Social media is increasingly used to communicate strategic information during crises and to enable authorities to act tactfully. Numerous journalistic accounts have highlighted the prolific and disturbing use of social media by deviant groups among state and non-state actors to influence public opinion and provoke hysteria among citizens through disseminating misinformation or propaganda about various influential events such as the 2014 Crimean Water Crisis or the 2015 Dragoon Ride Exercise. We study the strategic communication used by deviant groups within the social media ecosystem, especially examining the cross-influence between blogs and Twitter. We have collected and analysed data from blogs and Twitter during the two aforementioned events. Our study shows that networked computers running automated and coordinated programs to perform specific tasks, or ‘botnets’ have been extensively used during the two events, greatly increasing the dissemination of propaganda. Furthermore, the behaviours of these botnets are becoming increasingly sophisticated over time, both from the perspective of information dissemination as well as coordination. The evolving behaviours of botnets make them elusive, even to state-of-the-art detection techniques, warranting more sophisticated botnet detection methodologies. In this study, we present methodologies informed by social science and computational network analysis to study the information dissemination and coordination behaviours of botnets and to aid the development of detection tools ready for deployment in cyber operations. 

Keywords: information warfare, cyber operations, social media, Twitter, blogs, strategic communications, botnets, propaganda, disinformation campaigns, social network analysis, focal structures. 

About the authors 

Samer Al-khateeb is a PhD student at the University of Arkansas. He majors in Computer and Information Sciences with research interest in deviant behavioural modeling, deviant cyber flash mobs, cyber propaganda campaigns, and social cyber forensics. 

Nitin Agarwal is the Jerry L. Maulden-Entergy Endowed Chair and Distinguished Professor of Information Science at University of Arkansas and Director of the Center of Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies. He researches social computing, deviant behavior modeling, group dynamics, social-cyber forensics, data mining, and privacy. 

Major Rick Galeano is a US Army officer who has served at NATO’s Joint Force Command Brunssum. He lectures at NATO School Oberammergau, the Royal Danish Defence College and the Baltic Defence College. 

Dr Rebecca Goolsby developed and heads a NATO Research Technology Group on Information Technologies and Crisis Response, currently focused on projects in Europe. Her research portfolio focuses on information technology and its social and cultural implications for peacebuilding, disaster response, and civil society. 


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