Pentagon looking to develop Twitter, Facebook Special Ops

The Pentagon is gearing up for a looming social media war–battles the military envisions will be won by being one step ahead of Twitter- and Facebook-powered insurgencies.

For the Pentagon that means developing social media tools that combine the code-breaking know-how of its intelligence services with the propaganda skills and manipulation techniques of its Pys-Ops group. On top of all that, the Pentagon hopes it can revolutionize the analysis of social media trends and conversations.

It’s all part of the Defense Department’s new Social Media in Strategic Communication program, which the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) first announced a few weeks ago.

DARPA, the Pentagon’s secretive research agency, is offering a $42 million contract to the company that can go where no social media tracker has gone before. DARPA posted a request for proposals in July that basically says don’t bother applying if your idea is nothing more than the next step in social media analytics. In other words, it means creating social media analytics light-years ahead of anything on the market or even on the drawing board. Following the trending topics on Twitter ain’t going to cut it.¬†Obviously, the use of Twitter and Facebook to organize the populist Arab Spring uprisings this year got the Pentagon’s attention. If anything, the speed with which events took place in the Middle East caught U.S. military analysts off guard. From the DARPA request for proposals:

The tools we have today for awareness and defense in the social media space are heavily dependent on chance. We must eliminate our current reliance on a combination of luck and unsophisticated manual methods by using systematic automated and semi-automated human operator support to detect, classify, measure, track and influence vents in social media at data scale and in a timely fashion.

The Pentagon makes it clear that it wants to do more than track and analyze conversations on Twitter and its ilk, it also wants to be able to counter social media campaigns with its own messaging.

While DARPA’s proposal garnered a lot of attention in the media this week, the military is hardly alone in its desire to understand social media and to figure out how to sniff out potential security threats. The Department of Homeland Security monitors social media, as does the CIA and the FBI.

Jared Keller in The Atlantic writes that research into how online social behavior affects offline social interactions is well underway at places like Indiana University’s School for Informatics and Computing:

But the potential for future advances in the social sciences — and, in turn, the military, are abundant. “The social sciences have been struggling against biases,” noted [IU researcher Fil] Menczer. ” But we can use so much data that we get a much better image than a cross-section of the population. There are millions upon millions of experiments that now we can think about because of access to this data.” For intelligence analysts looking for new ways to think about the vast troves of information circulating through the social Web, the right program for performing those experiments could be the difference between the fog of war and a sure victory against enemies foreign and domestic.

Flickr image by Steve Rhodes.