It has been an interesting year for politics and social networks.  It began early in the year with the so-called “Arab Spring” when several countries in the Middle East found themselves in the midst of a social network-fueled demand for regime change that spilled over into the real world.  A few weeks ago something similar began in New York and has since spread rapidly to other cities in western democracies: the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Again, largely using social networks to spread the word, these protests against economic injustice have quickly grown from a few, largely-ignored “fringe” elements to a much more recognized political faction (just as the Tea Party did a couple of years earlier).

While I don’t expect the OWS movement to lead to the overthrow of western democracies, it does give one pause to wonder what the role of the US government should be when faced with a rising tide of voices demanding change to “business as usual.”

We all certainly hope that our government listens and responds to legitimate criticism.  It may be telling, though, to read through what some think the US government should be able to do within social networks.  I had occasion to review a Broad Agency Announcement (sort of a pre-RFP) from DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) entitled Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC).  Just so you know, this BAA is a matter of public record and freely available on the web (or at least it was as of this writing), so I’m not divulging anything secret or even remotely confidential.  Here are some of the things DARPA was interested in having someone develop:

“The general goal of the Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program is to develop a new science of social networks built on an emerging technology base. In particular, SMISC will develop automated and semi‐automated operator support tools and techniques for the systematic and methodical use of social media at data scale and in a timely fashion to accomplish four specific program goals:
1. Detect, classify, measure and track the (a) formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes), and (b) purposeful or deceptive messaging and misinformation.
2. Recognize persuasion campaign structures and influence operations across social media sites and communities.
3. Identify participants and intent, and measure effects of persuasion campaigns.
4. Counter messaging of detected adversary influence operations.”

In other words, DARPA wants the US government to have the ability to monitor social networks to detect “threats,” then identify individuals connected to the “threats,” and to inject “counter messaging” into social networks to disrupt “threats.”  Now ostensibly this capability is supposed to be used to provide sort of an early warning radar to detect “events of strategic as well as tactical importance to our Armed Forces.”  And, since the US Armed Forces are not supposed to be operating within the borders of the United States, this capability is presumably intended to monitor and defuse threats on foreign soil. 

I think, though, that this would be a very difficult genie to put back into the bottle if it were ever unleashed.  To begin with, social networks aren’t greatly confined by geographic borders.  It’s a slippery slope from detecting and deflecting threats on foreign soil, to detecting threats originating on foreign soil to assets in the US, to detecting threats within the US to assets within the US.  Furthermore, what constitutes a “threat?” Certainly acts of violence constitute a threat, but what about threats of a more political nature; demands threatening protests and unrest if something isn’t done to change “business as usual?” 

In short, is what’s happening with Occupy Wall Street something that politicians (the people who will have the keys to anything DARPA builds in this arena) would perceive as a threat?  And if they do, would they be tempted to unleash countermeasures to marginalize and ridicule those messages as a means of defusing them.

Is this a capability that we want our government to have? And if so, how do we “ring fence” that capability so that it isn’t used domestically to stifle unwanted political opposition?