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The Facebook skillset: Social networks, cultural context and the war in Iraq

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Digital Technology

Slate Magazine and the New America Foundation recently co-sponsored a program titled “Manhunt, From Saddam to Bin Laden,” during which panelists discussed the utilization of social networks in the hunt for Saddam Hussein.

In the early days of the war in Iraq, U.S. forces concentrated their efforts on searching for individuals with close connections to Hussein. Despite quick captures of many of the regime’s “most wanted” members, U.S. forces were no closer to finding the “Butcher of Baghdad.”

Hussein’s eventual capture was because of a departure from traditional military strategy. Instead of continuing to dissect the old regime’s hierarchy and pick off powerful members, U.S. forces under Col. James Hickey used an understanding of Iraqi society and culture to create a Facebook-like web of the deposed dictator’s personal network.

Examining his network with this new lens brought to light key personal and familial connections that were not directly associated with his regime. Ultimately,  these tactics led to the individual who would direct troops to the infamous spider hole in Tikrit, where Hussein was found on Dec. 14, 2003.

One of the distinguished panelists at the Slate event I attended was an Air Force interrogator (speaking under a pseudonym to protect his identity), who said that an understanding of online social networks has transformed the way he sees young interrogators operating in the field. He discussed the notion that having home-grown exposure to social networks, specifically Facebook, has provided U.S. soldiers with an intuitive skill set that has taught them both a new way to look at the enemy and analyze and extract the necessary information and intelligence from the populous in order to advance investigations and operations. He noted that today’s soldiers:

  • Are open-minded about culture.
  • Have a thirst for knowledge and the ability to be empathetic.
  • Understand networks and use cultural knowledge to build relationships.

Understanding Iraqi culture was a key component in the dissection of Hussein’s personal network. Having a basic understanding of social life in Tikrit helped interrogators and other military personnel search for the right people and ask the right questions to reach their goal. As the panel’s interrogator pointed out, “Knowing that sometimes you have to work down to work up, and that innocent people may not have the information you need, but might know the right questions to ask,” U.S. forces were able to utilize the Facebook-style web to pinpoint the individuals most likely to know the whereabouts of Hussein.

Social networks have transformed the way that many of us are doing business. As a marketer, do you find that you use your knowledge of cultural landscapes and social networks to help reach the appropriate influencers? Do you think that the everyday use of social networks has made you better able to understand social dynamics across cultures you are marketing to?

Image credit, Kheng Guan Toh, via Shutterstock