LONDON — NATO intelligence analysts are turning to Twitter, YouTube and other social media channels to help determine potential targets for Libyan airstrikes — and to assess their success.
Officials in NATO member states stress that “open source” intelligence picked up online is being used alongside a wide swath of information channels, ranging from unmanned aerial drones to television news channels.
But just as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have been credited with playing an important supporting role in coordinating protest movements in Egypt and Tunisia, NATO is now listening in on tweets and video uploads as part of its intelligence “fusion center.”
RAF Wing Cmdr. Mike Bracken, the Libyan operation’s military spokesman, said this week that Twitter was one of the “open sources” used to form a picture of the situation there. “We will take information from every source we can,” he said.
NATO needs to make use of information gleaned from Twitter because it has too few special forces on the ground to map how precision-guided weapons should be used. A lack of such eyes in the field makes it hard to judge how potential Libyan government targets are moving and to confirm damage caused after a target has been hit from the air.
But although social media have enabled people in Libya to post instant updates to the Web, their reliability is open to question.
On Tuesday, a Twitter user posted coordinates for what she claimed were forces loyal to Moammar Gaddafi forces in Misurata, directing the message to @NATO, the alliance’s official Twitter presence, and hash-tagging the tweet #libya. It is not clear from this Twitter profile where the user lives or how she obtained the information.
For armchair enthusiasts of the Libyan campaign as far away as Arizona and Ontario, Twitter provides a way they can feel they are contributing to the intelligence effort, even if they are only passing on tweets by others purporting to be in the combat zone.
“If tweeting location of pro-G forces, state exact latitude & longitude. Don’t assume transliterated arabic place names are sufficient,” tweeted HMS_Nonsuch, an “unofficial” Twitter user offering “updates about Libya from a UK perspective.”
HMS_Nonsuch said that such advice was “just common sense” and that he was responding to NATO’s “encouraging,” after reading reports of remarks by Bracken, the RAF wing commander.
“I had long guessed they were reading Twitter, but not for me to speculate,” the Twitter user added.
Other supporters of the campaign have used Twitter to share the cellphone numbers of Libya’s foreign ambassadors, encouraging followers to make nuisance calls, and posted the locations of targets attacked by the allies.
“This is what NATO helped us get rid of. Loads of rockets and Ammo Thanks @NATO,” wrote Twitter user 2011feb17, whose profile says they are a “Tripoli based freedom seeker,” gathering information from friends and family nearby.
But even in the fast-moving environment of Twitter, intelligence analysts and armchair generals alike must beware that information can get old quickly. Replying to followers who “retweeted” tactical information, user Libyanandproud said: “NEGATIVE NEGATIVE, Coordinates changed!! FLUID!”
Other Twitter users have admitted that their updates could also risk inadvertently spreading pro-Gaddafi “disinformation.” This week, the British Defense Ministry warned service members to “think before you tweet,” so as not to “give the UK’s enemies the upper hand” through casual tweets and Facebook updates.
Nonetheless, Blue_Roller, a European who grew up in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, but has since left, remains confident that observers can play a useful role gathering intelligence for NATO on Twitter: “Nobody can be everywhere. If this helps ground to air communication, why not?”