Why the US Navy is Analyzing 350 Billion Social Media Posts

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The study's purpose is to understand how popular movements and communication evolve.

In a large-scale project designed to help track how popular movements evolve, the US Navy is combing through 350 billion social media messages from around the world. A tender document from the Naval Postgraduate School shows that there will be at least 200 million users from over 100 countries and more than 60 languages involved. Data from these messages include usernames, comments, metadata, location, and hometown identifiers will be examined.

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As reported by Bloomberg, “the study’s purpose is to look at social-media messages posted publicly between July 2014 and December 2016 on a single platform.” No private messages will be included in the study and no individual users will be identified. The social media platforms being examined have not been publically identified either.

The project is part of a Department of Defense Analysis effort to analyze big data for social research. Additional requirements for the project include how no more than 30% of messages can come from one particular country, at least 50% need to be in English, and that location data must be included for at least 20% of the records.

“Social media data allows us for the first time, to measure how colloquial expressions and slang evolve over time, across a diverse array of human societies, so that we can begin to understand how and why communities come to be formed around certain forms of discourse rather than others,” T Camber Warren, the project's lead researcher, told Bloomberg.

Warren explained that the data will be used to better understand how patterns of discourse change over time. Additionally, algorithms may use the data to understand “increasingly subtle shifts in cultural context.”

Projects such as these are important for defending against adversaries who aim to undermine democracy or create social divisions within western countries. However, there is a chance that this project may be used for malicious purposes, as William A. Carter, deputy director for tech policy at the Center for Strategic & International Studies observes.

“There is a risk that as we learn to exploit this data to manage how people interact online, it will give governments and bad actors tools that they can use to manipulate our thoughts and behavior,” said Carter.

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