Careful what you tweet, DARPA will be watching

The DoD’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is soliciting proposals for a program which will enable them to monitor ideas on social media sites and intervene to prevent “adverse outcomes.”

This might seem tame by comparison with other DARPA projects, like flying submarines and synthetic blood. But their latest project is an extension of the military’s long and storied effort to influence events behind the scenes on a geopolitical scale. Look up Operation Mockingbird and Edward Lansdale for a primer course.

From the proposal:

Events of strategic as well as tactical importance to our Armed Forces are increasingly taking place in social media space. We must, therefore, be aware of these events as they are happening and be in a position to defend ourselves within that space against adverse outcomes.

Program goals:

In particular, Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) will develop automated and semi‐automated operator support tools and techniques for the systematic and methodical use of social media at data scale and in a timely fashion to accomplish four specific program goals:

 1. Detect, classify, measure and track the (a) formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes), and (b) purposeful or deceptive messaging and misinformation.

2. Recognize persuasion campaign structures and influence operations across social media sites and communities.

3. Identify participants and intent, and measure effects of persuasion campaigns.

4. Counter messaging of detected adversary influence operations.

Meeting those goals

Technology areas particularly relevant to SMISC are shown here grouped to correspond to the four basic goals of the program as described above:

 1. Linguistic cues, patterns of information flow, topic trend analysis, narrative structure analysis, sentiment detection and opinion mining;

2. Meme tracking across communities, graph analytics/probabilistic reasoning, pattern detection, cultural narratives;

3. Inducing identities, modeling emergent communities, trust analytics, network dynamics modeling;

4. Automated content generation, bots in social media, crowd sourcing.

The whole proposal has a veneer of respectability to it – that this technology will be used to keep the peace. But phrases like “adverse outcomes,” “influence operations” and “meme tracking” are vague and have me thinking that this program will be used to quell or limit the impact of ideas and events that don’t line up with the U.S. military’s goals.

What’s different about this latest communication revolution, social media, is that the military was not at the forefront of its development as was the case with other communication revolutions. Rumsfeld wasn’t tweeting Bush about WMDs in Iraq. They don’t know things about social media that we don’t, hence the creation of this program. However, you can bet that they eventually will, and they’ll use it too.

For a .pdf download of the proposal, click here.

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About Daniel Fitzsimmons

Staff writer for the Manhattan weeklies Our Town, Our Town Downtown and the West Side Spirit.
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