If, as Malcolm Gladwell claims, the revolution will not be tweeted, can the counter-revolution be ZunZuneo’d? Well, given that the USAID funding for the American-made Twitter alternative for Cuba, known as ZunZuneo, dried up in 2012, probably not. But the ZunZuneo brouhaha on Capitol Hill this week raises some pretty interesting questions about the value of social media to the intelligence community and to US propaganda efforts.
While the heart of the debate in Washington is about whether or not ZunZuneo was a covert operation, to my mind the question is rather silly. The idea that anyone would need to create a covert program to leverage social media for intelligence gathering and propaganda ignores the overt value of social media to those enterprises.
For intelligence gathering, social media is a rich body of content that, with a powerful social media search and content analysis application like Palantir or social network mapping services like those offered by Morningside Analytics, can identify emerging conflicts and revolutions just by examining the content people are sharing and who they are sharing it with (network analysis).
In the case of ZunZuneo, one of the goals was to learn who among the people of Cuba were receptive to dissident messages and counter-revolution opportunities by monitoring what they were posting. We can easily do the same thing by analyzing social media content around the world. Tools like Palantir can identify what issues people are talking about (interests), how often they talk about them (intensity) and what position they take (sentiment). Add that to information about the size of their audience, how influential they are over their audience and how influential their audience is, and you can quickly see how valuable social media monitoring can be to identifying who the key players might be in almost any emerging conflict or crisis.
As for propaganda, feeding messages into social media communications chains is standard fare for any social media professional. So it goes without saying that the same tactics could and would be used by Foreign Service and intelligence organizations.
The bottom line is that social media creates a whole range of overt intelligence gathering and propaganda activities that are neither invasive nor surprising, if you understand what social media is. After all, the biggest threat to our privacy isn’t spying, it is revealing our personal information on purpose to the world via social media. We share indiscriminately all the time. That can really put a damper on our expectations of privacy.