Tweeting the Raid: Social Media, National Security and ‘Eyes on the Ground’

Released: 2-May-2011 4:55 PM EDT
Source Newsroom: Wake Forest University
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Newswise — “This is the beginning of a new day. The importance of the individual voice has been heightened,” says Wake Forest University social media expert and professor of communication Ananda Mitra.

It began when Sohaib Athar in Pakistan posted on Twitter early Monday morning of helicopters above his home, unwittingly live-tweeting the Bin Laden raid hours prior to the news breaking on social networking sites. His first tweet, “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).”

“The ‘eye on the ground’ has the potential to share information about real-time events, perhaps even inadvertently, that can raise speculation that will spread like wildfire.” Had those tweets been read by more people, the news might have been damaging, and Mitra says that social media, and the most popular times for using it, may have been taken into consideration when security forces planned the timing for the attack.

“Athar’s tweets were almost playful,” says Mitra. “Our culture plays a significant role in how we interpret the world around us. From now on, however, people will be paying more attention to posts on social media sites, even ones that seem innocuous, and this will certainly have implications for national security, as well as for media and communication studies.”

Mitra, whose research includes gleaning information by looking for connections on Facebook updates, says pattern-searching will become critical in processing the large volume of information online. With thousands of people now carrying phones and mobile devices that have become what are essentially surveillance cameras, he says computers can be programmed to look for connections related to the millions of videos, photos and text posts shared across the Internet — possibly raising public awareness of activities where security is critical.

Institutional and government “cameras” manage what is shown to the world, but most individuals operate without duress, he says. “What is secret in one paradigm is open for sharing in the paradigm of the other.”


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