Social Media Is Revolutionizing Warfare

Former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn was one of the first to exploit the new battlefield that would ultimately help bring him down.

Bullets form the shape of the hashtag symbol.
Militarist / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

“The exponential explosion of publicly available information is changing the global intelligence system ... It’s changing how we tool, how we organize, how we institutionalize—everything we do.” This is what a former high-level intelligence official told us back in the summer of 2016, explaining how the people who collect secrets—professional spies—were adjusting to a world increasingly without secrets.

We were asking him about one of the most important changes in technology and politics today: the rising power of social media. Whether it’s conflicts in the Middle East or political fights over the Supreme Court or the upcoming midterms in the U.S., social networks originally created for fun have instead become crucial battlegrounds. And this source, who had run the Defense Intelligence Agency, had been one of the most respected leaders of America’s recent wars, and had used these same online social spaces to run down terrorists and insurgents.

We didn’t know then that Lieutenant General Michael Flynn would soon also demonstrate yet another side of the social-media battleground—the spread of disinformation—and along the way become one of the most crucial players in a scandal that has divided America.

Open Source Intelligence (known as OSINT) has a long history, being first separated from the classic spy craft of coaxing and interrogation (known as human intelligence, or HUMINT) and the intercept of confidential communications (signals intelligence, or SIGINT) during World War II. The breakthrough came when Allied analysts with the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of today’s CIA) discovered that they could figure out the number of Nazi casualties by reading the obituary sections of German newspapers that were available in neutral Switzerland. By war’s end, these analysts were cataloging roughly 45,000 pages of periodicals each week and transcribing more than 500,000 words of radio broadcasts each day.

In the ensuing Cold War, U.S. intelligence agencies collected OSINT on an even more massive scale, monitoring more than 3,500 publications in 55 languages and nearly 1,000 hours of television each week. But intelligence chiefs traditionally put little faith in what this mass of free data yielded. If it could be acquired so easily, how could it be valuable? And if the Soviet Union was sharing it willingly, wasn’t it bound to be a lie?

The end of the Cold War and the rise of the internet seemed to settle these questions. By the early 2000s, many of the key OSINT programs were shut down; information was simply spreading too quickly online to keep up. Policy makers also began to believe there was no reason to work so hard. For years, intelligence analysts had labored to maintain a sprawling, updated encyclopedia on the regions of the Soviet Union. Now there was Wikipedia.

However, a few forward-thinking intelligence officers took a cognitive leap in the other direction. What if OSINT wasn’t losing its value, they asked, but was instead becoming the new coin of the realm?

The question was painful because the answer could require setting aside decades of training and established thinking. It meant envisioning a future in which the most valued secrets wouldn’t come from cracking intricate codes or the whispers of human spies behind enemy lines—the sort of information that only the government could gather. Instead, they would be mined from a vast web of open-source data, to which everyone had access. If this was true, it meant changing nearly every aspect of an intelligence agency, from shifting budget priorities and programs to altering the very way its spies looked at the world. But when we interviewed him, Flynn felt it was a crucial change that had to be made.

“Publicly available information is now probably the greatest means of intelligence that we could bring to bear,” he told us. Over the course of his career, he had come to a stark realization about the new nature of power. “Whether you’re a CEO, a commander in chief, or a military commander, if you don’t have a social-media component ... you’re going to fail.”

Flynn had joined the U.S. military in 1981, at the height of the Cold War. He built his career in army intelligence, rising through the ranks in a force focused on the Soviet military machine. After 9/11, it all changed. He was made director of intelligence for the task force that deployed to Afghanistan to face a new kind of foe for which the military was ill-prepared. As the fighting against a distributed network of insurgents continued there and then expanded to Iraq, Flynn assumed the same role for the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)—the secretive organization for elite units like the Navy SEAL team that would ultimately kill Bin Laden (and, then proving the new power of OSINT, would have its own operations outed by a Pakistani café owner up late at night on Twitter). It was in this position, faced with the difficult task of tracking down the terror cells of al-Qaeda in Iraq, that Flynn realized his operatives had to look elsewhere, out in the open, for clues to where the enemy was hiding. And they had to do it faster than ever before.

As Flynn explained to The New Yorker’s Nicholas Schmidle, U.S. special-operations forces were commandos without equal, “the best spear fishermen in the world.” But in order to beat an adversary that recruited so rapidly and blended so easily with the civilian population, he told Schmidle, the commandos would have to become “net fishermen.” They would eschew individual nodes and focus instead on taking down the entire network. As Flynn’s methods evolved, JSOC got better and better, capturing or killing dozens of terrorists in a single operation, gathering up the intelligence, and then blasting off to hit another target before the night was done. Eventually, the shattered remnants of al-Qaeda would flee Iraq for Syria, where they would later reorganize themselves into the core of ISIS.

Flynn’s career took off. He was promoted to three-star general and, in 2012, appointed to lead the DIA, the agency charged with centralizing intelligence across the entire U.S. military. Although he had no experience commanding an organization so large (some 17,000 employees in all), Flynn was eager: He envisioned not just reform of the DIA, but a wider reorganization of how the entire intelligence system worked in the 21st century. Before the rise of social media, he explained, 90 percent of useful intelligence had come from secret sources. Now he saw it as the exact opposite, with 90 percent of the potential useful information coming from open sources that anyone, anywhere could tap.

The reason wasn’t just that the internet had grown; it had also started to change in another, more fundamental way. The literally billions of new users coming online were using computers far different than the ones first networked together in ARPANET, the Defense Department’s early version of the internet. They carried “sensors,” devices for gathering information about the world beyond the computer. Some sensors are self-evident, like the camera of a smartphone. Others lurk in the background, like the magnetometer and GPS that provide information about direction and location. These billions of internet-enabled devices, each carrying multiple sensors, are on pace to create a world of almost a trillion sensors. The current head of the U.S. Army, General Mark Milley, summed up the impact to us this way: “For the first time in human history, it is near impossible to be unobserved.”

Through the related spectacular growth of social media, each of those sensors in someone’s hand can, in addition to collecting information, also broadcast it to the world. Such information might be an image or message sent deliberately, or it might be something in the visual or technical background. For instance, the location of the same secret “black site” bases that JSOC and the intelligence community had operated out of in the Middle East would later be revealed by commandos’ use of exercise apps. As they ran their morning laps around a base’s fence, the apps provided a near perfect outline of its location to the world.

Seeing the new value of OSINT, Flynn sought to steer the agency in a new direction, boosting collection capabilities and prioritizing the hiring of computational analysts, who could put the data gushing from the digital fire hose to good use. He expected an uphill battle. OSINT, he explained to us, had only recently stopped being the “unwanted pregnancy” of military intelligence. Now, at best, it was a “redheaded stepchild.”

He didn’t realize that his aggressive moves would prove too much for the DIA’s bureaucracy—not least because it threatened their own jobs. The agency was soon mired in “chaos” and Flynn’s leadership was questioned. Just a year and a half after his term began, he was forced into retirement, leaving the army after 33 years of service.

If that were the whole story, Flynn’s legacy might be one of a forward-thinking prophet of the social-media revolution who paid the price for seeking change. But his tale didn’t end there.

Flynn didn’t take his dismissal well. He channeled his energy into media appearances and speaking engagements, as well as building a consulting business. He first marketed himself as the general who had seen the future. But he quickly became better known as a critic of the Obama administration that had fired him, angrily denouncing it for betraying him and the nation. This brought celebrity and money well beyond what Flynn had made in military service.

But it also brought new entanglements. His firm signed a $530,000 deal with a company linked to the Turkish government, which became doubly questionable when Flynn failed to register as a foreign lobbying agent. He accepted $45,000 to speak at a glitzy gala in Moscow, celebrating the anniversary of the creation of RT, the Russian government’s propaganda outlet. Photos of the ex-general sitting next to Vladimir Putin at the dinner shocked many in the U.S. security establishment.

Most important, Flynn’s rising celebrity came to the attention of Donald Trump, who had just announced his run for office. As the ultimate outsider, Trump was having a difficult time staffing up his campaign with known advisers and surrogates to echo his message. The two men’s initial meeting was supposed to last 30 minutes. When it ended 90 minutes later, according to his interview with The New Yorker, the former intelligence officer walked away with new insight into the future. “I knew he was going to be president of the United States.”

Now the angry general became Trump’s fiercest campaign surrogate, bestowing the candidate with needed national-security credibility. He used his old army rank as a weapon, relentlessly attacking Trump’s rivals. In doing so, however, Flynn began to dive deeply into the online world that he’d previously just observed. The result wasn’t pretty.

Flynn had started his personal Twitter account, @GenFlynn, in 2011 with a tweet linking to a news article on Middle East politics. Not a single person had replied or retweeted it. But as he entered politics, Flynn’s persona changed dramatically. His feed began to push out messages of hate (“Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL,” he fumed in one widely shared tweet), anti-Semitism (“Not anymore, Jews. Not anymore,” he retweeted to his followers in another, referring to the news media), and one wild conspiracy theory after another. He alleged, in a later-deleted tweet, that Hillary Clinton was involved with “Sex Crimes w Children,” and that if she won the election, she would help erect a one-world government to outlaw Christianity. To wild acclaim from his new Twitter fans, Flynn even posted on #spiritcooking, an online conspiracy theory that claimed Washington, D.C., elites regularly gathered at secret dinners to drink human blood and semen. That message got @GenFlynn more than 4,800 likes.

On multiple occasions, he also echoed messages posted by accounts that would later turn out to be run by Russian trolls.  “Let’s take our country back from the hands of those who care less about you and I …” Flynn wrote, then quoting an account later revealed by the House Intelligence Committee to have been Russian-generated, posing as “Pamela_Moore13,” a “Pro-God” Texan, prone to racist rants.

It was a remarkable turn for the once respected intelligence officer. Just a few months earlier, he had cautioned us about the internet, “Now it’s a matter of making sure that the accuracy matters ... You combine your judgment, your experience, your analysis along with the valuable data you get.”

Despite the online madness that violated his own advice (or perhaps because of it), things seemed to work out well for the general. When Trump won the election, Flynn was named to the position of national-security adviser, one of the most powerful jobs in the world. His first tweet in the new role proclaimed, “We are going to win and win and win at everything we do.”

The winning didn’t last long. Within a few weeks of joining the White House, Flynn would be fired, done in by a web of mistruths regarding his contact with Russian government officials that has become a key part of Robert Mueller’s investigation of the president. He was the shortest-serving national security adviser in American history. Within the year, Flynn would plead guilty to making “false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements” in a plea bargain with the Department of Justice. A few weeks from now, a U.S. district court will decide his punishment for the crime.

As it all played out, we were reminded of one more piece of wisdom Flynn had imparted to us before his downfall. He’d spoken of the importance of piercing through the “fog” of the modern information environment; of getting to the “golden nuggets” of actionable intelligence that lurked in the mists. The right bit of data was already out there, he explained. You just had to know where to look.

The general was right. The internet has indeed exposed the golden nuggets—the truth—for anyone to find. But, as his story also shows, scattered among these bits of truth is “fool’s gold” cleverly engineered to distract or even destroy us. It is harder than ever to keep a secret. It is also harder than ever to separate the truth from lies. But it is becoming easier to turn those lies into weapons.

This article has been excerpted from P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking’s new book, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media.