probably much to their shared frustration, we are still where we are: Vulnerable in the vast open waters off the Horn of Africa. Enough.


The US Navy (or any other navy) is not the answer. Wholly cost-ineffective, incapable of covering all areas and like swatting mosquitoes with a sledgehammer. The open seas reaction time is too great. The pirates' take-over of a ship will have (pardon, has) already taken place and the opposing force is faced not with preventing the pirates' boarding, but rather with boarding the vessel themselves in a hostage situation, risking the lives of the crew a second time. We are reacting haphazardly (and slowly) rather than preventing or deterring.

Or, as has been the alternate course more often than not, nations and firms can enter into post-action negotiation for the return of their vessels, goods and men. Paying pirates is a remarkably poor option, particularly after one is so keenly aware of the threat.


The only tenable solution is to put the prevention at the point of risk: Aboard the vessel.

It is the only solution - sans magical liquidation of all pirates and their havens - that is fast-reacting enough or cost effective enough. (Have you ever checked the expense tab of operating a US Navy destroyer for a 24-hour period of steaming? It's an expense only a stimulus's mother could love.)

What does the security team look like? Pretty simple, actually. 4-6 men from the contracting outfit, with small arms with enough reach and punch to introduce a speedboat to the ocean floor. There is an array of potent automatic rifles available. The team should possess at least one .50 caliber weapon for both range and punch. Certainly no 5.56mm M-16's. As well, some form of grenade weapons should be on hand (RPGs, grenade launchers and/or other shoulder-fired explosive weapons suitable for maritime use.) Night scopes and night vision goggles are essential as well. There are plenty of arms experts who know what would and would not work best. Point is, it isn't rocket science. Get it done.

It must be made known that all small craft deemed a potential threat that come within 500 meters of any vessel in the open seas risk being fired upon and sunk upon approach.

The specific logistics for maximum efficiency can be a challenge, but the basics here are pretty simple - at least on paper. There is no need for the contracted maritime security team to be aboard the vessel outside demonstrated high-risk zones. That, currently, is the float around the Horn of Africa. It is surely possible to coordinate embark and debark points at the ends of that leg of a particular ship's journey. This can happen at a port of call or, most efficiently, via scheduled smaller craft along the way.

The US military has a presence in Djibouti, which can serve as a safe staging point for security teams before the vessel steams toward the Suez Canal. At the opposite end, the United States may assist the contracting organizations in coordinating cooperation with Kenya and a similar use of shoreline military installations for the same staging area purposes. Likewise, for ships steaming eastward, the United States can assist in gaining staging accommodations in Gulf States such as Oman or the United Arab Emirates. Yemen, while logical on a map, would surely be an untenable risky endeavor for such use.

If such staging areas or temporary private bases can be arranged, shipping companies can avoid the undesirable and expensive option of a permanently boarded well-armed defensive presence from port of origin to port of destination. Likewise, if properly logistically coordinated, a security contracting firm can operate relatively efficiently in providing the security precisely where it is needed, when it is needed. With the spiking cost of insuring transit that includes passage through the vital but dangerous pirate-infested waters around the Horn and off the Somali coast, shipping companies will find this a more cost effective way to protect their crews, vessels and cargo.


The option vaguely outlined above may not be pretty, and yes, it is an added expense to doing business. But the bottom line is this: We simply cannot continue to do business in the manner that we have been.

We cannot allow aggressive piracy run amok to be encouraged by their own success, to dictate the terms, to threaten our vessels or to put our civilian crews at risk. Somali pirates currently operate at little risk; small, fast, agile and aggressive. And the payoff for success is huge. They have extracted millions in ransoms.

This has to be confronted intelligently, effectively, and aggressively. Shipping companies must be willing to bring aboard those who will bring violence upon those who would bring violence to their crews. This is, it must be recognized, the language the pirates speak. It's time to communicate deterrence. Remove the profit and the likelihood of success. Then the market correction of big-ticket Somali piracy begins.

Or we can continue doing business as usual with maritime thugs - terrorists at sea. We can pay their ransom demands for the release of our crews, or we can show up a day late and a dollar short on the open waters. As this is being written in the waning darkness of another New York City morning, the USS 'Sledgehammer' has arrived on scene at the Maersk Alabama a couple hundred miles off the Somali coast. The mosquitoes swarm, still holding the ship's captain at their mercy between the two steel hulks.

A day late in the order of battle. It doesn't have to be so.

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