I came across a worrying call for research proposals (dated July 14th) by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA are the division of the US military that are at the forefront of advanced warfare techniques – whether it is robotics, nano-technology or (as this latest solicitation suggests) social media.

Social media must be the thorn in the side of any military. As the epitome of hierarchical structures, military force is threatened by the rise of networked forms of organisation. Both terrorists and activists alike are able to capitalise on the borderless benefits of social media by interacting and communicating under the radar, creating and disseminating their own images of global conflict and recruiting new members.

It is not surprising that the US military would begin building a social media based approach to warfare and  try to gain control over the anarchic web, especially if they want to influence and recruit the new digitally native generation.

The DARPA announcement is offering $42 million as part of the Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program to any project that can help the US face the ‘profound’ changes of the communication revolution and help leverage the power of social media. The four program goals are:

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 document explains that current approaches to social media rely on chance and manual methods to ‘detect, classify, measure, track and influence events in social media’. This needs to be replaced by automated processes that can deal with the millions of person to person interactions that occur online every day. The main technological areas to be focused on are:

1. Linguistic cues, patterns of information flow, topic trend analysis, narrative structure analysis, sentiment detection and opinion mining;

2. Meme tracking across communities, graph analytics/probabilistic reasoning, pattern detection, cultural narratives;

3. Inducing identities, modeling emergent communities, trust analytics, network dynamics modeling;

4. Automated content generation, bots in social media, crowd sourcing.

It seems to me that DARPA intend to build programmes that will use natural language processing and meme tracking to find relevant conversations, intervene when any conversation reaches a dangerous level and use bots to communicate with all parties involved (probably a bot pretending to be human).

Most of the technology for the above already exists. For example, market researchers have been processing and automatically understanding vast amounts of text for some time now, and the Turing test is getting closer every year to convincing a panel of judges that a computer is a person.

It seems to me that the social media landscape and tools that have been so liberating these past few years will eventually fall into the hands of governmental authorities and become instruments of state violence and surveillance. The only question now is how quickly can those that resist the state create powerful social media tools of their own.