Millions of Americans use social media every day, and the Pentagon wants to know how to how the information they see might be used to control their behavior as if they were robots.
The Department of Defense has spent millions of dollars in recent years on research aimed at harnessing the power of social media to direct human behavior on a large scale. The Air Force even published findings on the subject in February titled “Containment Control for a Social Network with State-Dependent Connectivity,” the technology website Ars Technica reported Thursday.
“A less investigated problem is once you’ve identified the network, how do you manipulate it toward an end,” Warren Dixon, director of the University of Florida’s Nonlinear Controls and Robotics research group, told Ars Technica. Mr. Dixon, who holds a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering, was the principal investigator on an Air Force Research Laboratory-funded project.
In short, researchers found that large populations of social media consumers can likely be controlled by using mathematical principles, Ars Technica reported. Mr. Dixon and his fellow team members believe that a sound mathematical formula would allow an entity like the Department of Defense to influence behavior toward a desired result.
“There’s a group of leaders, each of which has their own objectives, and they have their own topic of emphasis,” Mr. Dixon told the website of his previous work. “The goal is to have those people change the opinion or coerce the group of followers — people [who are] in the social group of these people but don’t know the high level objective.”
Mr. Dixon essentially said smaller groups of influential individuals can be used to sway much larger populations, and social media can be manipulated to leverage their influence even further.
Unlike Facebook, which recently had to publicly apologize for real-world tests it did in conjunction with Cornell University, Mr. Dixon’s team only ran simulations, Ars Technica reported. Facebook and its researchers manipulated the data streams of its users, something the Pentagon did not do.
“The problem is, how do you perform a closed-loop experiment? That’s something [the Pentagon] has struggled with,” Mr. Dixon told the website.
In response to Facebook’s infamous study, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) went out of its way to state that its studies are different.
“DARPA does not support research programs that aim to deceive unwitting people to see how they react (as the controversial Facebook study did). DARPA funds research on how groups form and influence each other and related dynamics — similar to social science research that has been conducted for decades with other kinds of communication,” the agency said in a statement, Ars Techica reported.
“DARPA‐funded studies that have involved sending potentially deceptive information to see how people react have been conducted with closed groups of enrolled individuals who have volunteered/consented to be in social media studies,” the statement continued.