DARPA offers $42 million for ‘revolutionary’ research on social media analysis


The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) (slogan: Creating and Preventing Strategic Surprise) is offering $42 million in funding for “revolutionary” research into social media in strategic communication.

The DARPA announcement states:

The conditions under which our Armed Forces conduct operations are rapidly changing with the spread of blogs, social networking sites, and media]sharing technology (such as YouTube), and further accelerated by the proliferation of mobile technology. 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.

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. In particular, SMISC will develop automated and semi]automated operator support tools and techniques for the systematic and methodical use of social media at data scale and in a timely fashion to accomplish four specific program 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.

The New York Times comments:

As social media play increasingly large roles in fomenting unrest in countries like Egypt and Iran, the military wants systems to be able to detect and track the spread of ideas both quickly and on a broad scale. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is soliciting innovative proposals to help build what would be, at its most basic level, an Internet meme tracker.

It would be useful to know, for instance, whether signs of widespread rebellion were authentic or whether they were being created by a fringe group with little real support. Among the tools the successful seeker of government funding might choose to employ: linguistic cues, patterns of information flow, topic trend analysis, sentiment detection and opinion mining.

The value for defense intelligence of social media and social network mining is evident. I have been following how intelligence agencies have been using network analysis from the mid-1990s, including writing an article on the topic in The Bulletin in July 1997, and in 2005 I wrote about Social networks, intelligence, and homeland security, covering some of the players in the space.

What is interesting here is that DARPA believes that the currently available tools are inadequate for its needs. The document says:

Proposed research should investigate innovative approaches that enable revolutionary advances in science, devices, or systems. Specifically excluded is research that primarily results in evolutionary improvements to the existing state of practice.

While the field of social media monitoring and analysis is gradually maturing, we can unquestionably get a whole lot better than the current commercial offerings in the space. While U.S. defence is unlikely to share what it learns from this project, I am sure that we will see substantial improvement in the field over coming years.