updated 07:19 am EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Social media usage examined in government-funded research
The US military has been analyzing the use and influence of social networks and social media, according to a report. Research funded by DARPA under the Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program was conducted with the ultimate aim of developing tools to help "counter misinformation or deception campaigns with truthful information."
Information discovered by The Guardian notes the research covered a number of high-traffic sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Kickstarter, in order to study how messages spread across networks to other users. Tweets by Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber were studied to understand influence, for example, while other seemingly-frivolous studies looked into the spread of Internet memes, and the implications of liking, following, and retweeting posts.
It is alleged that some of the studies actively contacted individuals, in order to analyze responses, while some projects involved the creation of message databases. More serious topics were also covered in the studies, with one closely examining the use of Twitter by Occupy movement activists. A study of Twitter over controversial topics during a 2012 vote in California deduced that Twitter is "primarily used for spreading information to like-minded people rather than debating issues."
One study, titled "Modeling User Attitude toward Controversial Topics in Online Social Media," suggested the government could target messages to specific followers earmarked as likely to respond favorably, in order to more effectively spread the message of a vaccination campaign. A second example highlighted suggested "when anti-government messages are spread in social media, government would want to spread counter messages to balance that effort and hence identify people who are more likely to spread such counter messages based on their opinions."
It is possible that techniques for monitoring whether individuals know each other through social networks could be employed by government agencies to dig deeper into already-collected metadata, including those uncovered by Edward Snowden. Other papers leaked by Snowden have also alleged that the US and UK intelligence agencies have looked into ways to spread propaganda through networks, another area in which the research could become useful to governments.
DARPA released a list of projects under SMISC before Facebook's emotion-based research surfaced, demonstrating the full range of its research. According to the report, $8.9 million was paid by DARPA to researchers via IBM, while $9.6 million was passed through academic hubs.
"Social media is changing the way people inform themselves, share ideas and organize themselves into interest groups, including some that aim to harm the United States," reads a statement from DARPA to the report, defending the research as essential to future US defense efforts. "DARPA supports academic research that seeks to understand some of these dynamics through analyses of publicly available discussions conducted on social media platforms."