The Story Behind the DARPA Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) Program

[If you enjoy this Information Professionals Association (IPA) blog post, please consider supporting our efforts by joining the IPA at and if you would like to post a comment on this article, please send it to]

Written by Rand Waltzman

On July 14, 2011 – while I was a Program Manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – I published a Broad Agency Announcement (DARPA‐BAA‐11‐64), a call for proposals, for a program I created called Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC). The BAA said the program would be funded in the amount of $42M and with additions of various types it ended up at about $50M by the time it basically concluded four years later. This was a remarkable program and, I believe, somewhat ahead of its time. I am extremely proud to have organized and managed SMISC. The real credit, of course, goes to the researchers who achieved the many fantastic results and made them available to the entire world. Over 200 papers were published and I am including, at least a partial, bibliography of these publications with this post. And there are many more results that I will describe in a future posting. No classified work of any kind was supported in connection with SMISC. Everything was completely public and out in the open.

But the point that I want to make is that the basic research agenda and rationale that I set forth in the BAA almost 6 years ago is still valid today. Of course I now have more than enough ideas to lay out a research agenda for SMISC II in case anybody is interested! But I thought it would be worthwhile to share an extract from the original BAA to provide some feeling for the thought I had behind the program. So here it is:


The conditions under which our Armed Forces conduct operations are rapidly changing with the spread of blogs, social networking sites, and media‐sharing technology (such as YouTube), and further accelerated by the proliferation of mobile technology. Changes to the nature of conflict resulting from the use of social media are likely to be as profound as those resulting from previous communications revolutions. The effective use of social media has the potential to help the Armed Forces better understand the environment in which it operates and to allow more agile use of information in support of operations.

The general goal of the Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program is to develop a new science of social networks built on an emerging technology base. In particular, SMISC will develop automated and semi‐automated operator support tools and techniques for the systematic and methodical use of social media at data scale and in a timely fashion to accomplish four specific program goals:
1. Detect, classify, measure and track the (a) formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes), and (b) purposeful or deceptive messaging and misinformation.
2. Recognize persuasion campaign structures and influence operations across social media sites and communities.
3. Identify participants and intent, and measure effects of persuasion campaigns.
4. Counter messaging of detected adversary influence operations.


Events of strategic as well as tactical importance to our Armed Forces are increasingly taking place in social media space. We must, therefore, be aware of these events as they are happening and be in a position to defend ourselves within that space against adverse outcomes. For example, in one case rumors about the location of a certain individual began to spread in social media space and calls for storming the rumored location reached a fever pitch. By chance, responsible authorities were monitoring the social media, detected the crisis building, sent out effective messaging to dispel the rumors and averted a physical attack on the rumored location. This was one of the first incidents where a crisis was (1) formed (2) observed and understood in a timely fashion and (3) diffused by timely action, entirely within the social media space.

Events in social media space involve many‐to‐many interactions among numbers of people at a compressed scale of time that is unprecedented. Entirely new phenomena are emerging that require thinking about social interactions in a new way. The tools that we have today for awareness and defense in the social media space are heavily dependent on chance. We must eliminate our current reliance on a combination of luck and unsophisticated manual methods by using systematic automated and semi‐automated human operator support to detect, classify, measure, track and influence events in social media at data scale and in a timely fashion.

Program Scope

The development of a new science of social networks and the solutions to the problems posed by SMISC will require the confluence of several technologies including, but not limited to, information theory, massive‐scale graph analytics and natural language processing. While SMISC will not directly support natural language processing development efforts, it will certainly use the results of previous programs as well as contribute new challenges to further stimulate ongoing efforts.

Technology areas particularly relevant to SMISC are shown here grouped to correspond to the four basic goals of the program as described above:
1. Linguistic cues, patterns of information flow, topic trend analysis, narrative structure analysis, sentiment detection and opinion mining;
2. Meme tracking across communities, graph analytics/probabilistic reasoning, pattern detection, cultural narratives;
3. Inducing identities, modeling emergent communities, trust analytics, network dynamics modeling;
4. Automated content generation, bots in social media, crowd sourcing.

Recent research has shown that traditional approaches to understanding social media through static network connectivity models often produce misleading results. It is, therefore, necessary to take into account the dynamics of behavior and SMISC is interested in a wide variety of techniques for doing so.

SMISC Publications April 2015