Social Media as Intelligence Gatherer?

Posted on January 25th 2013

Social Media as Intelligence Gatherer?

Pretty much everyone has heard the adage that “knowledge is power.” The great thing about proverbs is the vast number of scenarios or circumstances that they can be applied to. In this particular case I would like to interpret the saying “knowledge is power” as the acquisition of knowledge being tantamount to having the power to affect change. Keep this in mind as you read on.

social media gather intelligence

A little while ago, I read an article on Mashable that essentially reported the Department of Defense is looking into a new way to analyze an ever-growing amount of unstructured text. This initiative has been called the “Data to Decisions” program. In a nutshell, the purpose is to find a way to identify connections between the information put out over social media and the passing of related events. 

No great detail is given explaining how the brains behind this operation hope to pull off such a monumental task. However, some hints were dropped so as to provide a vague enlightenment. The article expresses an interest in developing a means to convert all of the information available in social media to a single format that can be analyzed with the greatest efficiency. The ambitious project seeks to track information clusters, deduce possibilities by combining existing data on things like current economic climate and social patterns. When all of this information is pieced together and interpreted, the idea is that action can be taken to prevent terrorist activity, avert disasters, and limit atrocities.

If nothing else, a project as grand as “Data to Decisions” has the potential to cock a few eyebrows and stimulate serious thought. Naturally, a lot of questions arise with respect to the plausibility, feasibility, and morality of such an undertaking. The voices of skeptics and conspiracy theorists would be few, but among the loudest.

I imagine the skeptic would take a look at compiling information into a single, computer-readable format and scoff. Attempting to find patterns in the amount of information could be written off as finding a needle in a hay stack. Additional problems arise when one considers how information is presented. Forget about veiling information in code. Based on some of the social media posts that I have seen, language can be pretty incoherent. Spelling errors, abbreviations, and deplorable grammatical/spelling skills make it a chore for many to understand what is being communicated. Isn’t it a possibility that resources would still be used in the attempt to filter out the irrelevant and ensure the relevant gets through?

Let’s say the program bears fruit and intelligence is gathered and compiled in a way that can be used with sufficient results to keep the initiative going. Enter the conspiracy theorist... It may put many at ease to know that people aiming to do harm are being thwarted in their malicious efforts. At this point Sir John Dalberg-Acton and one of his notable quotes come to mind. Believing that power tends to corrupt, the conspiracy theorist might say that the ability keep tabs on malicious activity may give way to more selfish interests. What would stop an institution from using gathered information to find and silence legitimate voices of protest and criticism? What if democratic values and freedom of speech fall to more oppressive actions and censorship habits? 

Certainly, other perspectives are available and each has their merit. It’s fair to suggest that social media can provide a good deal of insight into the behaviors of groups, individuals, and social trends. On the other hand, developing an algorithm to predict human nature and calculate an infinite number of variables may be little more than a daydream. 


Christopher Hansen

Chris Hansen is a freelance writer with a Master's in social studies education and Bachelor's in history.  Follow Chris on twitter @ChrisDaleHansen

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Posted on January 25th 2013 at 11:44PM

Hi Chris:

I'm surprised that you find this effort controversial, surprising or difficult.  


The NSA has been working on massive scale text, voice and other analytics (for content understanding) and network analytics (for network analysis) for more than 10 years.  They were licensing software to analyze and visualize massive data sets of unstructured text way back in 2003.

This isn't some future science fiction, it is current reality.