We Might Be Able To Predict the Future Using Social Media. But Should We?

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A new study from MIT found a way to retroactively predict the 2013 coup in Egypt. Study author Nathan Kallus plugged in 300,000 web sources from before the coup, scanned them for keywords and sentiment analysis, and was able to graph a prediction for when the coup would happen.

Kallus’s study predicts that in the future, using social media to forecast the likelihood of big events like protests could help make us all safer. It’s hard not to read that and worry a little. After all, the Mubarak regime could've used that same predictive technology to quash the Tahrir Square protests before they ever happened. The obvious sci-fi dystopia movie reference here is the movie “Minority Report,” which presented a world where the government targets citizens for the crimes they might one day commit.

If that seems hysterical or farfetched, then check out this story from Chicago. The Verge reports on a computer program that the Chicago Police Department is using to predict who in the city is most likely to commit a crime: 

When the Chicago Police Department sent one of its commanders to Robert McDaniel’s home last summer, the 22-year-old high school dropout was surprised. Though he lived in a neighborhood well-known for bloodshed on its streets, he hadn’t committed a crime or interacted with a police officer recently. And he didn’t have a violent criminal record, nor any gun violations. In August, he incredulously told theChicago Tribune, "I haven't done nothing that the next kid growing up hadn't done.” Yet, there stood the female police commander at his front door with a stern message: if you commit any crimes, there will be major consequences. We’re watching you.

What McDaniel didn’t know was that he had been placed on the city’s “heat list” — an index of the roughly 400 people in the city of Chicago supposedly most likely to be involved in violent crime. Inspired by a Yale sociologist’s studies and compiled using an algorithm created by an engineer at the Illinois Institute of Technology, the heat list is just one example of the experiments the CPD is conducting as it attempts to push policing into the 21st century.

Interestingly, the Chicago Police’s system is based partly on analyzing social networks. The guy who helped design the program, Miles Wernick, told The Verge that one predictor for whether someone will commit a violent crime is their peer group.

"It's not just shooting somebody, or being shot," [Wernick] says. "It has to do with the person’s relationships to other violent people."

This is in line with what Andrew Papachristos, a Yale sociologist and Chicago native, calls a social networking theory. When it comes to violence, Papachristos recently told Chicago Magazine, "It’s not just about your friends and who you’re hanging out with, it’s actually the structure of these networks that matter." 

The cliche but true thing everyone always says about technological progress is that we create things because we’re able to, not because we’ve had a robust debate about whether we should. It’s easy to imagine useful applications for social media fortune telling, but it’s just as easy to imagine dystopic applications. As we go forward, it’ll be interesting to see if culturally, we decide to expand our definition of privacy to encompass a right to privacy about our futures.