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

Jill Moss jmoss at
Thu Nov 29 09:32:57 PST 2012

This story is from 2011.  Open Source Ctr has done sentiment analysis via social media for a few yrs.   using a variety of SaaS tools. 

Jill Moss
Internet Anti-Censorship Team
Broadcasting Board of Governors
Twitter: @jmoss2
jmoss at<mailto:jmoss at>

On Nov 29, 2012, at 12:27 PM, "Eugen Leitl" <eugen at> wrote:

> 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
> systems."
> 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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