Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Looking at social media

Some thoughts on simulating social media from Tim Price, international man of mystery.

I recently wrote a review of Hostage Negotiator by A.J. Porfirio from Ran Ryder Games and speculated that it might be a useful point to start a discussion on a possible model for social media influence.

There is an understandable amount of interest in government and the military about the effect of social media, and a number of large multi-national defence companies that offer expensive products that propose to use “AI and machine learning” to generate synthetic social medial feeds to allow training to take place.

The only demo that I have seen involved chat-bots degenerating into the inevitable repetitious trolling from a bank of comments scraped from Russian fake social media accounts. It was utterly unconvincing and, when I put the question to Paul Rimmer, the Deputy Director of the UK’s Defence Intelligence organisation at a recent talk he gave in Oxford, he chuckled and said that if “I had £1 for every company that said AI and machine learning was going to solve my problems, I’d be very rich and wouldn’t be talking to you now…”.

My personal view is that if we can’t get Alexa, Siri or Cortana to lose their temper, then attempting to mimic social media through AI is a waste of time – after all, it is the manipulation of emotion and deeply held beliefs that create the effects people are trying to achieve.

Current training consists of scripted “social media” injects into events that are either trivial “box-ticking” exercises or at best short-term interventions that are deliberately limited in their effects so as to avoid upsetting things too much. It is necessary to have a proper discussion about the subject and avoid the rush to buy “shiny toys” simply because they have the words “social media, AI and machine learning” in the advertising brochure. There is a real danger that “social media” is the new “cyber” in the short attention span of some senior officers…

The quote from F.W. Lanchester is appropriate here ” “Simple models that provide useful insights are often to be preferred to models that get so close to the real world that the mysteries they intend to unravel are repeated in the model and remain mysteries.” (The Lanchester Legacy, Volume III, Chapter 9). Even if AI and machine learning were able to replicate social media feeds, their inability to explain why actions succeed or fail mean that they are still unlikely to be useful for training.

We should construct a simple manual model for social media, that can provide a relevant degree of help or harm to a “normal” military training game.  Preferably something stand-alone and scenario agnostic, that can be adapted to the circumstances.

There are some fundamental questions that we need to answer:

  • What measurable effects does social media have? (Brexit? Trump? ALS Research?)
  • What actions cause effects in social media? (Russian Bots? Policy speeches? Cat Memes?)
  • What actions can the Players take to affect social media? (Hire Cambridge Analytica? Bribe the Russians? Both?)

Hostage Negotiator, at it’s core, is a game about your interactions with a hostage taker. If things go badly, he gets more angry until he starts killing hostages, and if things go well he becomes more relaxed until he starts releasing hostages unharmed. As a player you have different gambits you can try, each with their own risk/reward outcomes and probabilities. You seek to calm the hostage taker down and build trust, enabling you to get access to more advanced gambits giving you a wider choice of actions. Each turn there are cards representing the passage of time and the effect this has on the hostage taker (usually making him more frustrated and angrier).


Assuming we take the track from Hostage Negotiator to represent the aggregated sentiment analysis directed to the players organisation and actions, we can look at a “sentiment tracker” below.

The assumptions are (for the moment) that sentiment in the green areas represent general support for the player (providing some advantage such as intelligence, warning of attack, donations to the cause, etc); while sentiment in the red areas represent the opposite (providing disadvantages for the player such as false reports, no warnings, and support for opposition groups). When the marker in in the “S” zone this represents significant Support for the player and in the “T” zone represents support for protests, violent clashes and Terrorism against the player, both of which would translate into concrete independent actions in the real world.

In addition, it is assumed that as the situation reaches the extremes of the tracker, it become correspondingly easier or harder to influence sentiment (represented by additional dice in the green zone and fewer dice in the red zone).

social media

The “Political Freedom Tracker” represents the degree of political support within the player’s organisation, so higher levels will provide access to more extreme (and possibly riskier) options expressed in the Social Media Action Cards.

The game starts with some negative event that the player is seeking to respond to. If they do nothing, the situation is likely to get worse (the equivalent of the “Terror” cards in the Hostage Negotiator game). The simplest way of doing this is by a “Sentiment Roll”, where they roll 1D6 and if the score is equal to or higher than the current sentiment, it gets worse by a point.

The player response can consist of one of several options, from the usual platitudes (“thoughts and prayers”) through stronger alternatives, such as “heartfelt denouncement by the Head of State”, to concrete action such as “legislative changes” or “direct action” by the police and military. Each option has a risk/reward matrix with high scores being beneficial and low scores representing failure, public anger, and a cost in “political freedom” to carry out.

The dice mechanism from Hostage Negotiator is to have a score of 5 or 6 on each dice as a success, a 3 or less being nothing, and a score of 4 requiring an investment of additional resources (reducing the players options in later turns). So, a roll of a 5 and 6 on 2D6 represent two successes; a roll of a 3 and a 6, one success and a roll or a 1 and a 3 represents failure.

An example card is: “Thoughts and Prayers”, where two successes gains the player +2 Political Freedom points (perhaps the speech was heartfelt and actual tears were caught on camera), a single success +1, and a failure triggers an additional Sentiment Roll because of the backlash. The card itself costs 0 Political Freedom Points.

Other example of 0 cost cards would be “internal enquiry”, “policy speech” or “divert attention elsewhere”. A “public enquiry” or “appoint a Task Force”, might have a cost of 1 or 2 Political Freedom points, but something such as a “Constitutional Amendment” would need at least 8 points.

Of course, the actions have to be appropriate to the level in which the game is set, be it nation state, military operation or local village council elections.

The player would start with a hand of 0 Political Freedom cost Social Media Action Cards and would attempt to defuse the situation with the usual political actions and, at the same time, build up support for riskier actions with a much greater direct effect if they succeed.

So – what next? This topic needs a wider discussion in a much broader audience than I currently have access to. Even a short examination of the subject reveals that this is difficult to model (which comes as no surprise whatsoever), so it will require a determined effort and imagination. Any suggestions would be very gratefully received.

Tim Price

One response to “Looking at social media

  1. Lorenzo Nannetti 03/04/2018 at 4:13 am

    I’d like to offer my 2cents on the subject, based on work that has been done in Italy and a few other countries.

    The main theme we have to keep in mind is that “weaponized” social media works only where there already is a suitable substrate where it can stick to. It doesn’t work regardless of this.

    In other words, the use of social media to influence public opinion doesn’t create problems per se, it just exploits existing ones by increasing the level of polarization. This brings us to the two main themes:

    1-The target is polarizing societies (not necessarily make you vote “x” or “y”, which may be a consequence but not necessarily the original aim), which in turn divides them in non-talking parts. People shout at each other, exchange slogans, don’t discuss the merit of things, don’t come up with shared solutions. I dismiss your claims, you dismiss mine, so everything I present to you is dismissed as false, fake (regardless of whether it really is or not), biased etc… and viceversa.

    2-The above means that any “counter” strategies don’t work in the social media field and that once the social media offensive starts that’s likely already a bit late to start a counter-strategy. That’s the most difficult realization but also the most vital. If 50%+ of Italian people think that migration flows are an unsustainable invasion, then no fact-checking work or analysis will convince them that it isn’t so, and this is because the polarization built above either makes me not believe your fact-checking or tell you “yes, but the problems remain and you’re not solving them just by throwing numbers at me”.

    We’re talking about problems that have been building up for years (possibly more in some cases) and that are reaching boiling point. In this scenario, public opinion becomes the most receptive to polarizing use of social media – it tells them what they want to hear based on real problems they have.

    Problems are exaggerated out of proportions, yes, but they are still real ones, and some counter social media campaigns won’t change that.

    So the real counter strategy is dealing with those problems BEFORE the storm. If Russia is able to use social media campaign to polarize Italian society regarding migration and the EU, it’s also because migration in Italy was dealt with unsatisfactorily at the practical level (scarce number of centres for identification, laws unfit for the challenge, lack of overall coordination in the early years leading to some critical situation etc…). If in the Baltics Russia propaganda is directed at the Russian-speaking people there, we should also look at the grievances that are caused by those same Baltic governments (see Anja Van Der Hurst’s talk at Connections UK 2017). If Brexit and Trump election was influenced by social media use, then we can see where the former governments and establishment failed to tackle several issues that were then used by demagogues. Long-term economic issues, etc… built the support or destroyed it in over years, not just in the last few months. The last few months is where we saw its effects play out.

    We’re not talking about “right” or “wrong”. We’re talking about the fact that real problems create the substrate where use of social media becomes effective. Once it’s done, you can’t simply get back thanks to social media campaigns – you risk of just running after them, which actually strengthens their effect, because denial reinforces the “you don’t understand me and my problems” mentality.

    So regarding the game, if you’re tackling social media support for great issues, you shouldn’t try to represent short-term swings from positive to negative. Because they don’t happen. You should consider a longer time-frame. Keep in mind positive policies don’t give immediate effects, but only over time, while negative criticism is fast to spread and take root.

    If, instead, you’re looking short-term at social media regarding crises (like a war, or a diplomatic incident) you have to keep in mind there will be a “fixed” popular support or disdain (social media environment) built from past developments and situations and how they evolved, and limitare to see if you can do a good enough job to keep exiating critics (or external influencers) from flooding you with criticism or not. Just remember that once a certain crisis is passed, social media will just turn to the next criticism – you won’t get much “rest” even if you do well – and that’s because of that same social media environment built from previous years.

    Also remember that getting up from criticism should be more difficult than getting down from support. Regaining respect is always harder than losing it, especially across the shouting social media.

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