Saturday, February 20, 2010

Fighting the online info war

When Singapore's first casino opened its doors on the first day of the Lunar New Year (Sunday 14 Feb 2010), the milestone was accompanied by a deliberate effort to ramp-up the integrated resort's (IR) online presence.

The reason was simple: there would be no newspapers published the day after except for the English-language tabloid, The New Paper. Without a lively Facebook presence, the IR would have virtually no means of updating the public on events on its premises.

Television news is transient. Radio news is more accessible, but nothing beats images and news that people can read at their leisure on the web. The IR's 41,000 Facebook friends would probably agree.

The stable of newspapers controlled by Singapore Press Holdings enjoy two print holidays annually. These fall on Christmas Day and the first day of Chinese New Year.

Defence professionals would do well to study the value of online media because newspapers may not be there for the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) all the time. If a defence-related issue ever cropped up on X'mas Day or CNY 1, MINDEF/SAF's point of view on the issue would not appear in the national press till two days later. Think about that.

During operations, media agencies are likely to be on the hit list of strategic targets drawn up by hostile forces. Media agencies - newspapers, radio and television - help maintain and strengthen a nation's resolve and will to fight. This is especially important for Singapore as the Lion City relies heavily on citizen soldiers to flesh out SAF combat formations and combat service support units.

News gathering by the Singaporean media can be disrupted, degraded, delayed or destroyed by targeting newspaper printing plants, telecommunications towers and TV transmitters. It's for this reason that media companies in Singapore maintain satellite plants in several locations on the tiny island. This contingency plan swung into action during the SARS crisis in early 2003 when SPH dispersed its newsroom operations to ensure newspapers would continue to function in the event one satellite newsroom was infected with the virus.

It's no surprise that hostile forces will try to take out an adversary's mass media network because the role of the mass media in information operations has been well documented.

This brings us back to the new kid on the block: online media - blogs, Facebook and so on.

Just as the IR found online media a useful complement to traditional media, MINDEF/SAF too could consider increasing its presence in cyberspace.

Its online footprint is currently passive. MINDEF news releases, PIONEER magazine images and Youtube videos are disseminated in a largely one-way street with almost zero reader participation.

Online media cannot replace traditional means of communicating with the public. It should be viewed as a complement to traditional concepts of mass media, another arrow in the quiver for information warriors who work with the mantra "who else needs to know?".

Netizens can also serve a valuable role in shaping public awareness of, and reactions to a host of defence-related issues. Singapore should tap the huge community of netizens as a virtual tripwire, sussing out opinions and debunking inaccurate postings about Singaporean defence matters. Another key advantage is the large number of English literate netizens who can reach out to the international community. Web postings can be updated from anywhere around the globe 24/7, thus frustrating an adversary's efforts to kill public opinion should he succeed in taking out traditional media infrastructure.

During the Second World War, Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) used civilian plane spotters to augment its network of Chain Home air defence radar towers. The Royal Observer Corps, as these aviation enthusiasts were grouped under, proved immensely useful in detecting, tracking, identifying and reporting the size and heading of German Luftwaffe formations over British skies.

In much the same way, a community of netizens allied to Singaporean interests can serve as a virtual "tripwire" for MINDEF/SAF.

In September 2007, the first hint that an SAF serviceman had run away from camp with a rifle and bullets came from the website, I remember reading that post and thinking it was a hoax. But discrete enquiries with the police and SAF contacts proved otherwise and my queries culminated in an ill-timed phone call that Monday evening with a contact from the Singapore Police Force Special Tactics and Rescue (STAR) Unit - whom I have on speed dial.

The STAR contact cut off my call. How rude, I thought. He called me back the next morning to tell me he was in the midst of a debriefing as they had caught Dave Teo - the soldier who ran away with his SAR-21 assault rifle and several 5.56mm rounds. On that Tuesday morning, the STAR contact made time to talk and I pieced together how the soldier was cornered in a shopping mall toilet. Just to disgress: STAR gave me a scoop by officially relating how they caught Dave Teo and the Page 1, Page 2 and 3 expose in The Sunday Times won me and a fellow journalist an award for good work.

Singaporean netizens were also the first to blow the whistle on a mysterious blog about lighthouses which went online during the International Court of Justice (ICJ) hearings on the ownership of Pedra Branca. Photo buffs pointed out the uncanny timing of the lighthouse blog's appearance and some website sleuths with more time on their hands uncovered the fact that the website seemed hastily cobbled together from material culled from other sites.

Photo buffs also pointed out that the image of Pedra Branca on the website seemed skewed to the Malaysian point of view. Frightfully odd, isn't it?

I will not knock the Malaysians further because I work for a Malaysian company, but I think the point to remember here is the vital role a community of netizens on patrol can perform in policing the web. :-)

I hear from my Mexican friends that whenever news agencies flash online polls on issues that concern their nation, say for example, "Is a just war being waged against Hezbollah?", they will mobilise hundreds and log on to the news agency's website to vote. Such direct action obviously skews the online poll's results in their favour. But to do so, they must first have a community of netizens who are organised and committed to their country's cause.

This is something Singapore could emulate easily as the Lion City has more computers per capita and is better wired than any of its ASEAN neighbours.

Identities on the internet cannot be built up overnight. On many discussion boards, netizens take time to craft a credible online persona by ensuring their comments make sense, are reasonably logical and police the site by ticking off people who post flame bait.

A community of Singaporeans active on the world's more influential discussion boards is a strategic asset which should be engaged more actively.

Anyone fighting an information war will know that information warfare can be viewed very much like war in the physical domain. There are strategic, operational art and tactical issues to consider. The Principles of War: Objective, Offensive, Mass/Concentration, Economy of Force, Manoeuvre, Unity of Command, Security, Surprise and Simplicity also apply in information warfare.(Note: There have been more tenets added but the ones I type here from memory come from an old copy of FM 100-5 Operations. I recite the tenets and their respective definitions by heart repeatedly while doing laps in the pool :-)

There are centres of gravity which will hurt too.

In my collection of magazines is an old issue of Newsweek dated 27 May 1996. I kept the entire issue to remind myself of the human side of news-gathering and that people on the receiving end of a journalist's spadework can feel distressed or troubled.

That magazine contains a story on the suicide of United States Navy Admiral Jeremy "Mike" Boorda, who was the first American to rise from enlisted man to head the US Navy as Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). Admiral Boorda shot himself in the chest on his front porch in May that year just before Newsweek journalists were due to interview him about doctored medals. The journalists were chasing a lead that claimed the admiral had added a combat decoration called a "V" to the decoration he won for service in Vietnam.

Seen in isolation, the investigative reporting on the combat "V"s was a trivial matter. But it evidently bothered the late admiral so much that he killed himself. It was a great pity. Having read the feature story on Admiral Boorda's life, I felt the US Navy had lost a talented individual. When I was a journalist, I always kept that story in mind when chasing stories on people's personal lives that might stray into sensitive territory.

In similar vein, hostile forces charting their strategic information campaign will suss out centres of gravity of their adversary. It could be a virtue like a person's sense of self-worth or an organisation's public image.
For example, a senior officer may feel aggrieved or ashamed if his failed marriage is made known - plus juicy details on why the union collapsed. That fact would, in theory at least, count as a centre of gravity worth exploiting.

All can be torn down with direct action or a proxy war fought through other means.

To sum up: The online battlespace is there for the taking. If we don't exploit it, our adversaries most surely will.


edwin said...

Another great post! Sorry to hear about the teething problems at the IR but I hope they are being resolved.

You mention the internet support that some of our friendly countries have, but I'm not sure how effective they are. In recent times this support has not been able to stem the tide of negative public opinion against them, within and without the country. Their news media has also been more critical in examining their recent endeavors. I feel that the challenge of the internet is that it airs both positive and negative information-- and people are naturally attracted to the negative. The danger of self-selection bias is also much greater. How do you propose that organizations overcome these issues?

David Boey said...

Hello Edwin,
re: IR. You see the tram in the previous post? There are guests who ride round and round the car park in that vehicle like it's a kiddy ride, taking up seats that are meant to shuttle guests from car park to IR entrance/vice versa. Who would have anticipated this sort of behaviour?!

As for overcoming issues. As our country matures, officialdom has to realise that not everyone views life from their point of view. This indicates that offialdom has to be prepared to accommodate a broader range of opinions.

In my opinion, a reluctance to do so and the tendency to think the sky will collapse just because a contradictory viewpoint comes out of someone's mouth is the main cause of officialdom's angst.

Much of this angst is self-created. We just need to grow up.

Callsign said...

Hi David, nice article on role of the media.
Fm Callsign 24S

goat89 said...

Good read Mr Boey!
Enjoying the Olympics here in Vancouver! :D

edwin said...

Kiddy rides? Interesting. I would have thought that most people would want to get into the IR itself!

What do you think about the recent controversy behind the alleged assassination of a top Hamas official? In such situations, would transparency be warranted, or would discretion be the better part of valour?

Anonymous said...

You should join Mindef!!!

David Boey said...

Hi Edwin,
What the cloak and dagger trade calls "wet jobs" are very different from conventional defence info ops.

Worth discussing in a separate post....

Have u visited the Casino? Huat Ah!