US military turns to “blog analysis” for intelligence

Somewhere between journalism’s two worlds of “hard news” and “secondhand rumor” lies a third category: “your tax dollars at work.” These stories generally combine the veracity of real news with the craziness of watercooler gossip, making them especially tasty at the end of a long workday. To that end, let’s talk a little about the Defense Department’s interest in blogs.

Imagine yourself as a military planner for the US, someone charged with thinking about “information analysis” and “actionable information.” Where would you go to learn things that the world’s most expensive military does not already know? If you said “the blogosphere,” please consider a new career with the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, which is currently funding a US$450,000 study that attempts to mine blogs for “invaluable help in fighting the war of terror.”

How is this going to work? The study’s name is cryptic; it’s called an “Automated Ontologically-Based Link Analysis of International Web Logs for the Timely Discovery of Relevant and Credible Information” (“Ontologically-based”? Aren’t we all?). The three-year project will seek to separate the wheat from the chaff using a radical new approach to information processing: counting the number of hyperlinks that point to a source. As the press release points out, “Within blogs, hyperlinks act like reference citations in research papers thereby allowing someone to discover the most important events bloggers are writing about in just the same way that one can discover the most important papers in a field by finding which ones are the most cited in research papers.”

This Brand New Approach™, one with no similarities to that used by the world’s largest search engine, will help analysts learn what topics are most popular among bloggers. Basically a Google Trends focused on blogs, the research hopes to clue warfighters into topics that have not yet made it onto the military’s radar screen, things like the Danish cartoon controversy that outraged the Muslim world, which was discussed on the blogosphere before it made headline news. Had the US military known about the controversy earlier (perhaps through a hypothetical, full-time US government presence located in every capital city in the world; call it an “embassy,” perhaps), Denmark could have been bombed before the situation got so out of control. Or something.

Somewhere in the caves of Waziristan, Osama bin Laden quakes beneath his turban.

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