Pentagon Set To Track Social Media

Doubt the power of social media? The Pentagon doesn’t. A new project from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency focuses on social media tracking.

Doubt the power of social media? The Pentagon doesn’t.  A new project from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency focuses on social media tracking.

It’s possible you haven’t heard of The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). They are a secretive agency within the United States Department of Defense whose “mission is to maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military and prevent technological surprise from harming our national security by sponsoring revolutionary, high-payoff research bridging the gap between fundamental discoveries and their military use.”  They are credited with everything from weapon development to ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet.

It seems like DARPA would have more important things to do than track tweets, but a new project, titled the Social Media in Strategic Communication, suggests that DARPA may spend up to $42 million on a project designed to track social media. DARPA explains: “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.”

In other words, what happened in Egypt was enough to spook the American government. In early 2011, Egypt experienced a revolution which resulted in bringing down President Hosni Mubarak’s government. Social media – Twitter in particular – has been credited with playing a major role in Egypt’s revolution.

What will the project include? Lots of things apparently. DARPA identifies four major 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.”

To accomplish these goals, DARPA identifies various strategies it will use, including modeling communities, content generation, crowd sourcing and social media bots.

It sounds more like the plot for a sci-fi movie starring Matt Damon than it does a concrete military plan. This is because what DARPA tells us about this project while detailed in some ways is  vague in others. DARPA’s message is that they are taking an exhaustive and all inclusive approach to social media monitoring and tracking with a particular emphasis on security. Their efforts could include anything from grass roots campaigns to hostile groups – anything DARPA considers as a potential threat.   In other words, Big Brother just signed up for a Facebook account.

In many ways, the initiative is surprising – not because it exists but because it has taken the government so long to launch the project. None the less, there is perhaps no greater signal that a communication medium is legitimate than government recognition. Welcome to table Twitter; the US Department of Defense considers you equally as dangerous, if not more so, than a television or newspaper.