All is Fair in War and Facebook

From the streets of New York to Egypt, Moscow to Tunisia, the rise of social movements in the past few years has illustrated the power of social media in political change.

Although 2011 might seem like a distant memory, the 2011 TIME magazine cover’s person of the year was the masked protestor. A well-known story of a fruit vendor, unhappy with the greed and corruption of the police force set himself on fire, and sparked a global movement that toppled dictators and spread a wave of transformation throughout the world.

What 2011 allowed was a rapid change of media ownership, putting timely news releases in the hands of citizens. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were the new media outlets and the protestors themselves were the writers. Through pictures, videos, and blogs, their stories travelled the world and created a power that was unheard of and unseen until those moments.

Fast forward to 2013, where Gangnam style or Harlem Shake videos are dominating social media and one has to be a little disappointed. I ran across a quote the other day on the website ‘Reddit’ that sums up my feeling twoards technology:


If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?


I possess a device, in my pocket, which is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man.

I use it to look at pictures of cats and to argue with strangers.

At least some can acknowledge the power of technology we have today, and the opportunities it provides for grass-roots movements. And yet as I write this, why do I still have my Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter open?

Our current culture is dependent on social media to track people of interest. So it comes as no surprise that Raytheon, one of America’s biggest defence contractors decided to invest in this idea and create a program that tracks people’s movements through their posts on any social media platform. This program, called Riot (Rapid Information Overlay Technology), provides government agencies, or anyone with money and a bad cyber-stalking habit, the ability to monitor posts that are already tracked by websites like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. Want to brag about your morning run you take on Facebook? Well, Riot can track the time of the post. You frequent a certain club and post pictures of your night out on Instagram? Each photo you take has embedded coordinates attached to the file. It can also monitor your posts among friends, revealing who is in your inner circle, where you’ve been, what you have done, and provides and insight in what you will do in the future.

You can breathe a sigh of relief now, however, because unless you’re an undercover terrorist most government agencies really don’t care how dedicated you are to accessing Facebook for hours while you’re at the library. They want to use social media habits to provide an early-warning system that can detect threats by monitoring adversarial situations and track down the bad guys by analysing their movements, vulnerabilities, limitations and predict likely developments or future actions taken by these bad actors and ultimately create a database on all this information than can be gathered by social media sites.[1]

I know, I know. All this information, from Facebook?

Well, it’s been noted that Somali pirates have been using Facebook as a means of communication, and groups like Hezbollah use Facebook to track the Israeli and US militaries. Al Shabaab had a Twitter account for a while until their account was pulled for making a 140-character-or-less-threat to kill two Kenyan hostages.

So whether you are a standard civilian, protestor, budding terrorist or all-out insurgent, social media seems to have taken hold, and with that boundaries are whittled away until all our actions are able to monitored and tracked using data-mining.

This innovative technology, using the same tools that fuelled the social movements of the past few years is now being used to drive a system referenced as a “Google for spies”. Freedom of speech is now being used as a tool for monitoring and control. So how far does freedom of information go and how are social media movements affected by Riot?

It would be hard to argue against the usefulness of social media to movement like Occupy or the Arab Spring, but future movements might be manipulated and tracked, through social media, by authoritarian regimes trying to crack down on political protests. Riot software, although using legal means to mine the data, also carries with it the ability to sell to anyone that offers the right price.

In 2011, a good majority of the world applauded the protestor, for standing up to a force that made them feel insignificant and with the power of social media turned them into the most robust movements of our time. The use of Riot by governments and their agencies to combat terrorism can be met with a clap, but with one hand. The ability of Riot to gather a person’s life – their friends or place they have visited – into a tiny little snapshot after just a few clicks of a computer mouse is nothing short of miraculous and frightening.

Where on the one hand we can see the enemy combatant plotting an explosion in a public place over a private message or the protestor filming their sign-holding comrades in the streets of their city, both are tracked and this information can be used against them.

So what does the future hold for social movements and the software that can track and predict them? Well, I’m not entirely sure, but I have a feeling I’ll be seeing opinions on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook soon.

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