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Crowdsourcing and the Military

The rapid development of technology and social media in recent years has presented both opportunities and challenges for many industries, including the military. Technology provides the opportunity to gather, process and disseminate information rapidly. Development in communication technology enables global collaboration and sharing of information. Additionally, the increase of social media use has connected individuals like never before, giving them the ability to share information instantaneously.  Crowdsourcing is one concept that provides particular opportunities and challenges, especially for military operations. It is essential that military leaders today understand these opportunities and challenges and develop plans, policies, tactics, techniques and procedures to mitigate challenges while exploiting opportunities.

What is crowdsourcing? (image from ideascale.com)

But first, what is crowdsourcing? A quick search will net many definitions for the term, a term first used by Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson from Wired in 2005 to describe the outsourcing of work from professionals to amateurs, or “the crowd,” according to William Safire of the New York Times Magazine. Howe offered a definition a year later in his blog, saying it “represents the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call.” This can involve collaborative work or work by an individual, but “the crucial prerequisite is the use of the open call format and the large network of potential laborers.”

Hana Shepherd provides a great discussion on the uses of crowdsharing in the social research journal Contexts, explaining how it benefits the commercial sector, academia, and journalism. Work can be outsourced at a reduced cost, and crowdsourcing requires no formal relationship between an organization and the people who complete a task. Shepherd gives examples such as t-shirt maker Threadless accepting designs from anyone who wants to submit one, snack company Frito-Lay soliciting Super Bowl commercials from consumers, and Netflix holding an open competition to develop a predictive algorithm. Computer scientists created reCAPTCHA to use a human network to identify distorted words on websites. The non-profit investigative newsroom Pro-Publica uses “citizen journalists” to “collect information, follow news story leads, and develop sources.” Other websites, such as Wikinews, “feature news stories collected and aggregated by users.”

Jeremy Lipschultz sheds light about crowdsourcing in the field of communication, with both its opportunities and challenges. In his Introduction to Social Media Concepts, Lipschultz says “communication within social media sites, such as Twitter, may trigger crowdsourcing, in which audiences piece together bits of information into a larger narrative for storytelling.” This can have positive outcomes, such as when crowdsourcing helped to correct false information after the @AP Twitter account was hacked. The book includes a story from NPR’s Andy Carvin, who used crowdsourcing to obtain and verify information during political revolutions in Libya, Egypt and Syria. Such information can come from tweets, videos posted on YouTube as well as other platforms. However, there is a downside to this “citizen journalism.” Lipschultz also includes a stinging criticism from media critic Michael Wolff, who challenged Carvin over false reports on Twitter following a mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Another story from meteorologist James Spann shows a benefit of crowdsourcing, as well as a darker side. Spann uses social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, and Instagram to warn residents about dangerous weather as well as to obtain reports and even photos from people on the ground. This leads to a 24/7 expectation of information from the public, which can cause fatigue and impact family relationships. Spann is also faced with the challenge of dealing with “bogus” weather reports from people who want to damage the warning process.

Crowdsourcing can help warn others about dangerous weather conditions, but it can be a challenge to verify information. (Image from weather.gov)

 

Crowdsourcing has serious implications for the military as well. Military leaders can use information from crowdsourcing to gain intelligence about enemy positions and activities, as well as the adversary’s political environment. However, the enemy can do the same thing.

Eric Toler from Bellingcat gives a great presentation on how his company collects information and crowdsources the verification of photos and videos. His company has used “CheckDesk, a crowdsourced verification platform, and Silk, a data visualization platform, to collect, verify, and present data regarding Russian and Ukrainian military vehicles involved in the ongoing war.” They’ve done the same “to collect information on airstrikes from U.S.-led coalition forces and the Russian military in Iraq and Syria.

Grasswire published a report describing how it used a video from the Arab24 news agency to identify and track down the location of U.S. military vehicles in northern Syria. It also published satellite imagery of U.S. special forces camps in Syria, with graphics depicting where aircraft were located.

Arab24 tweeted the original video
Imagery of a U.S. special forces camp

Bellingcat published a stunning example of how investigatory crowdsourcing geolocated a mass execution site used by a militia in Libya and let to the International Criminal Court (ICC) issuing the first ever arrest based solely on social media evidence. An investigation team used “wide variety of open source information such as satellite imagery, geotagged photos, conflict context, geolocations from other sources and news articles.” Who knew that the angle of a shadow could be a key piece of evidence in locating an execution site in the desert using crowdsourcing?

Bellingcat: A panorama of the execution site. The panorama is composed out of stills of the Facebook video.
Bellingcat: The location of the execution site as shown on Google Earth. The buildings and the fence shown in the video are highlighted in red rectangles, and the blue lines mark the area that was filmed in the video. Copyright DigitalGlobe ©​ 2017
Bellingcat: Screenshot of SunCalc at the execution location at 17 July 2017, 6:37 am.

These examples demonstrate how crowdsourcing can be used to obtain and verify useful information, but it can also enable the adversary to obtain information about friendly units that could help them predict future operations, identify weaknesses, or develop “actionable” intelligence that could lead to devastating enemy artillery or air strikes.

This Reuters video taken by “amateurs” shows the wreckage of a Russian plane shot down in Syria as well as what appears to be the pilot parachuting toward the ground. This type of video shows how amatuers can provide real-time battle damage assessments, perhaps giving an advantage to one party in a conflict.

So what does the military need to do in order to exploit the opportunities afforded by crowdsourcing while mitigating the risks? The options are probably only limited to the imagination, but I will only focus on three main areas. First, military intelligence planners should incorporate crowdsourcing into their intelligence collection plans. Analysts should continually search the internet for useful information, such as imagery of enemy positions, or trending social media posts, which could be an indicator of a key event or pending action by an enemy or identified individual or group of interest. Intelligence officers should also seek to develop a crowdsourcing network of people and groups who can feed useful information. A major challenge, of course, will be verifying information from the crowd, but it is a potentially very useful source. The crowd can also be used to verify information that intelligence officers have but don’t know if they can trust. Although intelligence officers do currently search the internet for “open source” information, a legal review may be required before creating a crowdsource network, especially if American citizens are involved.

Second, operational security plans and communication plans should be developed that include crowdsourcing considerations. For instance, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps Operations Security policy tells commanders to develop a list of critical information about that command that must be protected from disclosure to the enemy. It also describes steps to evaluate command web sites and imagery to ensure important information is not leaked. However, military units, individual service members, and family members are also all active on social media, and plans need to be developed to ensure sensitive or classified information is not released inadvertently. Given the current capabilities of technology and crowdsourcing, extra scrutiny needs to be given to military imagery before it is released. As seen in the examples above, one photo that is harmless by itself can be matched with other photos or videos to give the enemy useful information. Communication Strategy and Operations Officers (CommStrat) should keep crowdsourcing in mind when distributing any information via traditional, owned, or social media, as well as when conducting community engagements.

Breaking Defense: The Marine Corps experimented with a quadcopter set up to deliver a single canteen as a test of robotic, retail logistics. Using quadcopters instead of Marines for resupply can save lives.

Third, military leaders should turn to the crowd to source innovative solutions. Military leaders are forever complaining about the lengthy and expensive process to research, develop and procure new technology and equipment, and turning to the crowd could speed the process while reducing costs. For instance, U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Robert Neller said recently that one of his top priorities for new technology is a smart way to recharge batteries in order to reduce the weight that Marines have to carry. Marines are already overburdened, and reducing the logistical demand for items like batteries saves lives by reducing convoys. Every convoy exposes Marines to risk of roadside bombs, ambushes, and artillery and airstrikes. A recent Marine Corps experiment used quadcopters to deliver canteens directly to Marines to reduce the need for convoys. Military leaders should turn to the crowd for solutions to such needs. The same can be said for improved software for managing personnel assignments, improving logistics systems, and many other challenges.

Footnotes:

Howe, Jeff. (2006, June 2). Crowdsourcing: A Definition [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://crowdsourcing.typepad.com/cs/2006/06/crowdsourcing_a.html

Lipschultz, J. H. (2015). Social Media Communication: Concepts, Practices, Data, Law and Ethics. New York, NY: Routledge.

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