You are being observed!

The Pentagon admits spending millions to study social media manipulation. You might just be one of the subjects of those studies.

military social media research

Social networks are microcosms of human behavior. In terms of research, they represent a golden opportunity, or like one researcher put it once: “it’s like having millions of subjects put together in a dark room – a research dream come true”. No wonder then that social media networks have become a mecca of social behavior research in the last few years. Once forced to conduct painstaking personal interviews with subjects, scientists can now sit at a screen and instantly play with the digital experiences of millions of Internet users. It’s the frontier of social science — experiments on people who may never even know they are subjects of study, let alone explicitly consent.

While this ethical question of consent still remains unanswered, social research using the internet is a norm. Some of it, like the ability of understanding better how infectious diseases spread is a blessing, but this research playground can also be a sinister place, fertile ground for social engineering, manipulation, and social control. And that’s exactly what is going on.

One of the latest revelations leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, indicate that US and British intelligence agencies have been deeply engaged in planning ways to covertly use social media for purposes of propaganda and deception.

The Guardian reports:

“Documents prepared by NSA and Britain's GCHQ (and previously published by The Intercept as well as NBC News) revealed aspects of some of these programs. They included a unit engaged in “discrediting” the agency’s enemies with false information spread online. Earlier this year, the Associated Press also revealed the clandestine creation by USAid of a Twitter-like, Cuban communications network to undermine the Havana government. The network, built with secret shell companies and financed through a foreign bank, lasted more than two years and drew tens of thousands of subscribers. It sought to evade Cuba's stranglehold on the internet with a primitive social media platform”.

From Occupy movement to Lady Gaga

The Guardian tells in length about the research. As part of it, the activities of users of Twitter and other social media services were recorded and analyzed in this project funded by the US military. 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.

So what were the studies actually about? Well, some were just cute like following and analyzing twitter accounts of lady gaga and Justin Bieber. But others like the one called Modeling User Attitude toward Controversial Topics in Online Social Media analyzed Twitter users’ opinions on fracking. Another, called Cues to Deception in Social Media Communications studied just that – how to deceive on social media. While “Who Will Retweet This? Automatically Identifying and Engaging Strangers on Twitter to Spread Information”, found ways to “identify and engage the right people at the right time on social media to help propagate information when needed.”

Maybe even more disturbing, as part of DARPA research, a study was conducted about how activists with the Occupy movement used Twitter. Now why would a government want to understand how activists use the internet?

Would you like to take part in these forms of research without your consent?