Air Force research: How to use social media to control people like drones

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Facebook isn’t the only organization conducting research into how attitudes are affected by social media. The Department of Defense has invested millions of dollars over the past few years investigating social media, social networks, and how information spreads across them. While Facebook and Cornell University researchers manipulated what individuals saw in their social media streams, military-funded research—including projects funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Social Media in Strategic Communications (SMISC) program—has looked primarily into how messages from influential members of social networks propagate.

One study, funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), has gone a step further. “A less investigated problem is once you’ve identified the network, how do you manipulate it toward an end,” said Warren Dixon, a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering and director of the University of Florida’s Nonlinear Controls and Robotics research group. Dixon was the principal investigator on an Air Force Research Laboratory-funded project, which published its findings in February in a paper entitled “Containment Control for a Social Network with State-Dependent Connectivity.”

The research demonstrates that the mathematical principles used to control groups of autonomous robots can be applied to social networks in order to control human behavior. If properly calibrated, the mathematical models developed by Dixon and his fellow researchers could be used to sway the opinion of social networks toward a desired set of behaviors—perhaps in concert with some of the social media “effects” cyber-weaponry developed by the NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ.

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