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Wary of Egypt, Pentagon Throws $42 Million at Social Media/Cyber Warfare

Posted on Wednesday, 3rd August 2011 @ 09:35 AM by Text Size A | A | A

Pentagon Seeks a Few Good Social Networkers

By DAVID STREITFELD

The Pentagon is developing plans to use social
networking sites like Facebook and Twitter as both a resource and a
weapon in future conflicts. Its research and development agency is
offering $42 million in funding to anyone who can help.

Social
media will change the nature of warfare just as surely as the telegraph,
the radio and the telephone did, and the Pentagon is fearful of being
caught short. Some of its goals were laid out in a document
being circulated among potential researchers and is to be presented at a
briefing on Tuesday in Arlington, Va., at the offices of the military
contractor System Planning Corporation.

As social media play
increasingly large roles in fomenting unrest in countries like Egypt and
Iran, the military wants systems to be able to detect and track the
spread of ideas both quickly and on a broad scale. The Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency is soliciting innovative proposals to help
build what would be, at its most basic level, an Internet meme tracker.

It
would be useful to know, for instance, whether signs of widespread
rebellion were authentic or whether they were being created by a fringe
group with little real support. Among the tools the successful seeker of
government funding might choose to employ: linguistic cues, patterns of
information flow, topic trend analysis, sentiment detection and opinion
mining.

Social networks can allow
the military not only to follow but also to shape the action. In its
37-page solicitation, Darpa described how a would-be high-technology
lynching was foiled: “Rumors about the location of a certain individual
began to spread in social media space and calls for storming the rumored
location reached a fever pitch. By chance, responsible authorities were
monitoring the social media, detected the crisis building, sent out
effective messaging to dispel the rumors and averted a physical attack
on the rumored location.”

(Is this a reference to Osama bin Laden
or someone much more obscure? Were the “responsible authorities” trying
to put off an attack because the individual was not at the location, or
because he was? Darpa officials did not return e-mails requesting
comment.)

The crisis was formed, observed, understood and diffused
entirely within social media, the solicitation noted. But the success
of the authorities was a fluke, the result of “luck and unsophisticated
manual methods.”

All the more urgent, then, is the need to analyze
what is happening and to fight back by countermessaging. A successful
program would influence attitudes through methods including
automatically generating content, formerly known as spam, and “inducing
identities,” which might be whipping up fake combatants.

All of
this cyberwarfare will, of course, make it even less clear what is real
and what is synthetic on the Internet, but that is not the military’s
problem and was possibly inevitable anyway. As Admiral Nimitz of the
United States Navy wrote in 1948, “Technology in warfare, as in all
else, has simplified some details but greatly complicated the
aggregate.”

Interested participants will have to hurry.
Preliminary proposals are due in the coming weeks. Darpa warned that
projects that were merely evolutionary would be nonstarters.

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