Democratised and declassified: the era of social media war is here

The implications of democratised intelligence analysis, as seen in Ukraine, will shape future conflicts.

A woman seen taking a TikTok video in front of a destroyed Russian tank in Kyiv.
A woman seen taking a TikTok video in front of a destroyed Russian tank in Kyiv. Credit: Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

In October 1962, Adlai Stevenson, US ambassador to the United Nations, grilled Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin about whether the Soviet Union had deployed nuclear-capable missiles to Cuba. While Zorin waffled (and didn’t know in any case), Stevenson went in for the kill: ‘I am prepared to wait for an answer until Hell freezes over… I am also prepared to present the evidence in this room.’ Stevenson then theatrically revealed several poster-sized photographs from a US U-2 spy plane, showing Soviet missile bases in Cuba, directly contradicting Soviet claims to the contrary. It was the first time that (formerly classified) imagery intelligence (IMINT) had been marshalled as evidence to publicly refute another state in high-stakes diplomacy, but it also revealed the capabilities of US intelligence collection to a stunned audience.

During the Cuban missile crisis — and indeed until the end of the Cold War — such exquisite airborne and satellite collection was exclusively the purview of the US, UK and USSR. The world (and the world of intelligence) has come a long way in the past 60 years. By the time President Putin launched his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine in late February 2022, IMINT and geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) was already highly democratised. Commercial satellite companies, such as Maxar or Google Earth, provide high resolution images free of charge. Thanks to such ubiquitous imagery online, anyone could see – in remarkable clarity – that the Russian military was massing on Ukraine’s border. Geolocation stamped photos and user generated videos uploaded to social media platforms, such as Telegram or TikTok, enabled  further refinement of – and confidence in – the view of Russian military activity. And continued citizen collection showed a change in Russian positions over time without waiting for another satellite to pass over the area. Of course, such a show of force was not guaranteed to presage an invasion, but there was no hiding the composition and scale of the build-up.

Once the Russians actually invaded, there was another key development – the democratisation of near real-time battlefield awareness. In a digitally connected context, everyone can be a sensor or intelligence collector, wittingly or unwittingly. This dispersed and crowd-sourced collection against the Russian campaign was based on the huge number of people taking pictures of Russian military equipment and formations in Ukraine and posting them online. These average citizens likely had no idea what exactly they were snapping a picture of, but established military experts on the internet do. Sometimes within minutes, internet platforms such as Twitter had threads and threads of what the pictures were, and what they revealed, providing what intelligence professionals call Russian ‘order of battle’.

To give an example of how this has been playing, according to one media account:  ‘In one video posted to TikTok on February 5, a man walking his dog in a Russian town a few hours’ drive from the Ukrainian border captured missiles passing by on a snowy street.’ A Russian military analyst at the Rand Corporation provided confirmation that it was the Iskander ballistic missile. Since then, the Iskander has been used repeatedly in the war, for instance, targeting a railway station and killing dozens of people on Ukraine’s independence day.

Such a web of seemingly infinite data and metadata can be proffered both intentionally and unintentionally and then operationalised by the military, which is both mining for such digital treasures and which stands ready to respond. For instance, the internet posts of Russian holidaymakers in Crimea and careless journalists have been exploited by Ukrainian forces. In one post, a Russian man posed for a vacation photograph in front of a Russian S-400 air defence system on a beach in Crimea, revealing its location for Ukrainian forces (who mocked him for the mistake). In another instance, a careless Russian war propagandist posted a picture of himself at the Wagner Group headquarters in Popasna, Ukraine, and accidentally revealed a street sign, reportedly leading to a devastating artillery strike on Putin’s mercenaries.

Far beyond mere advances in the availability and quality of imagery, ubiquitous available data (and curated datasets) now includes such other intelligence collection disciplines as commercial radar coverage, which provides a view at night and through clouds. Meanwhile, NASA’s FIRMS satellite data, designed to track wildfires, is being used to identify firefights from space. There is even democratised signals intelligence, in which citizens can tune into unencrypted Russian military communications and then create Twitter threads with translation and analysis, revealing much about Russian losses and soldier morale.

Open source researchers and digital activists are also identifying and debunking false claims and exposing disinformation and documenting human rights abuses. These contributions to a robust and multi-dimensional understanding of the Ukraine war bring distant observers meaningfully nearer to the conflict, and enhance the credibility of official investigations when the findings track closely with one another. There is a spectrum here and not all publicly available information is free. Private companies, such as Bellingcat, purchase grey data and use it in their analysis, which is freely available and joins many other open source investigative offerings.

Collection, of course, is only a part of the intelligence business. Analysis – interpreting meaning from collected information – has also become increasingly democratised, and non-governmental experts online have provided astoundingly useful insights into the successes and failures of various phases of the Russian campaign. The average person almost anywhere in the world now has available to them a bird’s eye view, a human point of view of the battlespace, and analytical assessments that previous military commanders would have coveted. Indeed, it is likely that academic and think tank assessments of how the war is unfolding are not that different than the briefings for western generals and policymakers.

Crowd-sourced data, aided by commercially available mapping tools (and algorithms), challenges the very notion that only secret intelligence can narrow the cone of uncertainty for intelligence consumers. Formerly the purview of secret government agencies, private sleuths interpret data and make analytical models to show, for instance, where artillery is being fired from with precise locations. Dutch open source intelligence outfit Oryx has meticulously documented Russian order of battle losses in Ukraine based on imagery analysis and social media reporting.

Experts are joining across the internet using (mostly free) data and tools to generate a perspective that once would have taken a government agency millions of dollars and many personnel. Even beyond battlefield awareness in Ukraine, citizen activists have been tracking the whereabouts of Russian oligarchs‘ jets and yachts, creating a mosaic that includes elite Russian activity far beyond the war.

These few examples illustrate the power of joining information generated from a non-expert human sensor on the ground with a military analyst thousands of miles away, connected by online discussion forums that wouldn’t seem out of place in a military intelligence agency. Meanwhile, governments are pushing their own analytical lines into the public square via the internet. The UK’s Ministry of Defence and the Ukrainian MoD routinely tweet analytical updates. Democratised intelligence is not just happening in parallel with professional intelligence agencies, they are interacting with each other too. Private analysts are using the government information and either confirming or refuting the analysis, while government analysts are finding increasing utility in what is available from outside their secure confines.

Peering ahead, in future wars, combatants should expect to be confronted with this changing nature of secrecy hindering operational security and making surprise much more difficult to achieve. State efforts to spin or control the narrative will also be challenged, likely forcing combatants to react to reliable and convincing evidence-based analysis from individual analysts. To illustrate just how quickly this topic is developing, consider that in his 2014 invasion of Crimea, Putin was able to control much of the narrative and create confusion until the annexation was accomplished as fait accompli, but in 2022 he was unable to spin the false narratives that he was relying upon to justify his invasion. While Anglo-American intelligence agencies declassified troves of intelligence to ‘pre-bunk’ Putin’s ploys, private organisations such as Bellingcat were also on the scent. In the same way that Ambassador Stevenson was able to confront Ambassador Zorin during the Cuban missile crisis with irrefutable evidence, individuals harnessing publicly available data are able to undermine Russian narratives with convincing interpretations of available crowd-sourced intelligence. Like Wikipedia, much of the work is self-policed.  Even when the non-governmental experts disagree, their critiques of each other’s work sharpen the analytical picture for everyone.

The future implications of democratised intelligence collection and analysis will shape the conduct of war, since the mountains of data, and ways to collect it, will only continue to grow. Western intelligence communities will need to reckon with this new phenomenon as they will be unable to put this genie back in the bottle. Intelligence communities will likely face pressure from their political leaders and publics to keep up with what the outside experts are saying, in terms of increasingly transparent public engagement (and also feel pressured to show that they are, in fact, keeping up as a point of professional pride). Nevertheless, intelligence communities may again feel the longstanding tension between doing strategic intelligence and also trying to be speedy and agile to craft tactical assessments as quickly as external observers have demonstrated that they can do well. Finally, readily available and highly reliable information has enabled intelligence agencies to be less secretive by pointing, in public, to outside assessments that track with their own internal assessments. In a sense, this enables the public a peek behind the classified curtain, and it is enabled by democratised intelligence. As Philip H.J. Davies observed, there is a convergence between open-source intelligence and open government. These synergies seem to auger well for public understanding of the vital role of secret intelligence in democratic societies.

The first Gulf war was often called the first TV war, in which television cameras brought the war into people’s living rooms. The Russian invasion of Ukraine may be the first ‘social media war’, and the reverberations will be echoed in future conflicts. This democratisation of intelligence, which produces an unprecedented level of battlefield transparency to the public, will change how wars are conducted, how they are reported, how they are monitored and assessed, how war crimes are documented, and also perhaps who counts as a participant in the conflict itself. In sum, these developments represent nothing less than a technologically enabled step change in intelligence in warfare, and may herald the new face of war itself.


David V. Gioe & Ken Stolworthy