By Steve Bucci and Suzanne El Sanadi

A recent Twitter exchange between the Taliban and the United States military shows how social media is evolving and how its current stage of development involves the use of Twitter to wage war on an ideological level.

Social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr are international, easy to use, and have the potential to impact millions of people. Some use social media to view family photos or re-connect with old friends, while others embrace the political side of this on-line medium. Over the past several years, social networking sites evolved into a catalyst for users to achieve political objectives. They became the primary tools that citizens use to generate revolutions and social unrest, causing governments to firmly oppose their usage. The world watched as Iran strongly reacted against the use of Facebook and Twitter, and Egypt went to the extreme of attempting to shut down the Internet.

These events caused governments to ask how they could most effectively respond to their citizens’ use of social media. The countries and non-state actors who witnessed the effective use of social media to reach large audiences realized that this same powerful tool could be used to their own advantage. This, in turn, led to a recent development in the social networking world: the use of networking sites by state and non-state actors to promote propaganda. Social networking sites, like most technological tools, are inherently neutral. When used benignly, they can promote peace and wide-spread collaboration, but when used incorrectly or with ill intent, can incite radicalization.

The Taliban’s use of Twitter is an example of the benefits of social networking being twisted to aid the enemy. Increasingly, militant groups are joining Twitter and other social networking sites to recruit members, implement propaganda, and release misinformation. The Twitter war between the International Security Assistance Force and the Taliban, originally beginning in 2011, is an example of how terrorist organizations are attempting to win hearts and minds as well as what the U.S. Government is doing to stop them. Lt. Col. Stewart Upton stated that the Taliban posts “10 lies or false tweets a day” and that ISAF chooses carefully which ones to respond to in an effort to decrease the Taliban’s effectiveness. Although the U.S. Government is making progress in its efforts to curb terrorist organizations’ harmful use of social media, the extremist groups are still achieving some success in their efforts. Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Shabab, and the Taliban are not only actively tweeting, but are also gaining thousands of followers. In an effort to inspire militants and discourage allied forces, many of the Tweets misconstrue or blatantly lie about the number of U.S. or British casualties in the Middle East. The tweets also link to websites promoting anti-American and anti-Semitic material, racist cartoons, and other harmful propaganda.

The U.S. Government and its security forces need to be constantly aware of how the enemy’s use of social media is evolving and proactively plan for ways to win the social networking battle. This new medium can give non-state actors such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda ways to disrupt unstable countries, or at least influence some of the players. The U.S. government needs to make sure that it is projecting both confidence and competence in its ability to debunk the demoralizing lies that are harmful to both U.S. citizens and the local people in the areas of conflict.

If the fight is for the mind, at a basic level, cyber is the new battlefront.

Dr. Steven Bucci is director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. He was previously a lead consultant to IBM on cyber security policy. Bucci’s military and government service make him a recognized expert in the interagency process and defense of U.S. interests, particularly with regard to critical infrastructure and what he calls the productive interplay of government and the private sector. Read More