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Report: Pentagon Orders Review of US Clandestine Ops After Social Media Takedowns of Fake Accounts

Samizdat – 19.09.2022

Internet researchers Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory revealed in late August that over 150 false personas and media websites formed in the United States had been removed in recent years by Twitter and Facebook.

Major social media firms discovered and removed phony accounts believed to be operated by the US military in violation of the platforms’ policies, prompting the Pentagon to request a thorough examination of how it conducts clandestine information warfare, the Washington Post reported on Monday.

According to the report, after the White House and some federal agencies expressed growing concerns over the Defense Department’s attempted manipulation of audiences abroad, Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, reportedly instructed the military commands that engage in psychological operations online last week to provide a complete accounting of their activities by next month.

The US Central Command (CENTCOM) is one of the agencies whose operations are under investigation, the undisclosed sources claimed, despite the fact that the researchers from Graphika and Stanford did not link the phony accounts to the military.

The takedowns of bogus accounts happened during the last two or three years, per the report. The researchers did not specify when the takedowns happened. They claimed several were recent and involved articles from the summer that promoted anti-Russian narratives by referencing the Kremlin’s “imperialist war” in Ukraine and announcing the conflict’s direct effects on Central Asian nations.

Importantly, they discovered that overt accounts actually drew more followers, and that false personas, which used strategies allegedly popular in nations like Russia and China, did not acquire much traction. With its headquarters in Tampa, CENTCOM oversees military operations in 21 Middle Eastern, North African, Central Asian and South Asian nations.

At a virtual meeting called by the National Security Council, Kahl reportedly announced his review and said he wanted to know what operations had been conducted, who they were targeting, what tools were being used, why military commanders had chosen those tactics, and how successful they had been, according to the report.

One defense official reportedly stated that essentially the message was: “You have to justify to me why you’re doing these types of things.”

However, the Pentagon’s press secretary, Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder is quoted in the report as saying that the military’s information operations “support our national security priorities,” and that they must be carried out in accordance with applicable laws and procedures.

“We are committed to enforcing those safeguards,” he added.

Inflammatory Posts From Fake Accounts That Violate Rules

The accounts that were deleted, per the report, included one for a fictitious Persian-language media outlet that disseminated posts that were copied from Radio Free Europe and Voice of America Farsi, which are supported by the US government. Another, it alleged, was connected to a Twitter account that previously claimed to operate from CENTCOM.

According to the article, one bogus account tweeted an emotional message saying relatives of deceased Afghan refugees had informed them that bodies had been returned from Iran with missing organs. The tweet reportedly contained a link to a video included in an article published on a website with ties to the US military.

While CENTCOM has not confirmed or denied the existence of such accounts under its control, according to a defense official, it would “absolutely be a violation of doctrine and training practices” if the tweet about organ harvesting is proven to be connected to the military.

Officials familiar with the situation indicated that Facebook disabled in 2020 fictitious personas purportedly developed by CENTCOM to combat “misinformation” spread by China that the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 was developed at a US Army lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland.

The fake profiles were reportedly used to spread “truthful” information from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding the virus’ origin in China, according to the officials. They were active in Facebook groups where people conversed in Arabic, Farsi and Urdu.

Despite being permitted by law and policy, the US government’s use of fictitious social media accounts has reportedly caused controversy inside the Biden administration, with the White House urging the Pentagon to explain and defend its procedures.

Several US officials quoted in the report revealed that the White House and officials within the State and Defense departments are worried policies are too open-ended, and could allow for strategies that, even if they are used to spread accurate information, run the risk of undermining American credibility.

“Our adversaries are absolutely operating in the information domain,” one of the sources said. “There are some who think we shouldn’t do anything clandestine in that space. Ceding an entire domain to an adversary would be unwise. But we need stronger policy guardrails.”

‘You Got Caught, That’s the Problem’

Pentagon doctrine and policy forbid the military from spreading lies, but there are purportedly no regulations requiring the use of accurate information in psychological operations. For instance, the military occasionally uses fiction and humor to persuade people, but normally communications are expected to stick to the facts, according to officials.

Officers from Facebook and Twitter contacted the Pentagon in 2020 to voice their concerns about the fake accounts they were being forced to delete because they appeared to be connected to the military. That summer, Christopher Miller, the assistant director for Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict, who is in charge of overseeing influence operations policy, had a conversation with David Agranovich, Facebook’s director for global threat disruption, in which the latter cautioned him that if Facebook could detect them, so could US adversaries.

“His point was ‘Guys, you got caught. That’s a problem,'” one of the sources said.

According to the report, Miller failed to take adequate action due to the fact that the Trump administration’s term was already approaching its end.

Kahl requested a study of Military Information Support Operations, or MISO — the Pentagon’s term for psychological operations — in response to concerns from the Biden White House. According to the report, a draft detailed that communication with other agencies, like the State Department and the CIA, needed to be strengthened, and that regulations, training, and monitoring all needed to be tightened.

The unnamed officials claimed that while there have been instances when the military has promoted false information, these were due to insufficient control over contractors and staff training rather than systemic issues. The same officials stated the Pentagon leadership did not do anything with the review before Graphika and Stanford released their findings on August 24.

Covert Psy Ops to Counter Washington’s Rivals

Military leaders have long sought to counter – including online – the rise of Russia and China as their strategic rivals. Congress has also agreed with that goal; in fact, congressional lawmakers passed legislation in late 2019 confirming the military could conduct operations in the “information environment” to defend the US and combat foreign disinformation aimed at undermining its interests.

This was done in response to frustration with what was perceived as legal barriers preventing the Defense Department from carrying out covert activities in cyberspace. The law, known as Section 1631, reduces some of the friction that previously prevented such operations by allowing the military to conduct covert psychologic operations without infringing on what the CIA claims to be their covert power.

“Combatant commanders got really excited,” one of the defense sources stated. “They were very eager to utilize these new authorities. The defense contractors were equally eager to land lucrative classified contracts to enable clandestine influence operations.”

The insider added that military officers lacked necessary skills to supervise “technically complex operations conducted by contractors” or coordinate such endeavors with other interested parties within the US government.

Moreover, an unnamed US diplomat told the Washington Post that the US “shouldn’t be employing the same kind of tactics that our adversaries are using because the bottom line is we have the moral high ground.”

“We are a society that is built on a certain set of values,” they asserted. “We promote those values around the world and when we use tactics like those, it just undermines our argument about who we are.”

Military psychological operations to advance American narratives abroad are surely nothing new, but the widespread use of Western social media has led to an expansion of strategies, including the employment of manufactured personalities and images often known as “deep fakes.”

According to the argument, opinions given by someone who looks like, for example, an Afghan woman or an Iranian student, may be more convincing than if the US government were overtly promoting them.

However, the majority of the military’s influence activities are open, supporting American policies in the Middle East, Asia, and other regions under its own name. Officials have noted there are legitimate reasons to employ covert methods, such as attempting to eavesdrop on a closed terrorist discussion group.

Is It Even Worth It?

Currently, determining whether the military’s clandestine influence efforts are producing outcomes is a critical concern for senior politicians.

“Is the juice worth the squeeze? one person reportedly said. “Does our approach really have the potential for the return on investment we hoped or is it just causing more challenges?”

According to the report by Graphika and Stanford, the covert operation had little effect. It stated that only 19% of the fabricated accounts had more than 1,000 followers, and that the “vast majority of posts and tweets” examined got “no more than a handful of likes or retweets.” The two most-followed assets in the data provided by Twitter were accounts that openly declared a connection to the US military, according to the report.

September 19, 2022 - Posted by | Deception | ,

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