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Opinion: Digital Revolutions Gives New Life to Swarm Tactics

r-EGYPT-FACEBOOK-REVOLUTION-large570Swarming is the distinct tactic of striking at a target using dispersed, flexible and seemingly independent units. Swarming units operate in a coordinated manner to attack from several directions simultaneously. The advantage of using swarming tactics is achieved when a network is able to sustain an unceasing surge of force before superior forces can assemble and counterattack. Now the age old tactic of the swarm is making a return.

Swarming is not new. It is an ancient military tactic that enables a weak opponent to mass enough military might at a critical time and location to defeat a more powerful enemy. The Mongols of the 13th and 14th centuries have been hailed as the ultimate masters of swarming. They understood that a decentralized organizational structure gave their local commanders the operational freedom to make effective use of their two greatest assets: their cavalry, and their rapid-fire, long-range bows. Cavalry enabled the Mongols to swarm by force, while the long range of the bows made it possible to launch a swarm of arrows at a specific target.

Swarming also was employed effectively by Mao Zedong, whose guerrilla warfare tactics of “strategic centralization, tactical decentralization” were operationalized during the Chinese Civil War that ran from 1927 to 1949. These tactics enabled small, dispersed Communist units to come together rapidly at a particularly important strategic node to defeat the much larger but overextended Kuomintang forces. More recently – according to the latest propaganda from the North Korean regime – Kim Jong-un plans to use 50,000 of his special forces to infiltrate South Korea in small, dispersed units that will have the ability to assemble rapidly to attack transportation and communication nodes in force, and then to disperse equally rapidly to avoid capture.

Though an ancient tactic, swarming is now being used by various disparate groups with a new twist. New social media (NSM) is playing an increasingly significant role in the organization and mobilization of nefarious groups, some of which will use swarming as a tactic. NSM enables these groups—some highly organized, some not organized at all—to swarm their targets much more quickly and effectively than previously was possible. The combination of swarming tactics and NSM capabilities enables not only politically motivated groups and criminal networks but juveniles attacking convenience stores to mobilize quickly, do what they want to do, and disperse—often with uncontrollable consequences.

When revolutionary winds of change swept the Middle East in early 2011, the vast potential of NSM as a tool to mobilize large numbers of people started to emerge in several Arab countries. Egyptian protesters used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to mobilize and organize their unconventional uprising against Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Egypt’s leaders, who were out of touch with NSM technologies, were caught completely off guard. The Mubarak regime’s response to the protesters’ swarming tactics that were facilitated by NSM was a conventional use of force, with which the regime attempted to create a physical barrier between the Egyptian people and their Internet servers. However, shutting down the Internet only contributed to the regime’s demise, as doing so exposed its impotence much more effectively than the demonstrators could have hoped to do themselves.

At the social end of the conflict spectrum, examples of increasingly networked groups that employ swarming tactics are readily found. In itself, this is not a new phenomenon. However, during the past few years, NSM has enabled people to mobilize around a cause easily, effectively and quickly without any visible chain of command, leadership or overriding coordination. In this new configuration, group members gather, swarm their targets with a flash mob, a demonstration, or an attack, and then swiftly disperse. Thus powerless individuals can become integral components of a highly potent collective swarm that is capable of carrying out actions in ways both unthinkable and impossible before the Internet became a tool you could carry in your pocket, hold in your hand and access on the street.

Although it would be convenient if NSM capabilities were only used by the “good guys,” the empirical reality is not that simple. Ill-intended opportunists have been just as eager as and even more adept at taking advantage of the powers and possibilities of new NSM technologies. Organized street gangs – even kids on a lark – have caused tremendous problems for law enforcement by swarming businesses for loot and plunder. More insidious are the criminal networks – including Mexican drug traffickers – who use NSM not only to organize and attack targets but also to gather intelligence about possible targets to swarm. More alarming is that terrorists also eagerly exploit Facebook and Twitter as a source of information, and to communicate and mobilize people, secure weapons, and raise money for their causes.

Although NSM allow many types of groups to swarm effectively, in themselves they are neutral instruments that ideally should be used only by law-abiding citizens and enforcers, not criminals. The value of NSM technologies depends entirely on the nature of the groups that choose to use them. They are actively endorsed when used by good guys who are striving to bring about positive change but denounced when used by ill-intentioned actors to advance their criminal activities. NSM can and should be powerful tools for the good guys, and a lot of effort must be put into finding ways to prevent ill-intentioned actors from taking advantage of these new technologies. That effort might be more effective if it could identify ways the good guys can use NSM to predict, prevent and preempt new applications of swarming by the bad guys.

There is much to be learned from the way criminal networks exploit NSM, but it is equally important to learn how these tools can be used for intelligence-gathering and to track and monitor ill-intended networks of all sorts. One way to accomplish this might be by deliberately exploiting the concerns of those using NSM who are wary about whom to believe and whom to suspect. Using NSM to sow mistrust among criminal and terrorist networks is one idea. Using “strategic trolling” to counter extremists’ beliefs and arguments in order to dissuade youngsters from joining their causes is another. In sum, it is important that forces for good determine how NSM can be used to combat nefarious groups that use these very same new social media to achieve a swarming advantage. Disabling NSM is not the answer. Using NSM to achieve tactical advantage is.