DARPA to use social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter as weapons in future confiicts


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Source: NY Times

The Pentagon is developing plans to use social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter as both a resource and a weapon in future conflicts. Its research and development agency is offering $42 million in funding to anyone who can help.

Social media will change the nature of warfare just as surely as the telegraph, the radio and the telephone did, and the Pentagon is fearful of being caught short. Some of its goals were laid out in a document being circulated among potential researchers and is to be presented at a briefing on Tuesday in Arlington, Va., at the offices of the military contractor System Planning Corporation.

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.

Social networks can allow the military not only to follow but also to shape the action. In its 37-page solicitation, Darpa described how a would-be high-technology lynching was foiled: “Rumors about the location of a certain individual began to spread in social media space and calls for storming the rumored location reached a fever pitch. By chance, responsible authorities were monitoring the social media, detected the crisis building, sent out effective messaging to dispel the rumors and averted a physical attack on the rumored location.”

(Is this a reference to Osama bin Laden or someone much more obscure? Were the “responsible authorities” trying to put off an attack because the individual was not at the location, or because he was? Darpa officials did not return e-mails requesting comment.)

The crisis was formed, observed, understood and diffused entirely within social media, the solicitation noted. But the success of the authorities was a fluke, the result of “luck and unsophisticated manual methods.”

All the more urgent, then, is the need to analyze what is happening and to fight back by countermessaging. A successful program would influence attitudes through methods including automatically generating content, formerly known as spam, and “inducing identities,” which might be whipping up fake combatants.

All of this cyberwarfare will, of course, make it even less clear what is real and what is synthetic on the Internet, but that is not the military’s problem and was possibly inevitable anyway. As Admiral Nimitz of the United States Navy wrote in 1948, “Technology in warfare, as in all else, has simplified some details but greatly complicated the aggregate.”

Interested participants will have to hurry. Preliminary proposals are due in the coming weeks. Darpa warned that projects that were merely evolutionary would be nonstarters.

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