Pentagon Will Track Social Media Movements, Memes

While there are still plenty of social media skeptics out there, one group of hardnosed pragmatists -- the U.S. military -- appears to  be convinced that social media has considerable potential for organizing popular movements. And it makes them nervous.

That seems to be the message behind a new project from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (the secretive organization behind all the military's cool new gadgets, from the Internet to the Stealth bomber) to identify and track social media movements before they get big. This, in turn, would allow the Pentagon to counter harmful propaganda campaigns, including grass-roots movements and those organized by groups or governments; data gathered through the powerful analytics tools should also enable the Pentagon to engage in social media propaganda more effectively itself, should it choose to dabble -- and why not, really?

According to the DARPA solicitation, first reported by Wired's Danger Room blog, the military innovation lab is prepared to spend $42 million on the project, which will doubtless bring together some very powerful computers and some very awkward engineers in very secret locations. DARPA explains the rationale: "Changes to the nature of conflict resulting from the use of social media are likely to be as profound as those resulting from previous communications revolutions. The effective use of social media has the potential to help the Armed Forces better understand the environment in which it operates and to allow more agile use of information in support of operations."

Thus "the general goal of the Social Media in Strategic Communications (SMISC) program is to develop a new science of social networks built on an emerging technology base" that can "detect, classify, measure and track... formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts," including "purposeful or deceptive messaging and information"; "recognize persuasion campaign structures and influence operations across social media sites and communities"; "identify participants and intent, and measure effects of persuasion campaigns"; and "counter messaging of detected adversary influence operations."

Data sources will include "linguistic cues, patterns of information flow, topic trend analysis, narrative structure analysis, sentiment detection and opinion mining," as well as "pattern detection and cultural narratives" and "inducing identities" (a vague but creepy-sounding maneuver).  On the active side, the array of tools for responding and shaping sentiment will include "modeling communities," "automated content generation," "bots in social media," and crowd-sourcing.

It sounds like the DARPA project's writ is pretty wide-ranging: I'm guessing it would include not just psychological warfare initiatives mounted by hostile regimes, but also protest movements of the sort which brought down Hosni Mubarak's government in Egypt. In fact, social media has already played a role in actual armed conflict, for example as a recruiting platform for insurgents in Iraq, who have posted numerous videos of operations against American, British, and native troops. In 2006 Audrey Kurth Kronin, a scholar with the U.S. War College, wrote an essay titled "Cyber-Mobilization: The New Levee en Masse," warning that terrorists and other hostile groups were adopting social media to organize armed resistance.

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