Are the Pentagon’s Social Media Studies a Waste of Money?

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Drew Hendricks is a tech, social media and environmental addict. He’s written for many major publishers such as Forbes and Entrepreneur.

Research labs at the Pentagon have undertaken “dozens” of studies focused on how social media is used, but there doesn’t appear to be a clear goal or strategy. The Guardian was the first to report on these findings, which has many people asking two questions: Was it worth it, and what exactly is the government after anyway? This came on the heels of Facebook announcing that it had been studying its own users, which didn’t set the stage well.

The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) is behind these scores of studies, which have cost millions to complete. The details are fuzzy, but it’s been found that Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Kickstarter were the most interesting to DARPA. The news broke when a list of publications was posted on the DARPA site discussing the Social Media in Strategic Communications (SMISC) campaign.

What DARPA says
The public statement reads, “The general goal of the SMISC program is to develop a new science of social networks built on an emerging technology base. Through the program, DARPA seeks to develop tools to support the efforts of human operators to counter misinformation or deception campaigns with truthful information.”

Anyone can see the many research studies, which are linked to reputable agencies such as IBB, Georgia Tech Research and the University of Southern California. Each of these research hubs lean heavily on the Pentagon for funding, sometimes 100 percent. It’s alleged by journalists that each project gets funding from the federal agency and then largely gets free range to study just about anything to do with social media.

A history of eyebrow-raising
DARPA has been in existence since 1958 and has been key in developing robotics, drones and even capitalizing on advances in the Internet for the Pentagon. The Guardian reports that, “While some elements of the multi-million dollar project might raise a wry smile — research has included analysis of the tweets of celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber in an attempt to understand influence on Twitter — others have resulted in the buildup of massive datasets of tweets and additional types of social media posts.”

In other words, the Pentagon spent millions collecting big data that might have a short shelf life. If data isn’t properly translated and put into actionable terms, it’s basically useless. Even though the research results have been posted, that doesn’t mean the information gleaned from these efforts was useful or, if they were, that they were put to good use. “The project list includes a study of how activists with the Occupy movement used Twitter as well as a range of research on tracking Internet memes and some about understanding how influence behavior” happens, says The Guardian.

DARPA fights back
Once news of this social media big data kerfuffle began to make rounds, DARPA shot back a lengthy reply, claiming that social media is paramount to understand. The program points out that people are using platforms to self-assign to special interest groups, “including some that aim to harm the United States.”

It’s not clear how Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga fit into the security of the United States, but so far, DARPA isn’t backing down when defending the millions spent on Facebooking.

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