The activities of users of Twitter and other social media services were recorded and analysed as part of a major project funded by the US military, in a program that covers ground similar to Facebook’s controversial experiment into how to control emotions by manipulating news feeds.
Research funded directly or indirectly by the US Department of Defense’s military research department, known as Darpa, has involved users of some of the internet’s largest destinations, including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Kickstarter, for studies of social connections and how messages spread.
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.
Several of the DoD-funded studies went further than merely monitoring what users were communicating on their own, instead messaging unwitting participants in order to track and study how they responded.
Shortly before the Facebook controversy erupted, Darpa published a lengthy list of the projects funded under its Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program, including links to actual papers and abstracts.
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 behaviour (liking, following, retweeting) happens on a range of popular social media platforms like Pinterest, Twitter, Kickstarter, Digg and Reddit.
Darpa, established in 1958, is responsible for technological research for the US military. Its notable successes have included no less than Arpanet, the precursor to today’s internet, and numerous other innovations, including onion routing, which powers anonymising technologies like Tor. However, thanks to some of its more esoteric projects, which have included thought-controlled robot arms, city-wide surveillance programs and exo-skeletons, the agency has also become the subject of many conspiracy theories, and a staple in programmes like the X-Files.
Unveiled in 2011, the SMISC program was regarded as a bid by the US military to become better at both detecting and conducting propaganda campaigns on social media.