DoD funding universities to teach them how social media affects grassroots movements

The Department of Defense headquartered in the Pentagon. (A public domain photograph)
The Department of Defense headquartered in the Pentagon. (A public domain photograph)

The United States Department of Defense is funding colleges such as Cornell University and the University of Washington in an attempt to better understand how social ‘contagions’ arise and how they influence mass uprisings.

According to the Guardian, the program’s goal is to,

“…develop immediate and long-term ‘warfighter-relevant insights’ for senior officials and decision makers in ‘the defense policy community.'”

Social media, which has often been critiqued by traditional media pundits and writers as an outlet for Millennials to waste time, indulge in narcissism and engage in meaningless banter isn’t being ignored by powerful military and intelligence factions.

In fact, these entities are paying particularly close attention to the inner workings of social media.

This decision by the military community comes as little surprise to those who closely watched the attention Occupy Wall Street and other social movements around the world garnered.

The Guardian added that these projects are a result of “the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the 2011 Russian Duma elections, the 2012 Nigerian fuel subsidy crisis and the 2013 Gazi park protests in Turkey.”

(STORY: Pentagon prepares for mass civil breakdown)

From examining the use cell phone device kill switches in major cities affected by Occupy Wall Street to tracking social media users’ habits — Twitter in particular — these government entities were even able to message unsuspecting users in order to analyze their reactions to certain stimuli.

This form of surveillance of social media users is not much different than the recent controversial study conducted by Facebook on its users. The study, which many have called unethical, manipulated users’ news feeds and emotions, showing them either more negative or positive status updates of their friends, based on the experimental group subjects fell into.

(STORY: US military studied how to influence Twitter users in Darpa-funded research)

Facebook wanted to see how users’ status updates were affected by predominately negative or positive stimuli (i.e., their friends’ status updates appearing on their news feeds), which Facebook manipulated by tweaking its algorithms.

The Guardian also reported that a project awarded to the University of Washington,

“‘…seeks to uncover the conditions under which political movements aimed at large-scale political and economic change originate,’ along with their ‘characteristics and consequences.'”

Recent social movements backed by social media placed governments, military factions and the intelligence community in a reactionary position. This program, the DoD’s “Minerva Research Initiative,” is a response to 2008’s worldwide social unrest campaigns and an attempt to get out ahead of similar mass gatherings in the future.

For the most part, all of this makes sense from the perspective of the US military and intelligence agencies as their job is to maintain social order, but Guardian reporter Nafeez Ahmed raised a point of contention by asking why this program lumps non-violent activists of social change with groups that are violent.

Alarmingly, when Ahmed asked the DoD if non-violent political movements pushing for large-scale social and economic change constituted a threat to national security, he received a talking point from the press office which reiterated the department’s goals.

A professor at the University of Washington D.C., David Price, expressed concern surrounding the DoD’s recent project pointing to an existing Pentagon program called Human Terrain Systems, which was created to imbed social scientists into military operations overseas in an attempt to help military officials understand the local populations and their cultures.

He was concerned when he found evidence this program was being used within the borders of the United States, outside of military operation zones.

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2 Comments

  1. Nicely done. It’s interesting that they don’t mention the unsuccessful revolution in Iran in 2009 (I think it was). That was the first time I distinctly remember people talking about social media being used to help connect and direct people.

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