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Pentagon Looked at Activists to Study Social Media 'Influencing'

'When anti-government messages are spread in social media, government would want to spread counter messages to balance that effort.'

(Photo: Privacy International / cc)

(Photo: Privacy International / cc)

Reporting by the Guardian newspaper reveals the U.S. military has been spearheading and funding research which examines the use of social media services, like Twitter and Facebook, with a specific eye towards how such tools are used by political activists and how such networks might be "manipulated" or "influenced."

Based on documents posted to the website of the Pentagon's research arm, known as DARPA, the reporting details the military's interest in social media networks and reveals how research into how they operate was channeled through large corporations, like IBM, and academic research institutions, which included the University of Indiana, Georgia Tech, and others.

Though pithy at times--some of the research focused on the ecumen of pop celebrities on Twitter, like Lady Gaga and Justin Beiber--the darker elements reveal a Pentagon mindset

Among those who had their online behavior scrutinized were participants in the Occupy Movement that took off in 2011, Arab Spring activists overseas, and those involved with other highly-charged political issues like fracking, capital punishment, and the fight against genetically-engineered foods.

As an example, researchers for DARPA-backed study stated: “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.”

The new revelations come in the wake of recent news that Facebook allowed researchers to conduct an "emotional manipulation" experiment on its users by secretly changing settings that only allowed certain kinds of content—positive stories, for example—to reach people's news feeds in order to see if their emotional responses could be altered through the digital interface.


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As the Guardian notes, "papers leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden indicate that US and British intelligence agencies have been deeply engaged in planning ways to covertly use social media for purposes of propaganda and deception."

According to the new reporting:

Several of the DoD-funded projects went further than simple observation, instead engaging directly with social media users and analysing their responses.

One of multiple studies looking into how to spread messages on the networks, titled “Who Will Retweet This? Automatically Identifying and Engaging Strangers on Twitter to Spread Information” did just this.

The researchers explained: “Since everyone is potentially an influencer on social media and is capable of spreading information, our work aims to identify and engage the right people at the right time on social media to help propagate information when needed.”


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