OSOs, or Open Source Officers, are “the Intelligence Community’s foreign media experts”, according to the CIA.
Isn’t it noteworthy that “open sources” only equal “foreign media” in that job description, even more so since Langley is obviously falling behind in an open source collection effort that deserves the name, as Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein just lately reminded us? Also is it worth mentioning that not systematically monitoring websites like Facebook and Twitter is primarily seen as a lack of collection, not of analysis. But eventually, Feinstein elaborates on analysis, too:
“I don’t believe there was any intelligence on what was happening on Facebook or Twitter or the organizational effort to put these protests together. […] I would call it a big intelligence wake-up. […] I think, you know, open source material has to become much more significant in the analysis of intelligence, particularly in the prediction area.”
One might argue if there’s also a non-prediction area in intelligence, but well, you might remember what I recently wrote about the boundaries of prediction. In this case now, the term “failure” is avoided by applying the euphemism “wake-up”.
So after all, it is certainly reasonable to ask if intelligence should be paying more attention to social media, online communities and the like. Yet, again and again, one should distinguish between cause and effect and be aware of a somewhat delicate delusion (or bias), which Evgeny Morozov calls “internet-centrism“, or the belief that online developments are triggering actual political events, and not just empowering them. With good cause, he warns:
To form sound policy, you need to start with people who actually know something about the history and environment of the region, and then have them try to second-guess what the impact of the Internet would be. You cannot start with Internet gurus, and have them establish a theory about the impact of the Internet on countries as diverse as Azerbaijan and Indonesia. Anyone who tells you that is a charlatan.