Technology, Revolution and the Wisdom of Crowds

While the crossroads between foreign policy and information technology has been preoccupied with the still largely unresolved question of whether social media can spark revolutions, a few committed technologists are examining traditional media's ability to predict when revolutions will occur.

In a Friday post on the Foreign Policy blog, Joshua Keating profiled Kalev Leetaru, a University of Illinois professor, who argues that a sophisticated "tonal analysis" of news coverage can suggest when revolutions and other upheavals are in the works.

The tone of Egypt news coverage -- ranging from international outlets to local newspapers and blogs -- reached its most negative point in years in January, just before the nation erupted in protests that ended Hosni Mubarak's decades-long rule, Leetaru's analysis showed.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper's office gave some sanction to the idea of tonal news analyses in August when its Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity division launched a study to mine news outlets, blogs and social media for clues to upcoming revolutions, famines and disease outbreaks.

The Fund for Peace has, for several years, used a similar analysis to rank which nations are most likely to become failed states.

Social media's predictive power has also been a hot topic recently. Those analyses show promise, scholars at a U.S. Institute of Peace conference on Friday said. They warned, though, that most analyses so far have tended to favor some social media outlets over others, likely skewing the results.

In a lecture at The George Washington University on Sept. 15, University of Washington Professor Phil Howard offered a model for predicting which regimes are most likely to face social media-fueled uprisings using the nation's level of Internet penetration and the regime's history of fixing elections as two critical axes.

He predicted Iran's 2012 legislative elections may lead to even more turmoil than the 2009 presidential elections, which sparked the Green Revolution that nearly toppled Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The model is included in Howard's new book The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam.

Using the wisdom of crowds is nothing new to the foreign policy and intelligence world. Between 2001 and 2003, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency invested $500,000 in a virtual betting pool to gauge the likelihood certain cities would be attacked by terrorists or that certain people would be assassinated, including then-Palestinian Authority Leader Yassar Arafat.

The pool was shut down after Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., exposed the program and called it "ill conceived," "repugnant" and "unbelievably stupid." Others have have

argued the program should have been allowed to go forward.