A Thoughtful, Analytical Approach to NGO Security

Twitter in Tehran

I'm in ur ballot box, rigging ur results

For more of Rob Cottingham’s wry Canadian humour check out Noise to Signal. Be sure to check out his blog at Social Signal as well.

Twitter and disinformation in Iran

Over the past week there has been a lot of media coverage of the relationship between Twitter, the hybrid online/mobile communication service, and its impact on post election events in Iran. The argument that Twitter service in Iran is a critical opposition activist tool is already over-hyped so I won’t rehash them here. Rather, I think its worth shedding some light on how Twitter is being used to spread disinformation and who is doing it.

Twitspam has a continually updated list of suspected fake accounts that may have connections with Iranian security. I used some of these account names as a starting point for a quick and dirty analysis of their networks.

Suspected AlJazeera English producer impersonator “AJE_Producer” appears to be trying to lure Twitter users in Iran into communicating with him directly through email or telephone with the intent of entrapping them. The diagram below illustrates how easily the suspected impostor was able to disseminate his requests for contacts. It shows only recent ‘active’ direct connections between AJE_Producer and twenty Twitter users and the recent active connections between those twenty users and their contacts. It does not show retweets nor does it reflect how many people may have simply read a message from AJE_Producer.

AJE Producer Twitter connections
AJE_Producer network

Although some of the connections are from people trying to challenge AJE_Producer’s methods there were a surprising number of people who took AJE_Producer at face value including some who actually appeared to be residing in Iran. Given the current level of violence in Iran this is alarming to say the least.

Expanding the network of connections one iteration further gives a somewhat rosier picture. The chart below shows AJE_Producer’s (center of chart) deception being overshadowed by a number of well connected Twitter users (top of chart) who appear to be trying to out AJE_Producer and other fake Iran election Tweeters.

AJE Producer tertiary connections
AJE_Producer extended network

Analysing the Twitter networks of other disinformation purveyors from Twitspam’s list highlights some developing tactics. Iransource and iransource45 are likely the same person. The content of the tweet streams is remarkably similar and composed mostly of overt propoganda. These two entities dominate the chart below because they send tweets directly to other Twitter users and reply to queries. Their relatively innocuous names may be an attempt to reassure potential followers. It is interesting to see the cluster of five anti-spammers trying to counter them.

Centrality view of Iranian Twitter disinformation network
Iranian Twitter disinformation network overview

If we take a closer look at the network on the bottom left we can see a different tactic developing. Ebrahim Ansari (AKA Persian_Guy) uses fake retweets to spread disinformation and confusion. Essentially he is putting his words in the mouths of other users, both real and imagined. The AhmediNej accounts are primarily used to retweet Ebrahim’s content, probably in an attempt to bypass users trying to block obvious proganda. They don’t have a lot of active connections, likely because the account names themselves are so obviously inflammatory.

Twitter disinformation closeup view
Close-up view showing AhmedNej and Ebrahim Ansari networks

For the moment it appears that activists in Iran have the edge when it comes to making use of Twitter to get their message out . However the propagandists are trying to close the gap. They hope to trap gullible users, spread disinformation, and create distrust.

If you want to counter them I suggest you go to Twitspam and block the those on the “
Obvious Disinfo” list. Certainly you should not retweet anything from these people.

Links for 1/26/2009

Twitter updates from Madagascar - Unconfirmed reports that the president has fled the country, radio and TV stations going off air, and a five star hotel burning. @MadagascarTweet is attempting to amalgamate reports.

Twitter As A Business Continuity Tool? - After reading Twitter is a Continuity of Operations Tool, State Agency Discovers Dave Fleet outlines some of the potential pitfalls of relying on Twitter as a continuity tool.

‘Solar Powered Medical Clinic Will Save Lives in War Torn Iraq’ - Aid Worker Daily wonders why NGOs are not quicker to be involved in alternative energy in the field. It is something I’ve always wondered as well. Alternative energy even has security advantages for NGOs. There is no need to expose drivers to increased risk bringing large amounts of fuel into crisis zones. Generators make it difficult to hear what is going on around your compound and even reduce your acceptance. Who wants to live next to a noisy generator? Especially if you don’t have an opportunity to use it yourself.

Centre for Monitoring Election Violence - Sri Lanka

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence is monitoring the election in eastern Sri Lanka. They are using the emerging standard, Twitter updates mashed with google maps, a blog, and mobile phone access to spread the word. Even if you are not interested in the elections you should check it out in case you need to do something similar in your own country.

CMEV is comprised of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) the Free Media Movement (FMM) and INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre. Despite financial constraints they plan to field 330 stationary monitors at selected polling centres across the Eastern Province along with 49 Mobile Teams.


Citizen Reports on Election Violence and Malpractices in Sri Lanka

Vikalpa has launched a new site on Twitter with short reports generated by its citizen journalist network in Eastern Sri Lanka. eastelections08 will provide updates on election related violence and malpractices in the Eastern Province.

You can also view the updates on the vikalpa website. You'll find them in the middle column just above the fold.

Sending GPS Coordinates from your Thuraya to Twitter

Aid Worker Daily has instructions for sending GPS co-ordinates from your Thuraya satellite phone to Twitter via an SMS message. This might come in handy if you get into trouble and need help like James Karl Buck.

iPM: Twittering Around the World

BBC Radio's iPM until Chris Vallance contacted me to talk about using Twitter in Afghanistan. He has put together a a great piece titled "Twittering Around the World". Its definitely worth listening to. There are a lot of fascinating people doing interesting things with Twitter.

Add IPM Radio4's channel to your page



Be sure to check out the blog post too. Chris has links to some cool Twitter related sites.

Twitter Tracking for NGO Security

Two months ago Twitter added the ability to track keywords. Essentially this capability means that whenever someone sends a public update containing the word or phrase you’ve told Twitter to track you’ll receive a copy of the SMS.

Since its introduction I’ve been examining this feature’s potential utility for NGO security officers. I’ve tracked the names of several towns in trouble areas, the term Tsunami, and a variety of other keywords. The effort produced some positive results.

While most of the results were tweets sent by news services there were some other useful messages. On two occasions the messages containing tracked terms tipped me off hours before the issue made the media. On another occasion the issue never even made it to the mainstream media. In each case we were able to take pre-emptive action to reduce our potential risk.

There are caveats however. You get ALL public updates containing the search term, even ones in languages you don’t speak. It’s also surprising how terms are used sometimes. ‘Information Tsunami’ seems to be making its way into the modern lexicon. Apparently Tsunami is also the name of a very popular Sushi restaurant. It must be on the other side of the world from me because people’s lunchtime “enjoying Sushi at Tsunami” messages would arrive in the middle of the night. Needless to say I’m not tracking Tsunami any more.

Twitter in Emergencies

This morning I came across Luis Suarez’s very informative post about micro-blogging in emergencies at elsua.net. His post led me to a great YouTube video by W David Stephenson.


David’s video led me to the American Red Cross’s twitter feed and their Safe and Well feed. Ike Pigott at Occam’s RazR has a great post that explains how Twitter can be used to keep the Safe and Well database up to date.

I left a comment on Ike’s site wondering about how to get the word out to the general public. After all most people wont be reading blogs like this before an emergency. While I was writing this post it occurred to me that Red Cross t-shirts would be the ideal medium. Just include the instructions for how to SMS the Safe and Well feed on the back of the shirt.

Twitter Tracking for Security and an Answer

Twitter has added the ability to track keywords. Now whenever someone sends a public update containing your word or phrase of interest you’ll receive a copy of the update. How is this useful for NGO security officers? I’m currently tracking several towns in trouble areas, Tsunami, and a variety of other keywords. You’re only limited by your creativity. One word or warning though: you’ll get ALL public updates with the search term, even ones in languages you don’t speak.

I've also finally added the solution to our geographic distribution analysis problem.

Social Networking Tools Part 2 - Twitter and Tsunamis

On 12 and 13 September there were a series of earthquakes near Indonesia spawning fears of another Asian Tsunami. It proved to be a good test of our Twitter based NGO security tree.

I was in Mannar, Sri Lanka at the time and I didn’t have a useable Internet connection. My first warning of the situation came when a concerned staff member called wanting to know “when is the Tsunami going to hit!” As the fear of a Tsunami spread I started to receive more and more calls from staff. Soon the mobile system was completely overburdened in many parts of the country and creaking under the strain in others. The very slow, single line dial-up Internet connection continued to work but proved to be all but useless for gathering timely information.

Fortunately I quickly started to get SMS’s. Some came from feeds I was following on Twitter: BBC, Reuters, CNN, EQTW, etc. Others came directly or were forwarded from UNOCHA, the Sri Lankan Disaster Management Centre, the Met office, the police and assorted individuals. Twitter allowed me to quickly forward the useful ones to all my followers while limiting the strain on the overburdened mobile system.

There were some glitches however. I continued to receive forwarded text message warnings long after credible sources had given the all clear. In some instances it seems that text messages became trapped in the telephone companies’ SMS system and were released as the queue began to clear. In some cases staff, confused by contradictory information, continued to forward outdated information.

Unfortunately the biggest problem with the Twitter based NGO security tree was one of buy in. Only a fraction of the staff who were intended to be served by the tree had bothered to sign up. The manual SMS security tree, which had been left in place as a backup, failed for much the same reason.

Lesson Learned: While emergency communications tools continue to improve, and become easier to use, buy in remains the number one problem. NGO staff members, especially office staff, often prove reluctant to dedicate even minimal effort to their own personal security until it proves too late.

For some background, check out “Social Networking tools for NGO Security – Part 1”.

To see a live feed of the NGO Security stream check out the demo page here. There is a Jaiku based stream as well.

Social Networking tools for NGO Security – Part 1

I was experimenting with Twitter when it occurred to me that it was an ideal tool for NGO security officers. Rather than using the service to merely update friends on what I was having for breakfast I could be sending out security information alerts and updates. All my “followers” would then get current, low cost, security information.

This method has many advantages over the SMS security tree method commonly used by NGOs. Traditional security trees tend to fail when one or more members (the branches of the tree) do not receive or pass on the text messages they receive to those below them, typically because they are on leave or because the tree information is not up to date. Traditional trees can also be expensive. Each SMS sent by every member of the tree comes out of someone’s budget. This can add up quickly if you are sending out several messages a day to a two hundred-member security tree.

Social networking services like Twitter or Jaiku allow us to avoid these problems. Essentially Twitter and Jaiku allow the head of the security tree to send one SMS to the service’s server. The service then distributes the SMS to all the “followers” (subscribers) of the account more or less simultaneously. This means the tree still works even if members are missing. In addition you only pay for the SMS to the service’s server. SMS messages from the server to each of the followers are free*.


* Most mobile service providers only charge for text messages that are sent while those received are free.


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