Special Report: How Social Media Activism is Threatening the Reputation and Physical Security of Global Companies
This report was written by:
Ollie Wiltshire – MAX Security’s Regional Director of Intelligence, Europe and the Americas
Adam Charlton – MAX Security’s Senior Analyst for Europe and the Americas
While protests, boycotts, and other forms of activism have always been a threat to the private sector, recent developments in social media technology and political trends have uncovered a series of evolving risks. Traditional activism towards the private sector often involved the targeting of businesses due to practices deemed to be unethical or opposed to certain political or social movements. In recent years, activists and political movements have expanded their methods of protest in a series of evolving ways, which can have a significant impact on private enterprises.
As research on the operations of any businesses becomes easier through various online resources, in addition to the ease with which findings can be shared on social media, potential links between private businesses and controversial governments or policies can be identified by a growing number of individuals. This enables smaller groups to easily find businesses that they can present as opposed to niche causes, dramatically increasing the number of companies potentially targeted.
Similarly, the private comments of employees or individuals associated with businesses also play a more significant role in catalyzing protests than in the past. Controversial statements can often lead to the company being associated with a wide variety of political positions not representing the values of the business, some of which may spark the interest of various activist groups.
It will focus on physical security threats which arise from distorted, negative images of brands, which can be mitigated by monitoring online trends, attitudes, and corporate reputations.
For further information on how you can track and protect your company’s reputation and physical security through Brand Monitoring Services please contact Max Security Solutions at +44 (0) 203 540 0434 and [email protected]
Risk: Protests targeting companies for the actions of associated governments
Increasingly, activists target companies due to controversial actions of associated governments, either in the company’s country of origin or in a country of operation, despite limited connections between the business and the controversial actions.
One catalyst for these types of risks is the ease with which activist groups can research and disseminate information online regarding an organization’s associations and operations. Through social media and rudimentary online researching capabilities, activists are able to quickly build a list of companies deemed to be linked with controversial governments who are then targeted for protests. Additionally, activists, particularly in young or radical groups, may not research with diligence to understand the extent of the association between the private company and the government in question.
The decision to target private companies, instead of government buildings, is often one of convenience. Private facilities are far less secure and easier to identify than government offices. Protesting a business that may have multiple offices or stores with minimal security is typically more accessible than targeting embassies or consulates, which already have established security structures and are typically better equipped to handle demonstrations.
Activists often perceive protesting against companies based on the actions of governments in areas of operation as a way of putting pressure on the targeted government indirectly. Especially in countries reliant on foreign investment, protesters aim to threaten companies through physical disruptions and boycotts in an attempt to affect the economic situation of the country and compel the government to change its policies. Given the multitude of grievances against any one government, these protests can follow seemingly random trends which necessitate a deep understanding and close tracking in order to adequately predict threats and risks before they manifest. Even if a company is not involved in a controversy, it is important to monitor brand reputations, particularly if the company can be, even loosely or falsely, associated with controversial government policies.
Case Study: Anti-Turkish protests against private companies in Europe amid military operations in Syria
Since Turkish military operations in Syria began to expand in January 2018, there has been an uptick in anti-Turkish sentiment within Kurdish and Anarchist communities across Europe. This sentiment has manifested in mass protests, most notably in Germany, as well as vandalism and incendiary attacks on Turkish government buildings, including embassies and consulates across Europe. However, pro-Kurdish activists have not limited attacks to government institutions. Activists have targeted multiple private companies linked to or seen to cooperate with Turkey. For example, on March 11, a mass brawl broke out in Dusseldorf Airport, Germany as demonstrators protesting against a Turkish-based airline clashed with passengers. On April 10, activists planted and detonated a bomb outside of a bank with links to Turkey in Bologna, Italy.
Such protests were facilitated by online groups which would aggregate information on companies that were deemed to somehow support Turkish operations in Syria and disseminate findings to protesters in order to encourage attacks and demonstrations.
Risk: Protests against companies for unofficial positions and sponsorship
Due to the increasing use of social media and online news, the opinions of a company’s senior leadership are more available and under closer inspection than in the past. This opens private businesses up to scrutiny for opinions or political positions held and expressed by employees, which potentially do not reflect the official values of the company. As such, the personal opinions of company leaders and lower-level employees alike can overshadow or even undermine company policy.
Focusing on quotes from employees or controversial sponsorship links allows more casual observers and activists to easily find targets for protests and can often quickly galvanize public outrage. Similarly, due to social media trends, political positions of individuals linked to or sponsoring particular organizations can quickly encourage negative sentiments and widen the scope of protest movements, especially when the subject of the controversy is particularly sensitive. Such risks require rapid detection in order to fully formulate a public relations strategy which can quickly solve the issues and reframe the reputation of the company along its actual values.
Case study: Sponsors targeted for taking positions on both sides of debate over national anthem protests by US athletes
In 2017, controversy arose in the US sporting world surrounding a movement which saw many players kneel during the national anthem in protest of various policies deemed to negatively impact African-Americans. This trend gained significant attention nationwide and given the extensive corporate sponsorship in the US sports industry, quickly led to calls, from both sides, to target large businesses over their stances on the issue, either official or unofficial.
One sponsor’s CEO reportedly expressed his disappointment in a league’s response to the players’ protest on social media and subsequently reported a decrease in quarterly sales. The CEO linked the poor sales to the league’s public image. Another company reportedly faced significant physical and online protests for refusing to comment on the controversy.
In this case, companies were boycotted for sponsoring the league, as well as for their position on the kneeling protest, whether it was an official position or that of a prominent employee. The case demonstrates the risks which can be mitigated by paying particular attention to local, regional, and international political and social trends, as well as the public image of private businesses with links to any controversy. Particularly, it is crucial that companies not only see the public image they create but also how it appears in the eyes of the consumer, especially during times of political sensitivity.
Manifestation of Protests
Boycotting allows for protesters to demonstrate their grievances in a direct way and is increasingly common across the political spectrum, due to its relative ease, wide legality, and potential impact. Boycotts offer activists an easily organized form of protest, in which results are often less tangible than counting the numbers attending a rally. This allows activists to avoid the possibility of poorly attended demonstrations, which often give the impression of the grievance being a niche cause or lacking in support.
Physical protests are becoming easier to organize via social media, spreading details far beyond typical activist circles. That said, protests can vary significantly both in size and nature. Companies with multiple locations or offices may find protests less well attended but affecting a larger number of offices or stores. Conversely, companies with well-known central offices or locations may witness protests with significant turnout outside these locations, while smaller or peripheral locations remain unaffected.
Spray painting or other means of vandalizing a physical company asset is often intimidating for employees, especially if it involves or threatens violence. Increasingly in southern and central Europe, as well as South America, vandals use Molotov cocktails or other incendiary devices, which, while intimidating, tend to only cause structural damage. These attacks can often be difficult to prevent completely, however, typically occur at night.
Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Air Base targeted with guided missile strikes during early morning hours of April 9 – Syria & Israel Alert
Please be advised
Reports indicate that Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Air Base was targeted with missile strikes during the early morning hours of April 9. According to Syrian pro-government sources, its Air Defense System intercepted five of the total eight guided missiles that were used.
According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR), at least 14 pro-government soldiers were killed, including an unspecified number of Iranian forces.
While Syrian state media initially described the incident as “American aggression”, Pentagon officials have reportedly denied any US involvement.
According to a Russian state news agency, the Russian Defense Ministry stated that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) carried out the strikes from Lebanese airspace with two F-15 fighter jets.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have not issued any comment regarding the development.
Assessments & Forecast
The development comes amidst a marked increase of tensions between Syrian pro-government forces and Israel over the past months. This is highlighted by the February 10 launch of an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) into Israel from Tiyas Military Air Base. While the IAF retaliated by conducting strikes against four pro-government bases in Syria, the downing of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet with Syrian anti-aircraft fire during this action marked an achievement for the Syrian pro-government forces unprecedented in recent years. As these developments highlight the growing willingness of Iran and Syrian pro-government forces to challenge Israel, we assess that the aforementioned reports ascribing the current missile strike to the IDF are highly credible.
The operation follows the February statement by Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah, who praised the aforementioned downing of the F-16 fighter jet as “beginning of a new strategic era which puts an end to the violation of Syrian airspace and territory”. Thus, the targeting of Tiyas Military Air Base, which lies deep within Syrian territory, serves to reassert Israel’s deterrence and the countries’ adherence to its well-established policy of targeting any pro-government facilities which are liable to threaten Israel’s military and technological edge. More significantly, in light of Israeli concerns about the growing fortification of Iranian operational bases in Syria, the current missiles strikes demonstrate Israel’s increased resolve to target military installations used by Iranian forces.
Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry statement holding Israel responsible is unprecedented, and thus highly notable. While Israel has carried out multiple airstrikes in Syria over the past years, since September 2015, Israel and Russia have coordinated such strikes through a bilateral deconfliction mechanism in order to mitigate the risk of conflicts between their armed forces. While the maintenance of this channel was hitherto regarded as tacit Russian approval of IDF action in Syria, the current statement indicates Moscow renunciation of this policy. FORECAST: Such a development would reduce Russia’s ability to function as a diplomatic backchannel to de-escalate tensions between Israel and Iran. Furthermore, it decreases the likelihood that Russia will pressure Iran to desist from expanding its presence near the Syrian-Israeli border. As a result, Israel will likely consider more robust military measures in order to contain this threat. Thus, over the coming months, the IDF is liable to increase airstrikes against Syrian pro-government targets across Syria, including Iranian bases.
FORECAST: Moreover, while Iran and its proxy forces are likely not interested in a broad escalation of hostilities with Israel at this point, the fact that Russia openly named Israel as the perpetrator of the current missiles strikes may pressure them to conduct retaliatory measures. While we assess that any such action will likely remain localized, more sophisticated attacks, such as IED detonations or RPG attacks targeting IDF soldiers positioned along the border cannot be entirely excluded. Should such a scenario materialize, both parties may be forced to react with increasing force to perceived transgressions of the other party in order to reassert their deterrence. Thus, while broad conflict between the parties remains unlikely to erupt over the coming months, a gradual increase of hostilities alongside the Syrian-Israeli border cannot be ruled out.
We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various militant groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket-propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.
Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. Avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy.
Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross-border violence.
Those residing or operating in Israel are advised to monitor the situation in the vicinity of the border areas regarding incidents of cross-border hostilities and possible rocket attacks. Remain cognizant of the situation along the Lebanese and Syrian border areas, and continue adhering to all safety precautions regarding early warning sirens for incoming rockets. In case you hear a siren, seek shelter in a protected area and remain inside for at least 10 minutes.
Reading a complicated geopolitical map requires information and analysis
Unforeseen developments can and do disrupt business, derail plans, and even jeopardize personal safety for Multi-National Corporations operating in potential danger zones on the geopolitical map.
But it is a mistake to equate unforeseen circumstances with unforeseeable ones. Even in highly volatile regions such as Indonesia, a major area of operation for numerous MNCs, the fact that disruptive events are sometimes not foreseen shouldn’t be taken as evidence that they can’t be. In most instances, they actually can be anticipated – and negative consequences can be mitigated – as long as companies have comprehensive Intelligence services to light the way.
Indonesia offers a case in point. MNCs have long been drawn to the island nation for its rich natural resources and strategic location, and the country has become even more attractive in recent years with its expanding economy and large consumer base. But there are significant risks, both manmade and natural, that go along with the advantages of doing business there. Civil unrest, crime, extremist violence, and extreme weather, all factor in on Indonesia’s geopolitical map.
In June, for example, both humans and nature created risks for businesses. The kidnapping of seven Indonesian sailors by the Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf, the fourth such act of piracy in three months, exemplified the insecurity and economic damage that militants cause, and led the Indonesian government to extend a moratorium on coal shipments to the Philippines. In the same week, at least 24 people lost their lives in Central Java, as severe rainstorms resulted in fierce floods and landslides that devastated the area and brought activity to a halt.
Both events had economic and commercial consequences. But neither had to be “unforeseen.” That’s where timely, insightful, and accurate Intelligence comes in.
Only the right information leads to the right decision
For an MNC operating in Indonesia, or any other volatile country, having ready access to relevant, up to date Intelligence regarding potential threats of any nature is an essential part of doing business. Of course, the specific Intel services needed will vary from company to company and from location to location (Indonesia is composed of more than 13,000 islands, for example, so no one-size solution fits all circumstances).
Extensive experience and good intuition can be important attributes for decision-makers in sensitive places and situations, MAX Chief Intelligence Officer, Mr. Tzachi Shraga, explains. “But this is not enough when justifying critical decisions. With strong intelligence to back your decision, you’re on the safe side,” he says.
In broad terms, solid Intelligence services include the collection, analysis, and synthesis of comprehensive data and information that is then shared with the company’s security management personnel and key decision-makers. The reports generated are designed to thoroughly familiarize companies with every potential hindrance, interruption, or threat to security or business continuity.
Depending on client needs, the services can focus on Intelligence briefings, travel security information, or a custom Intel report geared to address specific defined needs. For businesses requiring ongoing services, a Regional Intel Subscription Package establishes a deep familiarity with a given area as a baseline and detailed updates and assessments to maintain up-to-the-minute Intel going forward.
Subscriber reports provide both macro and micro views, from region-wide developments spanning the geopolitical map to localized trends and incidents, from strategic summaries of large-scale political or cultural factors to local details such as changing traffic patterns or anything that can have an impact on business operations.
Intelligence, of course, is not generally an end in itself. Carefully tailored Intel services can interface with contingency planning and inform the development and implementation of a range of related security services. These include but aren’t limited to Master Security Plans, vulnerability assessments, hotel security reviews, event security management, and executive protection.
High-quality Intel delivers the tools to navigate a tricky geopolitical map
Information is powerful. But that truth comes with a caveat when it comes to Intel services: it takes the right information at the right time to equip decision-makers to respond to any contingency they might face. That means companies should select Intel services that are responsive and readily tailored to their own specific needs, by offering appropriate reports for each client.
Some of the reports that high-quality Intel services can provide include:
- Tactical Intelligence Reports, or ‘Tacticals’, featuring real-time reporting on potentially disruptive events from bad weather to local strikes or other labor actions, all the way up to major security threats like terrorist activity or political instability. Tacticals are targeted to a specific locale and are focused reports that can help guide day-to-day business decisions.
- Intelligence Alerts give businesses on-the-spot information about major events or impending events that are or could be game-changers, from natural disasters, extremist attacks, armed conflict, mass protests, or other events that undermine stability.
- Intelligence Analyses give clients details about any incidents or trends that are occurring in a specific area, along with insightful assessments and practical recommendations for how companies can best proceed in the face of the threats.
This list only scratches the surface, of course, as Intel services are necessarily tailored to each specific company and situation. But in all of their possible configurations and permutations they aim for the same basic goal, as noted above – eliminating those “unforeseen” risks and giving companies the foresight they need to prepare for and respond to whatever disruptive contingencies they might face.
Read more posts like this in Max Security Blog.
Political Analysis: Bouteflika clan attempts to cement rule in Algeria
There are those who argue that Egypt’s infamous dictator Hosni Mubarak sealed his own fate long before the first activists pitched their tents in Tahrir Square in January 2011. They say the countdown really began in 2010, when Mubarak’s eldest son Gamal pitched a bold economic reform package to weather Egypt through the global economic recession.
At the time, Gamal was known to be next in line to succeed his father. The plan would have essentially taken the regime’s massive economic holdings out of the hands of the military-backed older generation and put it into the hands of Gamal’s loyal young business class within the ruling NDP party. After the Arab Spring engulfed the country, the Egyptian military unsurprisingly had little motivation to save the embattled Mubarak family, instead organizing his dismissal and eventually enabling the trial of Hosni and his two sons on corruption charges.
Numerous comparisons between Egypt and Algeria have since been made in the global pundit-sphere. Most have focused on their respective battles with political Islam, but few have given credit to Algeria’s aging President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for recognizing Mubarak’s mistakes and keeping his regime afloat amid the storm of regional political upheaval.
Strategic Analysis: Lebanese-Israeli border tensions marked by erosion of UN resolution 1701
On the seven-year anniversary of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah claimed responsibility for an August 7 explosion in the Israeli-Lebanese border area, near the town of Labboune. That day, at least one explosive device injured four Israeli soldiers, who were accused by Lebanese parties and UNIFIL of crossing into Lebanese territory during a patrol in an un-demarcated area of the border.
Lebanese media outlets and politicians asserted that the IDF crossed both the technical fence and the international border, which do not coincide in some areas. Initial reports indicated that the troops were hit by a landmine which may have been a remnant from previous conflicts. The IDF has since declined to comment on the details of the incident, including whether or not troops entered Lebanese territory or whether the attack was intentional. Nasrallah claimed that Hezbollah had prior knowledge of an upcoming Israeli incursion, leading their operatives to plant explosive devices. He ended with what would some consider an ominous warning: “This operation will not be the last; we will not be lenient with those who violate our land. Whenever we feel that the Israelis have entered Lebanese soil, we will act.” The truth about what actually happened on August 7 may forever be disputed, but it remains clear that Hezbollah still seeks to avoid a conflict with Israel — despite Nasrallah’s seemingly confident claim of responsibility. Continue reading Strategic Analysis: Lebanese-Israeli border tensions marked by erosion of UN resolution 1701
Intelligence Analysis: Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders pushed toward moderation
Ten years after the U.S. invasion, Iraq’s inter-sectarian political experiment is in jeopardy. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite State of Law coalition remains in control, yet his government has come under excruciating pressure. In recent months, a wave of anti-government Sunni Arab protests, Cabinet boycotts by Shiite Sadrists, Sunnis and Kurds, coupled with rising sectarian violence and the steady withdrawal of Sunniministers, have threatened the longevity of Iraq’s political experiment. But despite rising sectarianism, perceived marginalization of Sunnis and jihadist violence, there are indications that Iraq’s Sunni tribal leaders are hesitant to abandon the political process and thrust Iraq into another war.
The March 29 Baghdad car bomb attacks targeting Shiite mosques underscore persistent efforts by Sunni jihadists to force this war. By increasing violence and radical sectarianism, Sunni jihadists are aiming to weaken the central Shiite-led government, force a Shiite-militia response, and Sunnis to take up arms against the state at a time of instability across the region. Despite counterinsurgency efforts by the Iraqi security forces and military, they remain largely unable to deter or prevent militant attacks, such as the coordinated mass assaults witnessed in the capital on March 13. Jihadists can largely strike at will.
In addition to rising violence, persistent Sunni protests over a variety of issues continue to exacerbate sectarian tensions. Their demands vary from further rights, an end to the country’s terrorism and de-Baathification laws, to autonomy. Above all, protesters demand an end to the perceived marginalization of the Sunni community. It is hard, however, to see how such a perception will dissipate given mounting sectarian violence across the region.
Additionally, recent al-Maliki measures against Sunni ministers, on top of postponing local elections in Sunni-majority provinces and the continued targeting of local candidates, have only compounded Sunni restiveness. According to reports, at least 11 candidates for upcoming elections have been assassinated. Political candidates remain a high-level target for Sunni jihadists aiming to settle scores, deter cooperation with the government and weaken the traditional leadership of Iraq’sSunni community.
If such a strategy increasingly materializes, Iraq’s Sunni political leaders could be pressed to fall in line and replace the ballot box with an AK-47 to advance communal interests.
Continue reading Intelligence Analysis: Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders pushed toward moderation
Intelligence Analysis: Mounting tensions with Tunisia’s Jihadists
The month of March 2013 has witnessed an increase in tensions between local Tunisian Salafist networks, the newly formed government of P.M. Laarayedh, and the country’s secular/liberal societal factions.
On March 26, Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) issued a warning on social media towards P.M. Laarayedh, after he condemned Tunisia’s Salafist minority as responsible for recent violence in an interview with French media that same day. The post featured a threat to topple the government from Abu Iyad al-Tunisi, a prominent jihadist founder of AST suspected of orchestrating the September 11, 2012 riots at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. Following those riots, Abu Iyad was targeted for arrest at the al-Fatah Mosque in Tunis, but escaped after his supporters confronted security forces.
Iyad’s warning came days after al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), issued a new message calling on jihadists across the region to to join its ranks and take up arms against French assets as well as Western-sympathetic local governments in the Arab World. The message included a specific call towards Ansar al-Sharia members in Tunisia, which was reportedly received positively by the group.
On March 27, the Tunisian government announced that it would take measures to curb the flow of Tunisian jihadists to the conflict in Syria, citing concerns over their return to the country to engage in militant activity. Reports indicate that thousands of Tunisians are currently participating in both the Syrian and Malian conflict. In Syria, Tunisian nationals are estimated to comprise 30-40 percent of all foreign fighters. The majority of Tunisian jihadists fighting in Syria hail from outlying communities in the west and south of the country, primarily the town of Ben Guerdane, located near the Libyan border. Multiple Tunisian nationals also participated in a deadly raid against Algeria’s In Amenas gas facility in January 2013.
Following the 2010-11 Tunisian revolution, Salafist-jihadist elements have increased their activity substantially. Following the ousting of the Ben Ali regime, previously strict anti-Islamist policing policies were forgone, while the ensuing security vacuum enabled the establishment of training camps and weapons smuggling networks in outlying areas. Training camps near the Libyan and Algerian borders are currently meant to facilitate the indoctrination and transfer of Tunisian nationals to conflicts elsewhere in the region, including in Syria, Mali, and Algeria.
Strategic Analysis: Egypt’s uphill battle for economic recovery
“The purpose is to reassure them that what we agreed on last time is still there, and nothing has changed,” so declared an Egyptian government spokesman after announcing that an IMF delegation would return to Cairo to revive talks on a crucial 4.8 billion USD loan agreement aimed at salvaging Egypt’s economy. Change, however, would be the subtlest word to describe the botched facelift the country underwent since the IMF’s last visit on November 20. After weathering a month of bitter civil unrest, President Morsi successfully strong-armed an Islamist-backed constitution into law on December 25. In doing so, he left gaping wounds across Egyptian society and exposed his own politically perilous path to restoring the economy.
Strategic Analysis: Consequences of religious influences in the Syrian conflict
While discussing the bloodshed in Syria at a September 7 conference held in Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan drew a chilling parallel. “What happened in Karbala 1,332 years ago is what is happening in Syria today,” he said, comparing the Syrian revolution to the most divisive event in Islamic history, the Battle of Karbala.
Those in the West with any interests in the region have much to learn from Erdogan’s history lesson. What was originally depicted as a popular uprising against tyranny is now undeniably a war for religious supremacy in the Middle East. In this war, those Syrians who originally took to the streets in their aspirations for democracy have become the only guaranteed losers.
In the year 680 AD, Hussein Ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and 70 of his followers confronted 1,500 fighters from the Umayyad Caliphate in present day Iraq. Hussein had embarked on a crusade to wrest control of the caliphate from his archrival Yazid I, only to be slaughtered along with his family. Hussein’s followers would eventually form the Shiite sect of Islam, and remain locked in a bitter rivalry with Yazid’s fellow Abu Bakr supporters, whose descendants comprise the Sunni sect.
Continue reading Strategic Analysis: Consequences of religious influences in the Syrian conflict