The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is funding research studying how to use Facebook and other social media as a platform to influence and control the thoughts and minds of large groups of people using mathematical models for the behavior of robots and drones. The Air Force Research Laboratory recently funded investigatory work by the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Florida, as encapsulated in a paper entitled Containment Control for a Social Network with State-Dependent Connectivity. The idea of the study was to explore the mathematical language used to direct autonomous drones or robots in the context of human group behavior. The researchers believe that mathematical principles can be used to control large populations of social media users.
The U.S. DOD funded study did not research actual human behavior in the manner of recently criticized Facebook research or even actual drones and robots. The study conducted by the University of Florida team relied on computer simulations. In contrast, the Facebook study undertaken through the Cornell University Social Media Lab fed information to actual Facebook users to gauge their reactions. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is the primary arm of the military tasked with studying social media and technology, has specifically disavowed any effort for real-world studies without tight controls. Any research undertaken using real people will involve voluntary subjects with knowledge of the research goals.
Warren Dixon, Ph. D., the lead researcher in the Air Force funded study, explained the ideas driving the research. Using the Graph theory mathematical language used in control systems for autonomous robots, the researchers developed a mathematical model to study the use of “key influencers” in social networks to direct the behavior of groups within a social network. The coercion of the groups within the network occurs through a process known as “containment control.” The ultimate object of the study and related research is to learn how leaders within a group, who have their own points of emphasis and objectives, can change the opinions of followers who are unaware of the “high level objective.”
The social media research is the next stage of study by the U.S. Military in order to influence the hearts and minds of the citizenry. The motives need not be ulterior or sinister, even if they perhaps sound that way. Learning how to maximize the use of Facebook and other social media to achieve military goals makes sense. Maximizing the use of social media could assist military personnel engaged in foreign theaters of combat by using local community leaders to garner support for U.S. efforts. Further, the U.S. Department of Defense must keep up with the means used to influence opinions through social media to pick up on strategies possibly used by others to steer U.S. public opinion.
The next step in the process of the U.S. DOD developing Facebook and social media platform strategies to influence and control the opinions and minds of network users is to conduct studies using groups of people, and then applying the mathematical models used to control drones and robots to the human subjects. Researcher Dixon said that DARPA has struggled with developing an appropriate “closed loop experiment” to carry the research forward. Now that word is spreading regarding DARPA’s research goals, many will be curious how they choose to proceed.
By William Costolo