In the wake of last week’s revelations that Facebook allowed researchers with direct links to the US Department of Defense to conduct manipulative experiments on its users by influencing their news feeds, new reports have emerged detailing how the Pentagon is funding dozens more studies into how to influence and control social media.
Reporters with The London Guardian reveal that DARPA, the Pentagon-run Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is engaged in multiple programs targeting Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Kickstarter and other popular social media sites.
The source is DARPA’s own website, where the shadowy research arm of the military has posted a list of projects funded under its Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program, with links to documents.
“The general goal of the Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program is to develop a new science of social networks built on an emerging technology base,” the website states.
“Through the program, DARPA seeks to develop tools to support the efforts of human operators to counter misinformation or deception campaigns with truthful information.”
Of course, what the Pentagon considers to be “truthful information” can just as easily be described as outright propaganda.
The studies, conducted by researchers at institutes such as the University of Southern California, Georgia Tech, and even within companies such as IBM, were all funded with military money.
The Guardian report notes:
While some elements of the multi-million dollar project might raise a wry smile – research has included analysis of the tweets of celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, in an attempt to understand influence on Twitter – others have resulted in the buildup of massive datasets of tweets and additional types social media posts.
Within the project list is a research aimed squarely at documenting how The Occupy protest movement used Twitter for organization, as well as research on tracking internet memes, and analysis of how so called “influence behavior” (liking, following, and retweeting) spreads information on several popular social media platforms including Pinterest, Twitter, Kickstarter, Digg and Reddit.
The report notes that DARPA spent around $19 million to fund the research, with $8.9 passing through IBM and distributed to various researchers, and a further $9.6 million going through educational institutions.
Some of the research funneled through IBM culminated in a study titled “Modeling User Attitude toward Controversial Topics in Online Social Media”. This clearly indicates that the military is interested in having the capability to influence opinion via social media.
Within that study, posted on DARPA’s website, the authors describe how their research could allow the government to use social media to encourage and mould opinions.
“For example, a government campaign on Twitter supporting vaccination can engage with followers who are more likely to take certain action (eg spreading a campaign message) based on their opinions.” the study states.
In an even more disturbing example the authors note “…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.”
Of course, DARPA claims there is no wrong in conducting such research. In a statement to The Guardian a DAPRA spokesperson wrote “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… DARPA supports academic research that seeks to understand some of these dynamics through analyses of publicly available discussions conducted on social media platforms.”
When asked why the military should be involved in funding such research, the DARPA spokesperson said that the studies are essential to US defense interests and that some people engaging in the use of social media platforms “aim to harm the United States.”
The US government in conjunction with the military has long been concerned with studying the potential for civil unrest and how it can control, facilitate and combat it. The U.S. Army War College, in conjunction with numerous think tanks have somewhat obsessively studied the subject for years.
In recent years, the rise of social media, and its potential use for growing and organizing protest movements, has spurred a new urgency within government and the military to adapt to and co-opt such tools.
The so-called “spring” revolutions of recent years have been heavily centered around the use of social media, with many even suggesting that Western government and military forces have, at least in part, controlled and even initiated unrest in other parts of the world for strategic purposes by employing social media.
Reports have recently emerged of the Military setting up fake Twitter-like social networks in countries such as Cuba, in order to manipulate and sway popular opinion there. The Military also developed so called ‘sock puppet’ software to create fake online identities and spread propaganda at home and abroad.
The government has also heavily invested in companies that monitor social media and track how opinions and information spreads on such networks.
Facebook was and is deeply connected to the NSA’s PRISM program. Via leaked information, and by the NSA’s own admission, it has been noted that Facebook not only knew about, but also cooperated with the mass spying program. The NSA even masqueraded as Facebook via fake servers, using them as a launching pad to grab information from hard drives, in order to infect millions of computers around the world with malware as part of the mass surveillance program.