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The U.S. Military is sifting through hundreds of billions of social media messages, scouring for patterns that identify “popular movements.” Like Black Lives Matter, Antifa, or 3 Percenters.

The project is based in Monterey, California at the Naval Postgraduate School and is already searching through a whopping 350 billion social media messages, from over 200 million users all around the world. Professor Antoine Bousquet, from the Birbeck University of London, stated by email, “the scale and global reach of this program is striking.” Printed out, the messages would be a 10,000 mile high stack of standard copy paper.

The existing Department of Defense effort to harness huge troves of data is designed to track popular movements and how they evolve by cataloging messages from more than 100 countries in 60 different languages. Research into “collective expression” requires thoroughly analyzing posts and all of their comments to harvest things like user names, location identifiers and all the rest of the “metadata” that is stored in social messages.

The research teams are currently compiling data from 2014 to 2016. While you can rest assured that your private messages aren’t being snooped, yet, all your other social media posts are.

“We need to better understand how narratives are shaped and communities are formed online to defend ourselves against these campaigns.”

There are over 1,2 billion users daily on Facebook alone. At least 300 million a month use Twitter.

“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,” principle researcher, T. Camber Warren, writes, “so that we can begin to understand how and why communities come to be formed around certain forms of discourse rather than others.”

His earlier studies examined African conflicts to show how some forms of mass media like radio broadcasts can have a calming effect but interactive social media can fan the flames and start riots.

Artificial intelligence can use this research data to explore the “increasingly subtle shifts in cultural context.”

While on the surface, projects like these seem important to defend us from terrorists, one of the drawbacks of this kind of research, William A. Carter, with the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington notes, is the potential for abuse.

“We need to better understand how narratives are shaped and communities are formed online to defend ourselves against these campaigns,” he relates. “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.”

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