John Little is a manager of large databases with a technology background. He is the heart and soul behind Blogs of War, one of the most thorough and well respected information platforms in the field of conflict studies and reporting.
Last year I interviewed him about war-blogging, his approach to information reliability, and the fine balance between timeliness and accuracy when writing and thinking about conflicts. The conversation was first published on Muftah.
Francesca Recchia (FR): Let’s start from the beginning. Intelligence and national security are not immediately part of your professional expertise, yet for more than ten years Blogs of War has been an invaluable source of information and insight into conflicts across the world. How did the idea come about? And, why is it blogs in plural?
John Little (JL): I have been involved in online communities since around 1980. My first computer was a Commodore VIC-20. While many were into games I was more fascinated by the modem and the potential to connect to other computers and people. In my mind that’s what made the early computers fundamentally more exciting than game consoles.
I spent a massive amount of time exploring bulletin boards. I even ran a couple, before more robust services and the web came along and rendered the model obsolete. It was such a great time to be a hacker. The culture was different, much less destructive overall, and there were few if any hacker-specific laws to worry about.
My friends and I were “war dialing” (writing and running programs that would call sequential phone numbers until a modem answered) to find the rare receiving modem, social engineering companies that had zero concept of security, and dumpster diving for old floppy disks or discarded dot-matrix print outs. We accessed systems just to access them. We got in, looked around, and got out.
Our activity in that arena faded out around the mid-1980s when security awareness and the legal system started changing. We wisely retired well before we could get into trouble (or drive a car).
Early Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was another place that I spent a lot of time. It was a great place to study how people connect with technology and it was also something of a hacker’s playground. I ran channels, messed around with bots, and fought a few channel wars back then. It was part of the fun, but got increasingly tedious as the number of people flooding IRC kept growing.
Eventually the web came along and it slowly eclipsed all of these communities. I jumped in right away and started building web pages and web applications. I was updating my home page on a regular basis in the late 90s with completely random content when I started playing with different free content management suites. This eventually allowed me to be more productive and that lead to more frequent updates.
However, it wasn’t until 9/11 that I looked at all this and decided that it was time to bring more focus to my efforts.
The events of 9/11 aggravated two areas of frustration for me. The first was technological. Updates on news sites were infrequent. Media, with very few exceptions, was not fully invested in the web or the larger Internet at the time. Having lived with the Internet and these communities for a long time I knew how to go to multiple locations and piece together a story.
When news broke, I could go to chat rooms, forums and relevant web sites to generate a much more complete story than the media was giving me. A motivated individual could really run circles around traditional media at the time.
My other source of frustration was related to the lack of understanding in the general public about terrorism and some of the forces at work that were making the world a much more dangerous place. International relations, intelligence and conflict had always interested me so I was surprised by how completely off the radar these issues were for most people.
My online activity very quickly became more and more focused around addressing this problem (or ranting about it). As the site became more focused, I shifted its design and changed the name to Blogs of War, which is a take on Shakespeare’s “dogs of war”. Later, in November 2002, I made it official and registered the domain name.
FR: A seemingly unrelated question. We share a love for the mountains. For me a good deal of this love has to do with the perspective and observation points they provide, with their panorama and the all encompassing views from above. It is also about a passion for challenges and the openness to reflect and learn from humbling experiences. What is the influence that being a mountaineer has in the approach to the intellectual and professional tasks that you are confronted with?
JL: The past two years have not been kind to my mountaineering ambitions. When I was training for climbs it was my singular focus. Life has been far too complicated lately.
That being said, I haven’t give up hope. I have more summits in my future. Climbing is like Zen. It is experiential. It is just not possible to share the depth of that experience with someone else. You just can’t describe the intense physical effort, the depth of satisfaction, and clarity of experience to someone who hasn’t attempted it. And I really hate to distill the whole thing down to a bunch of motivational mumbo jumbo. Those analogies just cheapen the experience for me.
Climbing has a purity to it that will never be found in the workplace or self-help class. It is real life. Before my last climb a Zen Master friend of mind sent me a koan. “Who Walks? Never give up until you get the answer….then follow that.”
At the risk of sounding a bit metaphysical the answer to that koan is the greatest gift climbing offers.
FR: One of the most interesting things about Blogs of War is that it works on multiple different levels, juggling a remarkable amount of complexity and sophistication. It is real time news and a social media monitor; it is a repository of information and points of view; and it is a cultural platform that provides readers with critical perspectives on issues of global security, intelligence, technology, and all the possible interconnections of the three. This is something that seems both conceptually and practically very complicated to manage. Can you give us a bit of a background on how the Blogs of War machine works?
JL: There is no stable process and that can be alternatively exciting and maddening. Blogs of War is, and always will be, an experiment. That means that anything, from the front end that users see to the back end processes that feed it, can change at any time.
Many people do not realize that Blogs of War is simply a personal blog. I do not have a staff. I do not have a budget. However, I do have a demanding career and a full life away from the blog.
This attempt to monitor, curate, and comment intelligently on so many topics within a framework that has so many constraints creates constant tension. It’s really a silly thing for one person to undertake and managing it all well is not something that I’ve ever really mastered. Honestly, I don’t think mastery is possible. So what you see, in the end, is just my best attempt at the impossible.
In terms of content I’m constantly seeking and evaluating RSS and Twitter sources and the software that makes managing those easier. I have also been known to resort to crudely hacking together my own tools to manage this. That is how the live Twitter streams that I rolled out during the Egyptian revolution (and later as CovertContact.com) came to be.
Over the years I’ve tried many automation schemes to help carry the load. I have moved away from the concept on the blog as people have generally stopped looking to blogs for real time news. That activity has largely shifted to Twitter and that is where much of my focus lies.
As it stands now, some of what readers see on Blogs of War’s primary Twitter feed is fed automatically from carefully selected sources or queries that I developed and some of it comes directly from me. This arrangement allows me to feed readers solid real-time news while also giving me a little breathing room to think and contribute more complex thoughts or content. It is far from perfect but it works.
As for me, I spend many hours throughout the day watching the many private Twitter lists that I’ve created and constantly edit. I do most of this through my iPhone. These lists focus on specific regions, conflicts and key subject such as intelligence or information security.
The quality of subject matter experts on Twitter is just unbelievable, so identifying and tracking them occupies a large amount of my time and energy. When important new breaks, I’ll try to get to my Linux workstation as soon as possible. I have two 24″ monitors hooked up to it and with virtual desktops it is essentially like having eight different widescreens running at once.
I can very quickly fill those up with live video and Twitter streams as I monitor both professional media sources and eyewitnesses who may be tweeting, streaming video, or uploading photos from the scene.
FR: In the domain of knowledge production, I am fascinated by the idea of speed and slowness and the achievement of a fine balance between the two – this is something I feel you have managed quite successfully. In the past, such as during the 2003 war in Iraq, you have been able to break news faster than mainstream media outlets. At the same time, Blogs of War is a slow-paced space for reflection, in depth inquiry and deconstruction – if you allow me the term – of very convoluted and multi-faceted topics. What is your magic formula?
JL: Blogs used to be the speedier mechanism for news updates, but Twitter really owns that space now and there is no sign of that changing anytime soon. It actually took me a surprising amount of time to find what seems to be a workable balance.
I think the emergence of Twitter left the old school news bloggers with very few alternatives. Twitter upended news bloggers in very much the same way that we upended traditional media. I really struggled with the divergence initially. The only reason I held onto the blog was my unwillingness to pour all my effort and content into someone else’s (Twitter’s) platform.
Eventually, and somewhat reluctantly, I dropped the notion of the blog as a real-time news platform and shifted that effort to Twitter. Now, the blog is for long form writing and a more robust exploration of important topics. Not only does it work, but it makes managing it all much less stressful.
FR: You represent a precursor of what is now defined war-blogging. Online access to information has broadened the scope of interest and debate on conflicts that would otherwise risk being forgotten or overlooked. At the same time, this has created a plethora of self-appointed pundits, experts, analysts, and strategists. This is an issue that you partly discuss on your blogpost Thoughts on Identity and Credibility in relation to how you choose guest contributors. Can you tell us a bit more about your discerning criteria? This, I think, could be a great help to many disoriented readers.
JL: The model, if you can call it that, is fluid. It changes with the culture and the landscape. If the criteria are too rigid you miss out on amazing content. We see this with organizations that refuse to treat bloggers as credible journalists. On the other hand, if it is too flexible you will find yourself falling prey to sensationalists, conspiracy theorists, and frauds.
A key factor in all of this is my desire to be accurate above all else – even at the expense of my own political agenda. When accuracy is the overriding priority it shows. When a political agenda is the overriding priority it really shows and the quality of the content takes a nose dive.
Although, it should be said that there are increasing numbers demanding their news through a rigid partisan filter. I find this troubling. It would be nice if people were both secure and flexible in their worldviews, but I guess the temptation to shut out challenging viewpoints has always been there.
I will often present view from both sides of an issue. I don’t always tell people where I stand or where I think they should stand. Most of my readers seem to value this, but it confuses others terribly.
I am a big believer in networks when it comes to identifying and validating sources. One thing that Twitter allows me to do is quickly pick apart someone’s network and get a feel for what they do and where their influence lies.
I am always looking for new subject matter experts. When I find them, I pick through their social media networks for even more experts and influences. I am constantly building Twitter lists of these experts. Once I have put them into their little boxes I can monitor their activity closely and evaluate their content and positions on key issues.
Some of these people go into my primary A-list rotation right away and others stay in my secondary tier with similar subject matter experts where they are still monitored, but with somewhat less frequency.
Of course, I am not beyond hitting the search engines to research someone. In some cases I’ll sift through LinkedIn resumes or academic publications. Only a small percentage of people get this sort of attention, but it does happen.
FR: Following up on this point, a similar question may arise in relation to the news that you report. How do you screen and monitor the reliability and accuracy of your sources? How do you decide what gets published and what does not?
JL: In terms of Blogs of War interviews or guest posts it is very simple. Those are by invitation only. I turn down almost daily requests from volunteer contributors. In eleven or twelve years, I have probably only taken up one or two authors on their pitches for guest posts. I have to have a personal interest in your story or voice for that invitation to be extended.
Twitter accounts are verified in the manner described earlier. Other content comes from a constantly maintained, and quite large, list of RSS feeds from traditional media and extremely well established individual bloggers.
FR: At the convergence between the tech and social sciences worlds, there has recently been a growing buzz around the use, potentials, and short-comings of big data. What do you think the relevance of this debate is in the field of conflict studies? Can tools like Covert Contact be considered as a context-specific response?
JL: Look data is useful. There’s no question about that. The problem, at least when it comes to conflict, is that data will only rarely alter the human condition. Even when data does offer that advance warning needed to avert disaster, the decision making process happens in what is usually a deeply political and otherwise flawed human layer.
We have a million problems on this planet that could be solved with no data whatsoever, but they persist because human beings are very difficult animals.
I don’t want to appear to be overly negative about big data and its usefulness. It is having an impact and that impact will grow. It just won’t be a magic bullet when it comes to human conflict. There are no magic bullets.
Covert Contact was extremely useful even if it was a bit crude. The initial social media monitoring tools that I developed helped me stay far ahead of the media, and apparently even governments, during the early days of the Arab Spring. Having massive amounts of data at your disposal is always a good thing providing you know how to parse through it all.
FR: Warfare has dramatically changed in the last decades and with it the way we think, talk, and write about it. Since 2002, when you started blogging, we have developed a new vocabulary, new forms of military and strategic approaches, and a whole lot of new (whether real or fictitious) enemies. How have you managed to navigate this situation and adjust to the changes?
JL: Constant hard work. Researching, reading, analyzing and engaging experts day in and day out is the only way to do it. I am constantly aware of my own shortcomings and gaps in my knowledge and I work every day to fill them. But let’s be honest it’s a losing battle. One person cannot monitor, and understand, the entire world. For this reason, Blogs of War has never lived up to my vision and it never will. I don’t have the resources to get there. What people get is best attempt at the impossible.
FR: Strategic communication through social media is a fundamental element in the landscape of new warfare. It is a powerful tool that so-called “enemies” and official players use in molding public opinion and asserting their presence in the virtual domain. In this respect, if we use Afghanistan as an example, we can think of Taliban Twitter accounts such as Abdulqahar Balkhi (@Abalkhi), as well as the increased social media outreach efforts undertaken by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). What are your thoughts on this?
JL: They all bore me, but for different reasons. Taliban, Shabaab, and their ilk do a better job of speaking with an authentic voice, but they are only speaking to the true believers. You’ll never see them effectively engage outside of their narrow world-view. I think we did see that with @abumamerican, but that didn’t go over well (for him) and he is now dead, at least in part, because of it.
On the other side, there are public affairs officers and layers of bureaucracy that are just absolute death to compelling content in the social media space. A million of them have contacted me over the years. They write up their stories about NFL cheerleaders visiting forward bases or Marines rescuing a puppy and beg me to repost it. I did that a couple of times, but won’t ever do it again.
I sympathize with these people on the front-lines of the information war, but I am not here to bore people senseless with meaningless content. I use to reply and attempt to explain to them what my audience expected. My blog was theirs for the taking if they could supply intelligent and informative content, but it never happened. Not once. Maybe they sent it elsewhere.
I believe that governments would benefit from far fewer overt accounts and many more covert ones. Every military unit and bureaucratic department has its own neglected Twitter account now. They do nothing to advance the strategic or tactical goals of their government.
If the goal is to advance a message in a battle space, then agents unrestrained by bureaucratic oversight have to be trusted to get out there and mix it up. Governments should be taking cues from hacker culture in this arena. You can legitimately criticize much of what LulzSec [a group of hacktivists who took responsibility for a number of high profile attacks, including taking the CIA website offline] did during their short time in the spotlight but at least their messaging was extremely compelling.
The same can be said about Anonymous and even the Occupy movement. The groups are all largely composed of digital natives and this stuff is just instinctive to them. You will never achieve that impact when you run your messaging through a bureaucratic filter.
FR: Kashmir is not on the list of hotspots that Blogs of War directly monitors. Is there a reason for this?
JL: Covert Contact, which grew out of the Blogs of War monitors, has been put on hold due to changes in the Twitter API that I am not currently able to accommodate. So to be clear there are no monitors at the moment. But getting to your point I can only say that it was a one-man effort and was a work in progress. Kashmir would have made the list eventually. It just wasn’t a priority in the initial rollout.
FR: One last question. When the NSA is listening to you, what does it hear?
JL: There are occasionally moments when running Blogs of War can get a little surreal. Different agencies and mysterious individuals have reached out to me from time to time and I’d be sort of naive to think that the government hasn’t taken a peek at my email over the years.
Still, personal contacts with government types have been respectful and the monitoring, if it happens, could only bore an analyst senseless. 95% of my phone calls are to my girlfriend. 3% are to my family. 1% are to close friends. I suppose the remaining 1% is composed of former spies and similar types from the Blogs of War network, but even that isn’t surveillance worthy.
I have a real life. It is tedious and mostly boring. I am not trading nuclear launch codes with drop-dead gorgeous foreign agents via Gmail – or though any other medium for that matter. Throughout my blogging career I’ve made it clear that I am not here to attack the state. I am not going to publish classified U.S. government information in search of a scoop. I am just not wired that way. I look at journalists consumed with hatred for the U.S. government and I wonder why they aren’t interested in devoting that energy to exposing government abuses in Iran or North Korea or any number of places where government power has truly horrific consequences. I know that we are not perfect but I question their sense of perspective.
So with all these years and untold hours online I am sure NSA has heard plenty. Terrorists, spies, and hackers routinely engage me online (and usually publicly). I suspect many of those conversations are archived somewhere. I would be sort of disappointed in the intelligence community if they weren’t. That being said, the value of those conversations, in terms of their mission, is minimal at best. That is why I don’t worry about it.
The world is a very scary place and the intelligence community is not going to waste its time on me.