According to a Nielsen study, social media is no longer in its infancy.  No kidding.

During the November military confrontation between Israel and Hamas, social media played a very grown-up role.  What distinguished it from past politically-charged social media exchanges was the participation of state and pseudo-state spokespersons.  Official announcements were issued by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Hamas’ Al-Qassam Brigade via Twitter and Facebook in near real-time.

  • The IDF announced the initiation of the military campaign via Twitter, and tweeted in caps that it had “ELIMINATED” Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari in an airstrike.
  • The Brigade responded with threats of retaliation; both sides posted minute-by-minute updates as the fighting unfolded.

The evolution of social media into an official communications venue should come as no surprise.  It follows a time-honored pattern of disruptive ideas and technologies gaining acceptability as they move into the mainstream.  The Nielsen Social Media 2012 study tells us that 30 percent of individuals’ mobile device time is spent accessing social media.  That qualifies as mainstream.

But the way we are communicating makes things more complicated.  Aided and abetted by things like social media and texting, our communications are shorter and snarkier.  My Mad magazine and Saturday Night Live-nurtured generation are, as adults, cranking out quasi-news and political satire side by side with serious reportage.  The asymmetric nature of online publishing leaves a culturally disadvantaged reader with little to go by in terms of assessing authenticity.  We should hardly be surprised that a report from The Onion nominating North Korea’s Kim Jong-Yun as “Sexiest Man Alive” recently was taken seriously by Chinese state media.

This is why the official tweet war between the IDF and Hamas is so disconcerting.  It represents the next step in an evolution– which started with tweets by bored narcissists, graduated to activists in Tahrir Square and tweets by The White House pressroom, and ended up with dead-serious war threats.   And it is taking place in a medium prone to irreverence and brevity, leaving a lot of room for misunderstanding.

Politicians, journalists, academics, and company executives all have little choice whether to participate; they are expected to demonstrate their fluency with new media and the younger generation.   Even the Pope tweets now.  The opportunity for things to go wrong leaves a hole big enough to drive an industrial-sized document-shredder through.

  • The Israeli Defense Forces’ point man on social media—probably the same man who helped engineer the IDF’s communications during the escalation of hostilities with Hamas in November—was found to have posted a photo of himself on Facebook in blackface with the caption “Obama Style”.
  • A Facebook page supporting Syrian President Assad claimed that Syria and Iran engineered Hurricane Sandy, the storm that ravaged the east coast of the US in October.
  • A false report alleging that Google had acquired a Wi-Fi provider for $400 million was picked up by several news outlets before it was found to have been intentionally planted.

For now, companies, lawyers, and governments are forced to use a medium with an adolescent propensity to act out, while dealing with very serious issues, including authentication, brand protection, and privacy.  Information security specialists, take note:

  • Online content is being brought as evidence in court cases.  This has led to a legal debate over authentication—giving rise to new tools including verified account badges (blue and white check mark icons next to a Twitter tag), as well as more intrusive and time-consuming forensic tools.
  • In response to the European Union’s Data Protection Directive, Facebook must respond to requests from EU residents with copies of every bit of data it holds on them.  According to Kaspersky, one man’s request resulted in 1200 pages of information, including every sent or received message, every person he ever friended, poked, liked, or communicated with.  It included information about those friends, such as relationship status, photos, and GPS locations.
  • Recently, many Facebook users posted a legal disclaimer to their timelines in the hope it would prevent the misuse of their personal information, reflecting widespread confusion over legal use of social media content.
  • A group of US lawmakers called for the FBI to require that Twitter take down the accounts of U.S.-designated terrorist groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah.  Critics argue that these groups may have a legitimate story to tell, and Twitter has made it clear it wants to stay out of political arguments.

Ultimately, the edginess of social media may be blunted by responsible adults when enough damage has been done through intentional manipulation or carelessness, but that seems a long way off.   In the interim, when using social media officially or personally, use your inside voice.

The authentication of social media postings, David I. Schoen, American Bar Association, 17 May 2011.

Fake Twitter accounts get real laughs, Ashley Parker, New York Times, 09 Feb 2011.

The Twitter Rules (terms of use), www.twitter.com.

The Tweets of War, The New Yorker, 19 Nov 2012.

Gaza violence leads lawmakers to call for shuttering terror groups on Twitter, The Hill, 23 Nov 2012.


Jean Gordon Kocienda

Global Threat Analyst

Corporate Security Programs