The causes may have changed and the weapons may have advanced, but people have waged wars for centuries. In today's high-tech battles, the barrage of information -- or digital warfare -- is becoming almost as critical as the salvos of bullets and rockets.
The new face of cyberwar was prominently displayed last week between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Hamas, the militant Palestinian Sunni group that controls the Gaza Strip, the 356 square kilometer strip of land bordering the Mediterranean Sea, Egypt, and Israel. Israel captured the territory in the Six-Day War of 1967, but has allowed it to remain autonomous with its own governing body, even removing all military forces in 2005. Nonetheless, the local government has chaffed at the idea of being an Israeli territory and has responded in recent weeks with violence. Each side blames the other in the clashes.
But even as the rockets flew, a new tool of war emerged: 140 character messages delivered on Twitter. Both the IDF and Hamas’ Alqassam Brigade have been waging a war of words on the site, turning the world’s hottest microblogging platform into a propaganda machine, according to some commentators.
The IDF tweeted:
When #Hamas members need a place to hide, they run to hospitals. Hamas uses civilians as human shields.
The Alqassam Brigade’s spokesperson retorted:
@idfspokesperson Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves)
The IDF has also been actively posting on its own Tumblr page. One member of the IDF commented:
Shame that the Internet is only waking up to @IDFSpokesperson now. We have been tweeting almost daily about rockets on #Israel for years.
Indeed, the public, particularly in America, appears to be only now starting to wake up to the emerging role of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr in War 2.0. The US Armed Forces has a Twitter presence (such as the USAF’s Twitter feed), but they tend to avoid discussing combat operations, instead talking about declassified technology benefits, outreach to soldiers, family matters, and other civilian-minded topics.
But one must wonder how long the US will stay out of the information war, as commanders witness its effectiveness. Remember, Twitter is relatively new, having just launched in 2006. The last two major US operations -– the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan -- predate it. I feel it's inevitable that this nation will follow a similar path to the IDF. After all, armed forces may be accused of propagandizing for sharing their perspective on Twitter, but if they let “the other side” hurl accusations without a response, they risk being unfairly villainized and made to look weak.
Assuming the US does take up the mantle of information warfare in future campaigns, the next question is whether the US Armed Forces would manage such communications in house, or contract them to an external public relations agency. The latter possibility might be more desirable, given the danger of letting the emotion of those serving mar the message that the commanders want to share. If PR folks can do damage control on Lindsey Lohan, they should be able to handle information war.
Then there’s another big, looming question: How will Twitter, et al, respond to being made into the latest battlefront? So far, they have tolerated both sides in the conflict, even when the messages include dire threats of violence and retaliation. Twitter is very anti-censorship, but will likely face growing criticism as its use as a propaganda platform grows. (See: Twitter's Clever Censorship Policy)
Finally, there’s the issue of security. For both government and private sector contractors, safeguarding social media information streams will become an increasingly mission-critical objective. It would be an absolute disaster if a nation’s enemy hijacked its Twitter account and posted damaging or erroneous messages.
Those of us who read William Gibson have long suspected this day would come; a time in which virtual assaults -- information theft, image engineering, and even direct cyberattacks -- become as integral as traditional tactics. As the Israeli conflict illustrates, that new day is at hand.
Jason Mick is senior news editor at the independent tech news site DailyTech.