Can the US military fight a war with Twitter?

New projects could bring about a change in the way intelligence is gathered

Credit: Image credit: IDG News Service/Kerry Davis

Students at a U.S. military graduate school in California are mining social media with new methods that may change the way the armed forces collect intelligence overseas.

Students and researchers at the Naval Postgraduate School have tackled two projects that could begin the shift in the way intelligence is gathered. The first is a piece of software they wrote that harnesses the Twitter API (application programming interface) and the second is a project focusing on Syria that uses many social networks to look at U.S. policy options there, though civil liberties experts say the technology concerns them.

The software for Twitter, called the Dynamic Twitter Network Analysis (DTNA), is now being field-tested by three Defense Department units overseas to help gauge public opinion in some of the world's hot spots.

The software pulls in data from the public Twitter feed, then sorts it, live, by phrases, keywords or hashtags. The program is continuously updated, integrating a mapping feature and geo-tagged information. Intelligence officers could use DTNA to understand people's moods about a topic, or hopefully prevent or simply respond faster in any future U.S. embassy attacks.

The group's second project incorporates the DTNA software but also pulls in public information from Facebook, YouTube, Google and other sources to protect potential weapon-of-mass-destruction sites in Syria while the conflict there continues.

The Syria project is spearheaded by an intelligence officer getting his master's degree at the school.

Army Major Seth Lucente set out to analyze Syria with social media because of the U.S. plan to keep from entering the Syrian civil war unless chemical weapon stockpiles are exposed to danger. That goal was spelled out by U.S. President Barack Obama in August, which sparked Lucente's idea for the project. (You can watch a video of the speech here.)

The methodology Lucente and researchers are using is called sentiment analysis. It's been around for about 10 years, used primarily by consumer-facing companies to pull public information on social media streams and analyze it for trends. But this is the first known use of sentiment analysis by the military.

"In the commercial world, everyone is doing it," said Bing Liu, a computer science professor who works on sentiment analysis and data mining at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "I'm not aware of work in the military. But I'm sure they're using it."

But Lucente says that was exactly the problem; intelligence methods are more antiquated than that. The military's standard intelligence-collection techniques still tend to mimic those of the Cold War, with satellite imagery and agents deployed to locations to collect information. Depending on the difficulty in accessing locations or groups, it can take a year or more to corroborate information. When analyzing mood, he says those steps simply take too long.

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