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Should spies spend more time on Twitter?

Should spies spend more time on Twitter?

After Egypt, authorities look closer at social media; Closer monitoring could detect dissent, track protest; China in particular using sites to shape political debate.

February 8, 2011 3:57 by


Experts describe China’s strategy for influencing social media discourse as “networked authoritarianism”.

“For authoritarian states, monitoring such sites definitely does pay off,” said Nigel Inkster, head of transnational threats and political risk at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“China’s leadership has evolved a sophisticated system of monitoring the traffic on such sites in ways which make the leadership appear responsive to popular preoccupations whilst at the same time subtly nudging the discourse in directions more favourable to the regime.”

Officials in Beijing appear to have been at least somewhat unsettled by events in Egypt, blocking the country’s name from searches on Chinese social media sites.

Inkster, a former deputy chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service MI6, said a focus on social media would likely be less of a priority for Western agencies without a remit to target broad domestic dissent. While an upsurge in messages might point to looming unrest in foreign states, he said that in itself it would never reveal that a country like Egypt was approaching a critical “tipping point”.

There are worries about spies sharing too much. Security experts were left aghast two years ago when it was discovered that the wife of the new MI6 chief had posted pictures of her husband, family, friends and other personal details on Facebook.

But the message from the top may be that they must sign on. Speaking to a British inquiry into the Iraq war last month, top civil servant Gus O’Donnell said he wanted greater focus on “open source” information and social media.

“When you look at what is happening… in Egypt… the use of the Internet, the use of Twitter, the way protest movements developed, this is a different world,” he said.

“We need to be tied in much more to that world… By its nature, the secret agencies tend to want to push the ‘secret stuff’. One of the questions I will be asking is: are we tapping into all the best available information that is out there…?”

(By Peter Apps, Political Risk Correspondent. Additional reporting by William Maclean in London and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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