Fake social media accounts abound regardless of what platform you peruse. Many fake accounts are set up as bots to spam adversaries, hackers attempting to trick elderly and unassuming users into divulging personal information to steal from them, and state-backed hackers trying to sew disinformation.
You might not have guessed that the United States military apparently – allegedly – gets into the fake social media account fun, albeit poorly. This probably isn’t all that surprising for those who have served since the social media boom or civil libertarians, however.
In perhaps the ultimate twist of irony, Twitter and Facebook – Big Tech – recently had taken down fake propaganda accounts, possibly run by, through, or for the Pentagon, and this has the military and White House up in arms.
And I have some questions. Like is the military attempting to catfish our foreign adversaries, or worse… American citizens?
Evidently the US military was creating fake persons on social media to do pro-Ukraine propaganda, a category of disinformation I was told didn't exist.https://t.co/FWyzUDXEmo pic.twitter.com/HmApvQZ3E2
— Ben Friedman (@BH_Friedman) September 19, 2022
The Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Colin Kahl, has ordered the military commands that participate in psychological operations online to provide a thorough account of all activities associated with the operations by next month.
To be a bit more specific, what Mr. Kahl is looking for is what types of operations we are active in, who we are targeting with these operations, and what tools we are employing.
The catalyst for this review comes from a report released by Graphika on fake social media accounts. The report states in part:
“Our joint investigation found an interconnected web of accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and five other social media platforms that used deceptive tactics to promote pro-Western narratives in the Middle East and Central Asia.”
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No doubt, readers will probably have the same question about all those accounts with Ukraine flags, too.
The report said that this activity spanned five years and didn’t overtly say that these fake accounts came from the U.S. military. Graphika also reported that over the last two to three years, Twitter and Facebook took down about 150 bogus personas or fake accounts created within the United States.
So if the report doesn’t specifically say these accounts are coming from the U.S. military, why the review?
“…major social media companies identified and took offline fake accounts suspected of being run by the U.S. military…”
These psyops extend well beyond 150 accounts. Info warfare is so nefarious; it’s far more prevalent than we’re led to believe (esp by US gov’t agencies). pic.twitter.com/ynaXint1AH
— Sana Saeed (@SanaSaeed) September 19, 2022
The truth is the U.S. military has been tinkering with military psyops deception for a long time, and social media’s advent created a new frontier to test out these capabilities. For example, in 2011, The Guardian reported:
“The U.S. military is developing software that will let it secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.”
Later in 2019, Congress approved Section 1631, which allowed the military to carry out covert psychological operations, provided they didn’t infringe on the CIA’s clandestine operability. Seems harmless enough, right?
A defense official was quoted as saying when Section 1631 was passed:
“Combatant commanders got really excited…The defense contractors were equally eager to land lucrative classified contracts to enable clandestine influence operations.”
Yeah, I bet they were eager. But unfortunately, the military didn’t invest in training the military leaders to oversee this kind of new operation.
Military to social media-using troops: "Stop telling people I suck!"
Troops: "Stop sucking."
— James (@SheltieDad79) September 14, 2022
An earlier review of these social media activities found that fake military accounts pushed some false information. However, it was decided it was due to inadequate oversight of contractors and personnel training versus spreading false information on purpose. I suppose that’s something.
The recent activity on social media that is in question for this Pentagon review entails various interesting posting activities. Some posts from fake accounts involved attempts to promote an anti-Russian narrative directly related to the war in Ukraine.
There were also accounts taken down by Facebook that were created with fictitious personas, specifically by United States Central Command (CENTCOM), to counter “Chinese disinformation” regarding the origins of COVID. Others included posts promoting anti-extremism as well.
However, the posts that could have the Department of Defense in hot water revolve around a fake account that tweets false information claiming that relatives of deceased Afghan refugees were coming back from Iran missing organs. Essentially the tweet is alleging organ harvesting by Iran of Afghan refugees.
According to a study conducted in 2020:
“…the government shares classified information with particular tech companies with the intent that the companies use the information to make attributions that the government wants them to make, but does not want to make itself.”
Here comes the best and creepiest part:
“The companies effectively ‘launder’ the information for the government, presumably because the public sees the companies as more neutral and objective than the Executive.”
That’s some Big Brother stuff right there; good thing I don’t believe anything I read on the internet. Unless I wrote it, of course.
United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) just paid $500,000 to a Military Contractor firm, who specializes in harvesting data of American Citizens using mainstream social media apps.
— Non-Voting Felon 💤 (@MichaelTanuvasa) September 15, 2022
Should We, Or Shouldn’t We
Pentagon spokesperson General Patrick Ryder said of the military role in the information sphere:
“military information operations support our national security priorities.”
No doubt he is correct. As another senior defense official points out:
“Our adversaries are absolutely operating in the information domain. 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.”
I believe in a strong military; we need to be lethal in every domain. However, I’m not keen on the military conducting psychological operations using fake social media accounts.
Who is to say that they aren’t merely pushing a political narrative and also targeting the American taxpayer? Luckily, it seems, they aren’t very good at it anyway.
That WaPo story on military influence operations should make people wary. Here's a 2014 article on DARPA-funded influence studies coordinated under its Social Media in Strategic Communication initiative (itself first launched in 2011).https://t.co/rvViBmV1MV https://t.co/dvpXoBxZFA pic.twitter.com/pr5PRnRDOJ
— Robert Skvarla (@RobertSkvarla) September 20, 2022
According to the report, the “vast majority” of the posts from the fake accounts had “no more than a handful of posts and retweets.” It sounds like my Twitter account; maybe I’m a fake military account…
Moving along, the pro-U.S. accounts that could be from the U.S. military did attempt to seem as though they were real. They employed the clever tactic of posting cat pictures to bring a flair of authenticity to their accounts.
‼️WARNING: this is too cute😍
Ukraine's Cats Military Forces❤️💙💛#UkraineRussiaWar #Ukraine️ #Ukrainian #StopRussianAggression #SlavaUkraïni #StandWithUkraine #CatsOnTwitter #cute #love #TimelineCleanse #Bucha #ArmUkraineNow #StopRussia #UkraineRussia pic.twitter.com/yyLq1hzT4P
— No War Art (@NowarArt) April 14, 2022
Who doesn’t love a great cat pic? Although now I’m starting to suspect that half my Facebook ‘friends’ might be fake military accounts aimed at infiltrating my news feed and gaining my trust with their insatiable kitty photos.
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