NATO’s Newest Bombing Tool: Twitter

Photo: Flickr/AlJazeeraEnglish

In the early days of the Libya war, U.S. commanders were adamant that they didn’t communicate with the Libyan rebels about what targets to bomb. As it turns out, they don’t need to. They’ve got Twitter.
NATO officials conducting air strikes on forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi don’t have soldiers on the ground to spot for the warplanes and armed drones overhead. (Well, at least not officially.) But they do have a barrage of tweets about Gadhafi’s troop movements in beleaguered cities like Benghazi and Tripoli, all of which come in handy when picking out targets.
“We get information from open sources on the Internet, we get Twitter,” British Wing Commander Mike Bracken told AFP. Another NATO official attested, “Twitter is a great source.”
None of which is to say that an errant tweet is enough to launch a Hellfire missile. NATO flies AWACS surveillance planes over Libya, as well as other spy aircraft and satellites, to aid with targeting. NATO officials assure that they don’t just set targeting coordinates based on what someone says over Twitter — just that Twitter has value as a source of tactical intelligence.
Not hard to see why. Libyan Twitterati send off tweets about Gadhafi’s latest depravities at a frenetic pace. Tweets containing links to uploaded video, like this one — which, fair warning, is graphic — clearly show the roads that Gadhafi’s troops use to travel.
The unavoidable time delay between filming, uploading, tweeting, receiving, confirming and then acting on the information shows that Twitter can’t be an actual targeting mechanism, even if we assume that tweets about troop movements are 100 percent accurate. But as real-time mass communications go, this is pretty close. How long before Gadhafi’s forces take to Twitter to start giving out tactical misinformation?

By Spencer Ackerman

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