Bizarre facettes of war in social media

As a matter of fact, wars happen in social media, too. I don’t mean flame wars. I don’t refer to Arab dictators who, closely following the #ArabTyrantManual, during uprisings shut down Facebook, Twitter, or even the whole friggin Interwebs. I admit, those scumbags are somewhat creative. For example Syria’s junior dictator Bashar al-Assad, wo launched a huge amount of hashtag spambots diluting every piece of information leaking out from cyber activists, while reforming his people with T-72 shellings and mashine gun live rounds. With a little help from a fellow assclown based in Iran, he even managed to jam sat phones, cutting off the opposition’s lifeline to YouTube.

So when even –alleged– ‘third world’ autocrats utilize high sophisticated techniques gaming social media in their war on their own people, we can safely assume that there’s way more interesting stuff to know about the role of social media in today’s wars. You’ve read the headlines announcing cyber squads and such. Of course that info was outdated for decades before it hit the mainstream press. Also, the average (that equals IT-wise clueless) journalist blathers about DoS attacks and such, usually ignoring the more subtle aspects of cyber war. I’m not exactly a fan of rehashed news, so I refuse to discuss the obvious.

Recently, I’ve stumbled upon a pretty sneaky cyber war tactic. Well thought out, although I can’t tell how effective it actually is. The setup is kinda minimalistic: one Facebook account, and a few hundred (Ok, as of today that’s 1.6k) blog comments written by PsyWarriors:

In North Africa, where peaceful Libyans turned freedom fighters are struggling in a bloody conflict with a ruthless regime that performs atrocities on a daily basis, NATO somewhat acts as the ‘Free Libyan Air Force’, officially just enforcing the UNSC resolution #1973. Nothing wrong with that, since –despite some Gaddafi troops defected to the opposition– the so-called ‘rebels’ are civilians defending themselves, their families, neighbors, and even countless foreigners who weren’t able to flee before Gaddafi’s henchmen crawled all over the country in their brutal war on Libya’s population.

Herein lies the problem. We’ve epic amateurs barely able to handle an AK 47 on the ground, and professionals in the air. Both fighting the mad dog’s professional forces without direct lines of communication to each other. The rag-tag freedom fighters lacked structure, command, communication, experience, strategy and everything with regard to warfare. After the initial strikes by American, British and French armed forces, NATO joined the battlefield with a plan. Its step by step execution wasn’t exactly compatible with the high expectations of the then still amateurish freedom fighters, who even suffered from occasional friendly fire after carelessly celebrating with AA tracer fire, and cruising through the desert in seized tanks, towards liberated towns.

Of course the tourists carrying high sophisticated gadgets in their huge olive green bags, brought in via tour operator helicopters from their shiny gray yachts sailing near the Libyan coastlines, sorted out some of those misunderstandings. But since the Libyan freedom fighters totally lacked a chain of command, it didn’t help much that the few savvy leaders who actually talked to these tourists got enlightened, because the rag-tag troops consisting of untrained citizens chaotically advancing and retreating in the desert were out of their reach. Qatari military advisers on the ground, helping Libyan citizens carrying seized weapons get into shape, as well as very few consultants and military advisers from UK, France, and Italy, who arrived later on, had just started to train freedom fighters.

Also, the message had to be carried out to the Libyan people, and to Libyans in the diaspora as well, without revealing too much sensitive info that Gaddafi’s loyalists could find interesting. All that with most of the recepients on the ground cutted off from all their information channels besides Libya State TV and few other satellite channels, because cell phones and ISPs were jammed by the government, land lines were insecure … a dilemma. The Transitional National Council (NTC) in Benghazi was the sole institution that was able to reach out to the people inside Libya.

Al Jazeera’s Libya Live Blog (URI changes often, so please click through from the index page) was heavily trafficked since the uprising began (on 17 February, 2011), attracting gazillions of page views and receiving thousands of comments daily. And here we introduce Gerhard Heinz, perhaps a former NVA pilot or not, who frequently updates the audience with strategical as well as tactical information, written in very plain English with a heavy east-german accent. Like: ‘a good tip for tank comanders in tripoli stay away from your tanks ,conkret in the air’ (refers to smart, that is GPS and laser guided, 660-pound concrete bombs used by coalition fighter jets to destroy tanks in residential areas without much collateral damage).

He delivers spot on reports of NATO sorties as well as clashes on the ground as they happen, alledgedly based on timely sat images, SIGINT, HUMINT and whatnot, long before they appear in the (western) press after NATO announcements. Most of his stuff gets confirmed by other sources later on. He even makes predictions that come true, and not all of those are easily guessable and likely to happen. He explains NATO tactics in layman terms, tells why NATO requested the freedom fighters must not advance towards Brega for weeks (to create a sneaky trap for an elite brigade and lots of reinforcements from Sirte), and so on. When NATO is dead sure that particular pro-gaddafi troops can’t communicate after air strikes on CCC infrastructure, so no warning can reach them in time, Gerhard Heinz addresses those, advising them to defect, or at least to run and hide quickly before ‘fast flying silver birds lose some eggs’ above their positions.

Obviously all that is insider knowledge, scraped from NATO and NTC/FF sources. Since NATO doesn’t act on this ‘leak’ they must be aware of, I’m jumping to the conclusion that Gerhard Heinz is a weapon of mass disinformation, and mass education as well. It’s not him alone, by the way, but he’s the most prominent case (Gerhard Heinz has a large fan club) I’ve spotted until now. He informs and educates Libyans hungry for every tiny bit of reliable info with regard to the conflict, scanning Al Jazeera’s website for updates 24/7, then spreading the word through all channels available, including social media.

I may be wrong in details, because I’m by no means an expert when it comes to all the military stuff. But I know that an organization like NATO has the capability to deal with sensitive information leaking out to the public domain for weeks. If it’s not happening on purpose, they just lost my respect.

I do think that this dude mixes in personal information that might be true, for example his military background. Also, his strong opinions (for example about a weak German government and its cowardly FM who cares more for his personal political affairs than for the Libyan people, and the widespread opposition to the official politics within the German armed forces) are believable. At least it sounds authentic and consistent throughout more than 1,600 blog comments. And that’s doable even by a PsyOps team, considering that Gerhard Heinz posts at times when he should sleep. He openly admits that he’s backed by staff gathering and processing the facts from various sources, but denies all ties to NATO.

So, maybe, I should leave it to that with the words of a blog commenter on Al Jazeera’s website, who said:

@Gerhard Heinz
You have earned a lot of rep. back for Germany, they really owe you some thanks for your work and dedication in this.
It would be interesting to have an article in german newspapers about what you did, when all this is over, and more of it can be told.
For now its kind of a mystery (at least to me), what a german is doing in the middle of all this, and how he can be so well informed. I am very curious to hear how you did it.
Lots of respect from me.

Just make sure, dear reader, that you keep your natural scepticism when you read –regardless where, and that includes the mainstream press as well as social media– about a war. There might be an aganda behind every sentence.



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18 Comments to "Bizarre facettes of war in social media"

  1. LordManley on 13 May, 2011  #link

    And keep that scepticism alive whichever side is tweeting. I know that this is an unpopular stance, but war is not binary or black and white and not everything is as one sided as it is being presented.

    I am not dismissing the cause at all, but I am growing weary of the media representation of this conflict.

  2. Sebastian on 13 May, 2011  #link

    I agree. Sometimes I could run amok when I read bullshit in the press, or elsewhere (including Twitter), especially when I do know my facts. In this case, facts are a rare thing, researching what’s behind the propaganda often is impossible. At least for the mere mortals.

    Anyway, there’s enough info out there to build an opinion on the truth. In most cases that means checking out different sources, and weighing them carefully in their context.

    My intention wasn’t to paint a big picture in this piece. Of course the NATO countries involved have selfish interests to protect, migrants suffered from mislead violence once it became public knowledge that Gaddafi had hired mercs, and so on. On the other hand, I just couldn’t find one single fact that speaks for the Gadaffi regime, just many that speak for the Libyan people. For example their vision of a democratic Libya, confirmed reports of freedom fighters risking their lives to rescue migrants held hostage by government forces, and so on.

  3. Sebastian on 16 May, 2011  #link

    Al Jazeera now hosts Libya Live Blog pages lacking comments. To access the comment section scroll down to the bottom of this page http://blogs.aljazeera.net/live/africa/libya-live-blog-0. Maybe a few of the well informed AJE commenters hang out here.

  4. LordManley on 16 May, 2011  #link

    I think that, for me at least, the most obvious thought is ‘Are a group of men who stormed government armouries and then attacked policemen the best choice for a new leadership’?

    Few good governments have come from coups and revolutionaries.

  5. Sebastian on 16 May, 2011  #link

    Well, yeah, depends. When a ruthless dictator’s henchmen wear police uniforms while firing live rounds at peaceful –unarmed!– demonstrators, that doesn’t make them comparable to policemen who follow, for example, British SOPs. It would be a complete different story if in a free country a group of men would loot government armories to attack policemen. In Banghazi (Feb 17) the former events took place, not the latter.

    Related link: The situation in Libya and the role of the UK by Christopher Prentice, departing UK Special Representative in Benghazi.

  6. Sarah Harris on 20 May, 2011  #link

    This is the frustrating thing about the way information is presented to the masses. Who can ever tell if the information is true or not? How do we know it’s real, or just what those in power want us to hear? It’s become so easy to get misinformation because there are so many different sources online that all seem to negate each other.

  7. Moussa!Koussa! on 20 May, 2011  #link

    Who come here = very vary!
    Sometime come = epistolary!
    Other time come = who you thinking!
    Friend of Moussa! Friend of chicken!

    Even come = no one know who!
    Moussa = trace them to their coop!
    Many time! Come with a muse!
    Help make Moussa! Koussa! News!

  8. Moussa!Koussa! on 31 May, 2011  #link

    (this response = for Sara! Harris!
    who decry news Judgment Paris!
    Moussa = empathize her views!
    Often = make up own News!)

    Moussa long ago amass!
    From digesting news = large ass!
    Now = really a pain!
    To digest news one need brain!
    Media largess = no good!
    Moussa = ate it all he could!
    Now one = require finesse!
    Goddamn freedom of the press!

    Thank you!

  9. Sebastian on 31 May, 2011  #link

    Thank you Moussa for your stanzas! I’ve enjoyed a few more on your Another Statement page. Unfortunately, you won’t get much help in spreading the word from search engines, since you output the content client sided. For example, Google indexed this page’s content as “This web page requires a JavaScript enabled browser”. That means, it won’t be found via keywords matching the stanzas delivered to browsers with JavaScript.

    As for the missing truth in press output, there’s another aspect: lack of time and resources to maximize profit. It’s so much easier to rephrase a Reuters Factbox, throwing in idiotic conclusions breed in a clueless journalist’s lonly brain cell, than spending hours, days or even weeks with research.

    I could vomit all over the Interwebz when I find boilerplates that Reuters doesn’t update for weeks –even when the facts on the ground have developed hugely– in each and every article published on this friggin’ planet.

    Also, there’s massive censoring, see this example: Western media are guilty of massive self-censorship, providing only lopsided coverage about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    Professional journalism is sooo last century. Biased laziness is the new freedom of the press. So citizen reporters fill the gap. It’s just sad that so few folks can find their information.

  10. mcc_FREE_LIBYA on 22 June, 2011  #link

    Hi Sebastian,
    I have a gift 4 u :)
    I started creating maps so that ppl can better understand whats happening at fronts.
    U can find my NAFUSA MOUNTAINS-front-maps @
    http://imageshack.us/g/269/lbmnmf00.jpg/

    00 is the title-page.
    U cann ses on it numbered areas (1-6) which r marked by red lines.
    Just pick the area u want 2 have a more detailed view and just go 2 the page which has the matching number on it.

    Feel free 2 drop feedback in moussa-chat.
    Enjoy!

  11. 45south45 on 26 June, 2011  #link

    Perhaps worth pointing out that many besides Gerhard bring news to the Libyan blog, and it is the accumulation of information that the bloggers use when making their judgments about how to support Libya — which is the aim of the core group of bloggers and most of those who join them in this ‘watch with Libya’. Just be aware, sebastian, that we do wish those such as yourself who quote our friends on the blog on other sites to take the AJE terms and conditions seriously.

  12. 45south45 on 27 June, 2011  #link

    Hi again Sebastian
    So glad to see the reference to mcc’s maps here. They are very helpful for all of us following the action in Libya.

  13. mcc_FREE_LIBYA on 30 June, 2011  #link

    Hi Sebastian,

    I moved with my maps 2 another host.
    Much better navigation now.

    Now u find my maps here:
    http://www.iimmgg.com/gallery/g2e92a1cbfca60c0e50261d43c2df95a0/

    Features on IIMMGG:
    - u can view in full-size
    (just click the pic u want 2 view and click on the new opened down-scaled pic again 2 open the pic in its original-size)
    - u can use shortcuts while viewing the maps
    (”k” = next, “j” = previous, g = view gallery)
    - u can download and save a single map by right-clicking on the map u want and choosing “save as” or by choosing
    “download this picture”
    OR u can download the complete gallery by clicking on “download this gallery as an zip-archive”
    while u r viewing a picture of the gallery.

    hope u like it.

  14. JudgeDread on 14 July, 2011  #link

    Gerhard Heinz is a phoney.
    If you read his dribble going back months, most of predictions have not been correct at all. In fact he’s rarely correct, unfortunately a lot of users have been taken in due to the lack of real times news in circulation or the human desire to hear positive spin.
    Some are just blatent lies, like the US Apaches helicopters and that Nato now have 60 of them, when its known that helicopter force is no more than 30.

    If anything, Gerhard Heinz might be ficitious user and a plant by Nato to spread disinformation.

  15. benina on 29 July, 2011  #link

    thank you Gerhard, thank you Mcc…from FF of Jalu :-)

  16. dan parks on 13 August, 2011  #link

    Gerhard is just a person who spends a lot of time gathering info from blogs and pretending he works for some government agency. many people have given the same info that he has, but he seems to have a cult following that “like” every illegible statment he makes many times over. Gerhard is al Jazeeras vry own Frank Abagnale Jr. blogger.

  17. Paul Duffy on 6 December, 2011  #link

    I read Gerhard Heinz right through the blog. For me he was probably not miltary trained he was too blood thirsty, often got it wrong particularly after the fall of tripoli.

    I do not thing he represented anybody but himself and often used other names to say how great he was. I think it is possible he was a pimply lone teenager or somebody in a mental institution. Whatever his reports could not be relied on. I first became skeptical of his report when he reported ‘helis over …..’ when no helis no yet been deployed. The saddest thing about Gerhard Heinz phenomina was that he had so many people sucked in.

  18. […] mentioned how important Gerhard‘s reports were to us. Zorica told of how she and her husband relied on his assurance of safety when […]

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