The Network Dynamics Lab

McGill professor Derek Ruths and his Network Dynamics Lab are collaborating with military, police, and intelligence agencies to develop tools for surveilling social media, profiling real-world communities, and influencing and controlling social movements that might destabilize the authority of governments. A cursory glance at Ruths’ work may give the impression that his field, known as Social Network Analysis (SNA), consists mostly of frivolous though in-vogue research interests. In fact, SNA has been an important area of study for military and police strategists interested in defeating insurgencies and resistance movements not only with the direct use of force but also by insinuating themselves into our relationships, communities, and narratives.

On 11 December 2014, Ruths gave a talk at Redpath Museum entitled “What our data says about us – Insights into human behavior from social media.” Dr Ruths would indeed be the person to tell you what your social media use says about you, although perhaps not in the benign way that his public persona suggests: he is actively involved in developing technology to surveil and control social networks – both the online kind and the real-life networks they represent.

Although police forces already regularly use fake social media profiles to surveil activists, Ruths’ research has major implications for improving the state’s ability to not only surveil social movements and “communities of interest” online, but also to repress and contain them. Where counter-terrorism legislation such as Bill C-51 provides the political mandate for sweeping surveillance and repression of any threat to the current social order, the Network Dynamics Lab’s research provides the technological solutions to make it increasingly effective.

When we think about who’s watching our social media use, we are perhaps most conscious of the appeal of “big data” to corporations. After all, we know that “if you’re not buying something, you’re the product being sold.” Mainstream media coverage of the role the Internet and communication technologies (ICTs) play in political organizing still tends to be mostly naively positive, focusing on their empowering and facilitating roles. In fact, we’re continuously sold the idea that through online petition signing and Facebook awareness-raising we can somehow pressure institutions to change; meanwhile, an insidious side of the story goes unnoticed. In recent years, and especially after the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, repressive power structures have taken notice of the information that can be extracted from social media. The study of people’s digital networks of acquaintances, of surfing habits and page content, of subscriptions and retweets; all of these are used to gain information on popular resistance, on how to quell the ever-increasing grievances caused by capitalism, imperialism, and growing inequality. Not sure why you should be worried about what’s billed as counter-terrorism to keep us safe? SOS Privacy has a great FAQ page here.

Mapping Communities of Interest

Dr Ruths’ lab recently received an $85,100 contract from the Kanishka Project, a federal government initiative that funds university researchers to conduct national security-related research. Under the terms of the contract, Ruths proposes to develop a tool that analyses who is tweeting about a “terrorist” event of interest. This tool will collect relevant tweets, analyze the communities that are producing the tweets in terms of how different populations feel about the topic, by gender, age, educational level, and geographic distribution, and in a future phase actually “[map these] Twitter communities to physical communities of interest.” This sounds rather more grim than the description on Dr Ruths’ website which claims this project will “turn social media into a crisis response system.”

A tactical police vehicle moves through an alley in Baltimore during riots following the police killing of Freddie Gray in April 2015.

A tactical police vehicle moves through an alley in Baltimore during riots following the police killing of Freddie Gray in April 2015.

The surveillance implications of this research become clear when you note that Dr Ruths has been in close touch with Dr Tasleem Budhwani, a psychologist working as a civilian researcher at the RCMP whose areas of focus include community policing and intelligence gathering. Dr Ruths also has an interest in political networks more broadly: Dr Ruths and one of his students, Guy Lifshitz, recently co-authored a paper entitled “Identity, sector, and community detection in unstructured affiliation data” that was presented at the 2014 conference of the International Network for Social Network Analysis, Sunbelt XXXIV, by their co-author Navid Dianati. Dianati is doing his PhD under Dr David Lazer, a faculty member at Harvard and Northeastern Universities whose specialty is influence and information transfer in political networks. Interestingly, Dianati’s CV lists his research as focused on developing “new and efficient spectral algorithm for the detection of community structure in complex networks.” Also in 2014, Dr Ruths and McGill University hosted the Political Networks 2014 conference. The co-organizer of the conference, Dr Lorien Jasny, studies “Socio-ecological Movements in Urban Ecosystems”, which is surely a rich area of interest for today’s surveillance state.

In an age where almost all forms of activism have an online component, a tool that profiles social media responses and identifies their real-world counterparts will be tremendously useful to repressive state forces in Canada and abroad. Despite the cheery spin he puts on his research when speaking to laypeople, Derek Ruths’ professional connections suggest he is already thinking about activists and over-policed communities as he develops this tool.

Research in Service of Social Control

Ruths’ work for the Kanishka Project also signals an acceptance of a broader re-orientation of academia around the demands of the security state. Concordia University anthropologist Maximilian Forte writes of the trend embodied by the Kanishka Project: it “is about learning to think like the state […]. [T]he national security state seeks to harness [academics’] energies, to appropriate the legitimacy of the academic imprimatur, and to reorient funding priorities. The ‘ideal’ outcome is a fully pacified academia, where the university is merely an arm of the state, and ‘relevance’ is always defined as relevant to governance […].”

Documents obtained through an access-to-information request show that Ruths is also being recruited as a “University Representative” at McGill for the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security, and Society (TSAS, (below, p. 43). TSAS is funded by Public Safety Canada, CSIS, and the RCMP, among others. This effort to use university researchers to promote military and police collaborations among their colleagues is further evidence that Dr Ruths’ funders are invested in a cultural shift that extends far beyond one lab.

Dr Ruths has cultivated other ties to military, intelligence, and police agencies. Since 2012, he has presented to the Department of National Defense, the RCMP, and CSIS on “Social Media and Social Mobilization,” and was invited to speak on “Controlling Complex Networks” at NetSci 2014, a conference sponsored by the US Army Research Office. In a 2014 article titled “Control Profiles of Complex Networks,” he names “social unrest” as an “undesirable behavior” of a complex system in explaining the motivation of his research into how such systems can be controlled. In 2012 he spoke on “predictive models of the effect of counter-insurgency strategies” in Afghanistan, drawing on his earlier history of work sharing his expertise on “predicting insurgent group structure and behavior” with the CIA.

Prof. Derek Ruths – Presentation Slides and Emails

Controlling Networks

The ATI documents above confirm what one may suspect when first learning about the activities of Ruths and his Network Dynamics Lab: his work on “control of complex networks” is directly applicable to repression of domestic social movements. In a presentation to Public Safety Canada, the people who oversee Canada’s federal domestic intelligence and police agencies, Ruths used the “Montreal student protests” of 2012 as an example of “uncoordinated mobilization” that poses a danger to public safety and creates a need for government to surveil and influence social media (p. 10). Ruths is even advising the government on how to use social media to “actively monitor and engage” protest movements (p. 10).

Title slide shows protester in Anonymous mask and title, "Social Media and Social Mobilization." Second slides shows images of social unrest with captions locating images in Egypt, Japan, New York, London, and Montreal.
The opening slides from Ruths’ presentation to the handlers of the RCMP and CSIS.
Slide titled "To influence is human, to control is divine...". Indicative diagram of control networks. Text: "Controlling to avert - Extinction: populations within a food web; Cancer: concentration and state of proteins; Financial collapse: distribution of risky investments; Unrest: sentiment of individuals in a population.
Another slide explains that a prime application of Ruths’ work is controlling the “sentiment of individuals in a population.” (Highlighting added.)

 Dr Ruths also has an ongoing collaboration with his brother, Justin Ruths, a network control researcher at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. Their joint work focuses on quantifying the forces directing a complex network and identifying the points necessary to control it. Although they discuss a variety of potential applications ranging from biological systems to social networks, Derek Ruths’ other research interests, and his links to the Canadian surveillance state and RCMP, make it clear where this research will be applied.

Dr Ruths’ most recent article in Science is a collaboration with Dr Jurgen Pfeffer, a Carnegie Mellon University-based researcher whose work is supported by The Minerva Initiative, a US Department of Defense-sponsored research initiative focusing on areas of strategic importance to US national security policy. The specific project Dr Pfeffer is involved with aims to understand “how [social] media [can] be used to affect state stability or instability by states, individuals, groups and corporations” and “what [social] media indicators can be used as signals of changes in trust, norms, influence, lines of stability, and lines of alliance or competition that could predict state instability.” Pointing to the pro-democracy protests known as the Arab Spring as an example, the research team betrays the repressive orientation of the research.

Corporate Surveillance

In 2014, Dr Ruths and a collection of his current and former students started Macromeasures, using their research about analyzing online social networks to create software “for social listening tools, advertising  platforms, and content measurement solutions to identify and measure online audiences.” Ruths and his team are thus profiting off research conducted using university resources (not to mention the government grants that support Ruths’ lab) while enabling companies to better collect and make use of data about their unwitting customers.

An Israeli Connection

Ruths also adds to the list of McGill military research links to apartheid Israel. On 17 November 2014, he spoke at a Canada-Israel Security Summit about “The Opportunities and Challenges of Social Media in the Public Safety Context” (ATI docs above, p. 29). It was the opening panel for a session held under the Canada-Israel Declaration of Intent, an agreement signed by the Harper Government in 2008 mandating cooperation between the two states on border control, prisons, policing and counter-terrorism (for more information see here).

If our social networks say a lot about us, Dr Ruths’ research collaborators and funding sources speak loud and clear. Derek Ruths and the Network Dynamics Lab are directly and indirectly involved in making all of us more heavily surveilled and, as a result, less safe. McGill University’s complicity in this project must be stopped.


Take an interactive tour of Dr Ruths’ social networks.

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