You don’t need to have 5,000 friends of Facebook to know that social media can have a notorious mix of rumor, gossip and just plain disinformation. The Pentagon is looking to build a tool to sniff out social media propaganda campaigns and spit some counter-spin right back at it.
On Thursday, Defense Department extreme technology arm Darpa unveiled its Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program. It’s an attempt to get better at both detecting and conducting propaganda campaigns on social media. SMISC has two goals. First, the program needs to help the military better understand what’s going on in social media in real time — particularly in areas where troops are deployed. Second, Darpa wants SMISC to help the military play the social media propaganda game itself.
This is more than just checking the trending topics on Twitter. The Defense Department wants to deeply grok social media dynamics. So SMISC algorithms will be aimed at discovering and tracking the “formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes)” on social media, according to Darpa’s announcement.
Not all memes, of course. Darpa’s not looking to track the latest twists on foul bachelor frog or see if the Taliban is making propaganda versions of courage wolf. Instead, it wants to see what ideas are bubbling up in among social media users in a particular area — say, where American troops are deployed.
More specifically, SMISC needs to be able to seek out “persuasion campaign structures and influence operations” developing across the social sphere. SMISC is supposed to quickly flag rumors and emerging themes on social media, figure out who’s behind it and what. Moreover, Darpa wants SMISC to be able to actually figure out whether this is a random product of the hivemind or a propaganda operation by an adversary nation or group.
Of course, SMISC won’t be content to just to hang back and monitor social media trends in strategic locations. It’s about building a better spin machine for Uncle Sam, too. Once SMISC’s latches on to an influence operation being launched, it’s supposed to help out in “countermessaging.”
Darpa’s announcement talks about using SMISC “the environment in which [the military] operates” and where it “conducts operations.” That strongly implies it’s intended for use in sensing and messaging to foreign social media. It better, lest it run afoul of the law. The Smith-Mundt Act makes pointing propaganda campaigns at domestic audiences illegal.
What exactly SMISC will look like it its final form is hard to say. At the moment, Darpa is only in the very beginning stages of researching its social media tool. They’re focused on researching the brains of the program — the algorithms and software that’ll identify, locate and make sense of social media trends.
For that, they need some social media data to play around with and test on. Darpa wants bidders to create it in one of two ways. Bidders can round up a few thousand test subjects willing to let their social media data be a guinea pig for SMISC’s software. Alternatively, they can rope in some consenting test subjects for a massively multiplayer role playing game in which generating social media data is a key part of gameplay.
SMISC is yet another example of how the military is becoming very interested in what’s going on in the social media sphere. Darpa has plans to integrate social media data into its manhunt master controller, Insight. NATO has already been paying keen attention to Twitter, using data from the micro-blogging service as an intel source to aid in bomb targeting decisions.
Darpa’s presolicitation offers a very vaguely-sourced anecdote spelling out how SMISC could be used. It details how a social media rumor about the location of a particularly reviled individual — identity and location undisclosed — almost led a lynch mob to storm a house in search of him. Authorities who happened to be paying attention to the Internet rumor were fortunate enough to spot it in time to intervene. In this telling of SMISC’s potential applications, the software could be used to as a tripwire to stop potentially dangerous social media campaigns in their tracks.