I published What 2013 Has In Store 166 days ago and summed up my discoveries in Professionalism & Propaganda a week ago. This 1,800+ word piece with descriptive links to over thirty posts covers everything from my network of now over 3,000 Facebook Anonymous supporters through the CIA’s application of mindfulness to the analysis process, a direction taken in response to network threats.
During that time I completed a social network analysis class offered by Coursera and I curated nineteen related documents in my SNA Class collection. Humans exhibit a variety of interconnected ways of making decisions, information itself has a network of precursors and successors, and the flow of information through human networks can often be modeled as a spreading contagion.
There are a variety of problems that professional analysts face which have been studied in-depth by the Central Intelligence Agency‘s internal think tank, the Center for the Study of Intelligence. A distributed, grassroots network shares some characteristics with a professional cadre of analysts, but organizing, motivating, and assessing their progress is dramatically different from that of a hierarchical organization.
Here is an overview of the universe for the next stage in my inquiries. This Maltego graph displays five major components. The large group with the most diverse colors is representative of my place in the scheme of things – people who engage me in a bi-drectional fashion and organizations to which I subscribe. The cluster of people(lavender) and Twitter accounts(green) at the lower left represents e-International Relations, which is open and academic in nature. The similar looking cluster at the upper right are the Twitter users among the 156 analysts for Wikistrat. A larger graph of their complete network is seen in the next image. The cluster at the lower right is the LinkedIn-centric International Security Observers, an open, web based think tank.
The selected networks here – Wikistrat, e-International Relations, International Security Observers, and my own personal contacts, met several criteria for inclusion.
- They are focused on foreign policy
- They are professional or academic in terms of membership
- They are broad enough to serve as proxies for ALL foreign policy discussion
- Their membership is easily discernible from public information
- They conduct a portion of their proceedings in the open
- There are some members who are LinkedIn contacts for me
- They have in some sense taken up the hive mind concept
These are not the only four that fit this mold, they are just the ones that were within easy reach for me, and each has some aspect that makes them innovative in comparison to the rest of the pack.
Like all groups interested in foreign policy these four have ongoing intelligence needs. I am using the term very specifically – intelligence – everything from raw collection to finished prognostication on countries, groups within them, and transnational actors. As a rule they are going to look at mainstream news and the opinions that follow with a very jaundiced eye. The standards for input in terms of the reputation of sources and the quality of content are very, very high, unless there is a specific discussion occurring regarding mainstream reporting and views. Given any input there will be someone who knows the source’s background, track record, and any specific bias that might be present.
Confusion is the norm to one degree or another for international events. Things are happening far away, reporting is in a language not everyone speaks, information arrives in a fragmented form, updates to situations turn up and there isn’t a good method to go back and correct earlier perceptions. Any actor that becomes visible in international affairs has motives and at least some capability to promote or conceal their doings.
Disinformation is different from confusion and I will only apply this term when I mean “mindful deception aimed at one of the groups I am studying”. Deception on the part of a state or some belligerent group is expected in the flow of incoming intel, so I will use this term to denote someone taking a specific interest in one of these groups and feeding false information to it. The individuals in these groups are very savvy and they cross check each other on complex or uncertain issues. The groups are parallel paths – targeting one would be difficult, getting all of them at once would be functionally impossible in the context of this definition, because it would require fabrication on the ground at the source – which would be a de facto component of confusion, as defined above. They are hardened against such activity, but they are not reactive – it is not in their temperament or capability to go after a counter-intel operation, they would merely note it and set up to filter the effects.
There are three main areas of focus for foreign policy – the Muslim world, the Pacific Rim, and South America. I spent the first three months of this year trying to stay on top of the news flow from the Muslim world, and just reading the good quality reporting is a job all in itself. The other two areas have different issues but a similar number of players and ongoing events. The people involved can benefit from improved information handling but this problem is always going to be a group task, sliced by region and along other natural dividing lines.
Many of the sources for groups like this are paid services, personal relationships, the ability to read a language other than English, and other things that are private. The sources available for monitoring are RSS feeds and daily email from organizations like Foreign Policy Magazine, Twitter timelines, and the flow of discussion in LinkedIn groups.
Tweetdeck provides a Twitter monitor, seen here displaying the groups I have mentioned, including a column for the top foreign policy sources. I have corralled other content into Bottlenose, which is morphing towards taking over the ‘all platforms’ role formerly filled by Tweetdeck. This content is vetted sources, it has some personal chatter from individual accounts, and it is good for situational awareness in the moment.
I have been using Recorded Future and writing about it since around the first of the year. This system samples everything and classifies content via natural language processing. This is an interesting predictive analytic platform but it does not meet the temporal analysis needs of a focused group of analysts. That isn’t a criticism of the product, it’s a recognition that such people are going to be making their own timelines based on their sources and judgment.
If I had to distill what I am trying to get at here in one paragraph, it would be this:
Groups of analysts need a shared context that can store and display information in chronological order, recognizing entities in the field ranging from states to naval vessels to individuals. The system needs to be able to store documents, images, URLs, and other internet accessible content. The system need not perform link analysis, but it must be amenable to doing so with its content using a tool like Maltego or Gephi, and then making the analysis available as an integral part of the overall offering.
Among the systems I have handled, Silobreaker came closest to meeting these requirements, but it was focused on vetted inputs and including ones own documents would have been a significant integration project, requiring on site servers. The team media monitoring component was $300/seat per month.
There won’t be anything free that accomplishes this fairly specialized set of tasks. There are systems out there that perform portions of it already. The question for the next three months is this: What does the object model of such a system look like? Which pieces are available now as existing free software or services? How much effort wil be required to glue it all together? And most important of all, if made available, what sort of uptake can be expected?
The impulse to form hive minds is broadly present as a natural response to a world that is simply too complex for any one individual. Existing systems offer static shared contexts, such as wikis, but not a maleable, task oriented dynamic system. Key individuals are often keepers of the collective memory and they are subject to overload, fatigue, and attacks involving carefully crafted deception. An open system of some sort that begins to achieve any sort of market penetration will significantly redraw the foreign policy discussion space.