Photo Credit: pexels
When you think about satellites circling the Earth, you probably think about NASA or perhaps Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has been making headlines recently with its bold new Starlink initiative to cover the heavens with communications satellites. But did you know that a handful of the biggest tech companies – including both Amazon and Facebook – have launched space-based satellite plans of their own? One time, in the not-so-distant future, we may look up in the night sky and know that the social media giants have satellites circling us overhead.
How social media companies are thinking about space
So why the big push into space now? It’s all about expanding Internet access to large swathes of the Earth that do not have access to the Internet right now. In some cases, these are remote regions that are impossible to wire for Internet. And in other cases, they are some of the poorest, most underserved regions in the world where high-quality, super-fast Internet is still very much a luxury. Thus, companies like Facebook are presenting themselves as benevolent tech giants, trying to provide a service that governments or other companies cannot (or will not).
Remember projects like Loon, the super-buzzy Google project to provide Internet service via a series of high-altitude balloons all around the world? Well, things have advanced a lot ever since Facebook announced Loon back in 2013. The latest project from Facebook is called Athena, and it’s a communications satellite system designed to bring super-fast communication speeds to remote regions around the world. Facebook claims that Athena can deliver speeds 10 times faster than anything SpaceX’s Starlink system can. And, notably, Amazon also has a competitor satellite system getting ready for Prime time, called Kuiper.
The link between space and social media
Where things get really interesting is when you consider what can be done with these satellites. In an April 2018 research paper, for example, a team of international academics outlined how a system known as JORD could be used to autonomously collect social media data (including text content in many different foreign languages) and combine that with satellite imagery data in order to provide a significantly improved disaster response system.
The idea here is simple: if you can combine local, on-the-ground images of what’s happening (harvested from mobile phone uploads to social media) with satellite images, then you have a much better chance of being able to respond appropriately. And you also gain a considerable time advantage when you can use real-time data from local citizens rather than waiting for emergency response personnel to deploy. Timesavings of even a few hours could mean the difference between life and death.
Global examples of social media integrated with satellites
In their research paper (which bears the cumbersome title of “Social Media and Satellites: Disaster Event Detection, Linking and Summarization”), the academics use a few specific examples to showcase the power of such a satellite-powered social media system, It would be able to pull in real-time social media data in Arabic, for example, to predict and help prepare an emergency response to weather events like floods or cyclones. The same is true for floods in Japan, earthquakes in Italy, or earthquakes in Ecuador. All of a sudden, you’re not relying on English-language news updates to make sense of the situation – you can now tap into the rich social media data being produced in Japanese, Italian or Spanish. Imagine getting live social media updates from concerned citizens in a certain city just before a volcano blows its top, or before a major tsunami is set to strike a coastline.
Pros and cons of a global satellite system
Of course, there are drawbacks to such a plan. One is that such an Earth-spanning system would likely be co-opted for other, perhaps more nefarious purposes. Take Elon Musk’s Starlink system – the Pentagon just announced that such a system could be used to detect hypersonic or nuclear missiles fired anywhere in the world. From the perspective of the military, such a satellite system is a fantastic way to militarize space. And don’t forget about the potential for such a system to become a global surveillance tool used to monitor anyone in the world, no matter where they go. The NSA must be throwing a party right now, given that social media companies like Facebook will be doing all the heavy lifting right now, putting satellites into space and encouraging people to post, update and comment as much as possible all around the world.
The future is now for social media and satellites
That being said, linking together social media and satellites holds a lot of potential. Early research appears to be overwhelmingly positive, and it certainly seems like we’ve reached a new tipping point for innovation, in which space will play a very large role in solving problems here on Earth. We live in very exciting times: we now have SpaceX replacing NASA as the new innovation giant for space exploration, the creation of a whole new branch of the military (Space Force!), and the public’s boundless, unquenched thirst for sci-fi space content (think “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”). Against this backdrop, is it really any wonder that companies like Facebook are trying to take social media to outer space?