CNS Feature Stories

Special articles and reports on timely nonproliferation issues by CNS staff.
Updated: Sep 13, 2013

The CW Revolution will be Tweeted

The world can use social media tools to help prevent the Syrian government from using chemical weapons in the future.

The world learned about the horrific use of chemical weapons (CW) in Damascus not from the CIA or Secretary of State John Kerry, but from YouTube. The massive, rapid upload of video evidence documented thousands of people who appeared in hospitals around Damascus with symptoms of exposure to nerve agents. The videos stood as horrifying evidence that the attack was real. Syrians, armed with YouTube, Twitter and other social media tools, can do more than wait for another chemical weapons attack. They can use these social media tools to help prevent the use of chemical weapons in the future.

96 percent of the Syrian population, caught in the crossfire of Syria's chaotic civil war, have cell phones, and more than half have cell phone service contracts. The average cell phone-armed Syrian can play an important role in the nascent plan to send international inspectors to oversee the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons. While it remains to be seen if Syria and Russia are serious about implementing the CW elimination plan, if it is pursued, social media can play an important supporting role.

Crowdmapping

One of the key challenges in any chemical weapons elimination effort in Syria will be ensuring that international inspectors have access to sites and are not caught up in the fighting. UN inspectors attempting to investigate the August 21st attack turned back after coming under what was reported as sniper fire. People on the ground, however, could create a crowd-sourced incident map using programs like Ushahidi.com, and upload video and activity via Twitter to help inspectors avoid areas with heavy fighting. Moreover, the mistreatment or obstruction of inspectors could instantly be documented and reported. Social media and commercially available satellite imagery could be used to determine, for example, whether delays caused by traffic jams were accidental or intentional. In Iraq, reports of such delaying tactics took days to become known; now they can be reported in real time.

3d Modeling and Geo-spatial Tools

Beyond safety and access, social media could help the inspectors prepare for their work. In the period before inspectors enter Syria, they could familiarize themselves with various sites based on open source information and three-dimensional visualizations. Crowd sourcing photographs of buildings of interest may be extremely useful in determining what kind of inspection team and equipment will be needed to carry out the first phase of any work in Syria. While US intelligence assets will be trained quickly on sites identified by Syria and others, the fact that inspections may be carried out by Russians, other foreign nationals, or UN inspectors means that at first US intelligence information may not be sharable and other public sources, like cell pictures, live updates or factory schematics or diagrams provided by construction firms may be even more usable. People photographing sites may not even know what they are identifying, but US experts can use the trove of photos in conjunction with other data to develop details on CW-related sites.

More than just showing inspection teams where they may need to go, social media may be combined with other technical approaches to prepare inspectors for difficult challenges. Photos of buildings, once identified and combined with satellite photos from sources such as Google Earth, can be used to create three-dimensional models of facilities used to plan inspections. CNS has been producing such videos for over two years, many of which are now available via the Nuclear Threat Initiative website. Even more data, if available from people who live in the local area and other sources, could be used to create external and internal virtual maps that can then be used to train inspectors for their missions, help them identify possible covert storage areas, and assist them in anticipating other evasion tactics. CNS is pursuing an advanced virtual reality verification project to provide tools to would-be inspectors to both train and test inspectors in a safe environment and to prepare them for operating in new, challenging environments. The Assad regime is not fully aware of the impact the wide array of geo-spatial mapping tools may have on the international community's ability to find hidden caches of material. Combined with virtual reality tools, inspectors can do mock inspections and walk-throughs before they land in Syria, and train for many different evasion techniques.

In all of these steps, there will be a tension between transparency and security. None of the measures described would have to specifically identify sites, routes or personnel in real time, and those tasked with collecting and using the data need be the only ones with the specifics of any activities. But having access to the large amounts of data that can be generated spontaneously or on request by average Syrians provides valuable open source data than can be used to further these objectives.

Identifying Conflict Zones

It is not yet known if a CW destruction plan would involve only elimination inside Syria or also possibly shipping materials out of the country by road. In the first instance, planning the location of CW elimination with mobile equipment could be helped by using social media to identify areas of conflict. (The last thing you want is a lot of shooting going on near mobile CW incinerators.) Likewise, in the event that chemical weapons were trucked to Turkey or Jordan for destruction, having real-time information about the presence of fighting near the planned route would be incredibly valuable and help ensure the safety of any shipment. Just as Google Maps can help you plan your commute, a Syrian traffic cam network could help ensure that dangerous weapons are safely removed.

Syrians and Social Media

The big question, of course, is how much cooperation we can expect from Syria. The big surprise may be that, even if the Assad government is less than forthcoming, everyday Syrians may more than compensate. Finally, social media efforts do not have to all be one way. Using social media to help share updates on inspections, update populations as to the pace of elimination, and communicate other data may do a lot to reassure the Syrian civilians that international efforts are working. We have already seen Syrians establish social media networks to warn residents of Aleppo and other cities of Scud launches. Collective action is important to remind Syrians that they are not defenseless and isolated in the face of threats from the Assad government.

It remains to be seen if Syria will give up its chemical weapons. The tools for implementing the ambitious plan, however, should include a mix of traditional and modern tools, including the very ones that brought the news of this horrific attack to the world's attention.


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