Democratised and declassified: the era of social media war is here

Essay by David V. Gioe & Ken Stolworthy: “In October 1962, Adlai Stevenson, US ambassador to the United Nations, grilled Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin about whether the Soviet Union had deployed nuclear-capable missiles to Cuba. While Zorin waffled (and didn’t know in any case), Stevenson went in for the kill: ‘I am prepared to wait for an answer until Hell freezes over… I am also prepared to present the evidence in this room.’ Stevenson then theatrically revealed several poster-sized photographs from a US U-2 spy plane, showing Soviet missile bases in Cuba, directly contradicting Soviet claims to the contrary. It was the first time that (formerly classified) imagery intelligence (IMINT) had been marshalled as evidence to publicly refute another state in high-stakes diplomacy, but it also revealed the capabilities of US intelligence collection to a stunned audience. 

During the Cuban missile crisis — and indeed until the end of the Cold War — such exquisite airborne and satellite collection was exclusively the purview of the US, UK and USSR. The world (and the world of intelligence) has come a long way in the past 60 years. By the time President Putin launched his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine in late February 2022, IMINT and geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) was already highly democratised. Commercial satellite companies, such as Maxar or Google Earth, provide high resolution images free of charge. Thanks to such ubiquitous imagery online, anyone could see – in remarkable clarity – that the Russian military was massing on Ukraine’s border. Geolocation stamped photos and user generated videos uploaded to social media platforms, such as Telegram or TikTok, enabled  further refinement of – and confidence in – the view of Russian military activity. And continued citizen collection showed a change in Russian positions over time without waiting for another satellite to pass over the area. Of course, such a show of force was not guaranteed to presage an invasion, but there was no hiding the composition and scale of the build-up. 

Once the Russians actually invaded, there was another key development – the democratisation of near real-time battlefield awareness. In a digitally connected context, everyone can be a sensor or intelligence collector, wittingly or unwittingly. This dispersed and crowd-sourced collection against the Russian campaign was based on the huge number of people taking pictures of Russian military equipment and formations in Ukraine and posting them online. These average citizens likely had no idea what exactly they were snapping a picture of, but established military experts on the internet do. Sometimes within minutes, internet platforms such as Twitter had threads and threads of what the pictures were, and what they revealed, providing what intelligence professionals call Russian ‘order of battle’…(More)”.