Apparently some U.S. Navy-backed researchers has come up with a bizarre explanation for the grass roots uprisings that took place in Egypt last year. According to their thesis the reason for the revolt was not a cry for freedom and equality but that the idea of overthrowing their dictator spread like an infection throughout the Egyptian population. What’s even more disconcerting is the antidote they have come up with.
A team at Aptima Inc., with funding from the Office of Naval Research, is developing software that would scour the internet, including news stories, social networks and blogs, to extract topics and phrases that are gaining traction online. The software would then track how the conversations proliferate, both geographically and over time.
The software would use epidemiological modeling to chart the discussions and their trajectory. It’s the same method used in public health initiatives to figure out where a particular illness started, and how it spread. Epidemiologists collect data and use the information to make educated guesses on how causality, health and environmental factors contributed to outbreaks in any given community.
Applied to the online world, epidemiological models would treat an uprising like some sort of viral outbreak. They’d break down and track web conversations by the author of the post, what site it was published on and the comments that followed and try to figure out which parts contributed most to the spread of a revolutionary message.
Called “Epidemiological Modeling of the Evolution of Messages” or E-Meme for short, the program would also use language recognition technology to determine what people in certain regions, of certain age groups, genders, or any number of other demographics, are discussing. From “next week’s election” to “link up and cause havoc.”
“We witnessed the profound power of ideas to replicate in what began as anti-government sentiment in Tunisia, then moved like a virus, reaching and influencing new groups in Egypt, Syria, and Libya,” Dr. Robert McCormack, the project’s lead investigator, said. “If we can better understand the flow of ideas through electronic channels to sway the perceptions of groups, we may be better prepared to develop appropriate strategies, such as supporting democratic movements or perhaps dissuading suicide bombers.”
E-Meme is currently one year into a two-year development plan and will even be designed to go beyond those abilities. After tracking the proliferation of topics, E-Meme will analyze what kinds of attitudes those discussing them appear to have and then how those attitudes influence the conversation’s spread across the web.
“A lot of tools exist to do things like look at trending topics, or how many people online are talking about X,” McCormack added. “We want to take that several steps further. We’re interested in the dynamics of those conversations.”
McCormack and co. certainly have high hopes for the software’s abilities. Eventually, they’d like to analyze “sentiments” and “the perceptions of groups” to predict “what the online discussion will actually turn into.” Egypt’s relative peace compared to Libya’s rampant violence. Of course, McCormack notes, that kind of analysis remains “incredibly difficult to do.”
The evolution of software like E-Meme will no doubt remain a major Pentagon priority. In the past two years alone, we’ve seen the CIA invest in a company that scours the Internet to “predict the future,” Iarpa consider the merits of person-finding via web pic and spotting rebel citizens via YouTube.
Of course, governments worldwide already do plenty of online monitoring. But for those living under power hungry dictatorial regimes in which citizens can be indefinitely detained or even assassinated by their government with no due process? The prospect of monitoring that’s smart enough to understand the online spread of ideas, and their subsequent real-world outcomes, could be downright devastating. Good thing for us we in live in the U.S. where..wait a minute, damn.