Revealed: Pentagon spent millions studying how to influence social media
Just days after a report published by researchers at Facebook revealed that users of the social media site had been manipulated for science, Ben Quinn and James Ball at the Guardian wrote this week that DARPA — the Pentagon-run Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — has in one way or another funded several studies recently that set out to explore that social networking site, as well as users of Twitter, Pinterest, Kickstarter and others.
The journalists’ report stems from a list of publications that went live on DARPA’s site late last month concerning its Social Media in Strategic Communications, or SMISC, program.
“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,” a statement there reads. “Through the program, DARPA seeks to develop tools to support the efforts of human operators to counter misinformation or deception campaigns with truthful information.”
From there, visitors to the site can view any of dozens of studies from researchers at the likes of the University of Southern California, IBM or Georgia Tech Research Institute who have relied either fully or partially on Pentagon money to conduct social media studies.
According to the journalists, the projects funded by the federal agency run the gamut of social media and include a number of studies sure to raise a few eyebrows. Formed in 1958, DARPA has been instrumental in the Pentagon's development of drones, robotics and even the internet.
“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,” the Guardian reported.
“The project list includes a study of how activists with the Occupy movement used Twitter as well as a range of research on tracking internet memes and some about understanding how influence behavior (liking, following, retweeting) happens on a range of popular social media platforms like Pinterest, Twitter, Kickstarter, Digg and Reddit.”
Responding to the Guardian’s request for comment, DARPA defended the lengthy list of social media studies.
“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,” the Guardian quotes an agency spokesperson as saying. “DARPA supports academic research that seeks to understand some of these dynamics through analyses of publicly available discussions conducted on social media platforms.”
Revelations concerning DARPA’s role in these studies comes only days after the researchers involved in the controversial Facebook report publically apologized for manipulating the posts that appeared on users’ news feeds to see how emotions can carry across the web.
“The goal of all of our research at Facebook is to learn how to provide a better service,” Facebook staffer and researcher Adam Kramer wrote.
On the Pentagon’s part, DARPA told the Guardian that the studies it has funded are essential to US defense interests.