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[liberationtech] How The CIA Uses Social Media to Track How People Feel

Eugen Leitl eugen at
Thu Nov 29 09:26:49 PST 2012

How The CIA Uses Social Media to Track How People Feel

By Jared Keller

Nov 4 2011, 4:15 PM ET

In a nondescript building in Virginia, analysts are tracking millions of
tweets, blog posts, and Facebook updates from around the world

How stable is China? What are people discussing and thinking in Pakistan? To
answer these sorts of question, the U.S. government has turned to a rich
source: social media.

The Associated Press reports that the CIA maintains a social-media tracking
center operated out of an nondescript building in a Virginia industrial park.
The intelligence analysts at the agency's Open Source Center, who other
agents refer to as "vengeful librarians," are tasked with sifting through
millions of tweets, Facebook messages, online chat logs, and other public
data on the World Wide Web to glean insights into the collective moods of
regions or groups abroad. According to the Associated Press, these librarians
are tracking up to five million tweets a day from places like China, Pakistan
and Egypt:

    From Arabic to Mandarin Chinese, from an angry tweet to a thoughtful
blog, the analysts gather the information, often in native tongue. They
cross-reference it with the local newspaper or a clandestinely intercepted
phone conversation. From there, they build a picture sought by the highest
levels at the White House, giving a real-time peek, for example, at the mood
of a region after the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden or perhaps a
prediction of which Mideast nation seems ripe for revolt.

    Yes, they saw the uprising in Egypt coming; they just didn't know exactly
when revolution might hit, said the center's director, Doug Naquin. The
center already had "predicted that social media in places like Egypt could be
a game-changer and a threat to the regime," he said in a recent interview
with The Associated Press at the center. CIA officials said it was the first
such visit by a reporter the agency has ever granted.

The CIA facility wasn't built specifically to track the ebb and flow of
social media: The program was established in response to a recommendation by
the 9/11 Commission with the initial mandate to focus on counterterrorism and
counterproliferation. According to the Associated Press, the center shifted
gears and started focusing on social media after watching thousands of
Iranian protesters turn to Twitter during the Iranian election protests of
2009, challenging the results of the elections that put Iranian President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad back in power.

In the past few years, sentiment and mood analysis have become mainstays in
the defense and intelligence communities. Last October, an Electronic
Frontier Foundation lawsuit revealed how the Department of Homeland Security
has carefully monitored a variety of public online sources, from social
networks to highly popular blogs like Daily Kos for years, alleging that
"leading up to President Obama's January 2009 inauguration, DHS established a
Social Networking Monitoring Center (SNMC) to monitor social-networking sites
for 'items of interest.' "In August, the Defense Advanced Research Projects
Agency (DARPA), invited analysts to submit proposals on the research
applications of social media to strategic communication. DARPA planned on
shelling out $42 million in funding for "memetrackers" to develop "innovative
approaches that enable revolutionary advances in science, devices, or

But how useful is all of this activity?

Memetracking is still in its infancy. I spoke with Johan Bollen, a professor
at the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University. Bollen's
research into how Twitter can be used to predict the rise and fall of the Dow
Jones Industrial Average made him a niche celebrity last year. He notes that
memetracking is facing serious challenges. For example, how do you get a
random sample?

"You have little control over the composition of a sample," Bollen explained.
"Regular surveys are conducted with only 1000 people, but those samples are
carefully balanced to provide an accurate cross section of a given society.
This is much more difficult to do in these online environments. Sure, the
samples are huge -- there are 750 million people on Facebook -- but no matter
how you look at it, it's still possible that the sample could still be
biased. It requires someone to own a computer, to be on Facebook, to even USE
Facebook... There are all kind of biases built into these samples that are
difficult to control for."

The other major challenge, says Bollen, is that sentiment analysis only
provides a scrape of potentially useful information. "Right now, analysis is
very specialized. We're looking at how people feel about very particular
topics," says Bollen. "There's a lot room for growth in deeper semantic
analysis: not just learning what people feel about something, but what people
think about things. There are 250 million people on Twitter....if you could
perform even a shallow analysis of people's opinions about something, their
semantic opinions, you can learn a lot from the wisdom of the crowd that
could be leveraged."

Diving deep into the semantics of online communication is the next big
challenge for government agencies. While the Associated Press points out that
the CIA uses native dialects to determine sample sizes and pinpoint trending
topics among target groups, deciphering the intricacies of human language is
a major obstacle, and one that will not be easily overcome.

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