social Experiments

Similar to Facebook’s controversial social experiment, The U.S. Defense Department conducts a range of social media experiments, including one project that analyzed how users understand and consume information on Twitter.

Before the Facebook mood experiment drew the ire of privacy advocates, the media and Internet users, the U.S. Defense Department’s military research department DARPA published a list of projects funded under its Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program, which includes links to abstracts and research papers.

DARPA examined the activities, social connections and messages of users on a variety of popular social media networks like Facebook, Twitter and Kickstarter. The multi-million dollar projects have resulted in massive datasets of social media posts and tweets.

One study looked closely at the tweets, retweets and interactions prompted by Lady Gaga, who was described as “the most popular elite user on Twitter” and Justin Bieber, who is “extremely popular among teenagers,” to gauge celebrity influence.

According to The Guardian, “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.”

IBM received $8.9 million in DARPA funds that went to academic researchers and others. “A further $9.6m has gone through academic hubs like Georgia Tech and Indiana University,” reports The Guardian. One of IBM’s studies analyzed the attitudes and perceptions of Twitter users on fracking.

Another study concluded that breaking news stories are susceptible to deceit and the spread of misinformation due to being “heavily represented in social media.” At least one study included data sets of personality traits that may influence retweeting behavior.

A DARPA-funded study carried out by the University of South California collected and analyzed tweets from 2,400 Twitter users residing in the Middle East to understand their interactions with other Twitter users and how information spreads throughout their personal networks.

Similar studies attempted to pinpoint how opinions on social media affect behavioral change such as taking a particular action or simply spreading anti-government information. One study concluded that information on Twitter is shared among like-minded individuals more than being debated among users who have differing opinions.

Sources tell The Guardian that “data was from public streams in social networks, and was collected and stored by academics at institutions conducting the research, not by DARPA itself.” One researcher involved in a Twitter experiment told The Guardian that “there is no requirement of informed consent.” The argument appears to be that collective data collecting does not infringe upon individual rights.

The DARPA website says the program’s goal is “to develop a new science of social networks built on an emerging technology base” in order to counteract “misinformation or deception campaigns with truthful information” and assist human operators. From The Guardian:

However, papers leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden indicate that U.S. and British intelligence agencies have been deeply engaged in planning ways to covertly use social media for purposes of propaganda and deception.
 
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.

In the statement, DARPA said its research is “essential to U.S. defense interests.”

Social media is changing the way people inform themselves, share ideas, and organize themselves into interest groups, including some that aim to harm the United States,” said a spokesman. “DARPA supports academic research that seeks to understand some of these dynamics through analyses of publicly available discussions conducted on social media platforms.

In April 2014, an AP investigation also found that the U.S. government created a Cuban text-based social network called ZunZuneo to seed dissent and undermine the communist government.

While Facebook has half-heartedly apologized for the experiment it carried out on 700,000 unsuspecting users by saying it was “poorly communicated” to the public, DARPA’s recently published records indicate that Facebook was involved in at least one other military-funded social media research project. The experiment has also drawn the attention of Congress.