News & Politics

NATO's Creepy New Plan to Infiltrate Twitter and Facebook

NATO has announced that “countering false Russian narratives on social media” is a major priority.

On Sunday, NATO commander General Philip Breedlove said in an interview with the Associated Press that NATO must do more to “counter Russian propaganda online”:

NATO's supreme commander says the West must do more to counter Russia by employing a rapid-reaction approach to internet communications that counteracts Russia's "false narratives" spread on social media.

Gen. Philip Breedlove said Sunday that Vladimir Putin's Russia has been waging information warfare as part of its actions against Ukraine.

Breedlove said: "We need as a western group of nations or as an alliance to engage in this informational warfare. The way to attack the false narrative is to drag the false narrative into the light and expose it."

While details of such a plan remain vague, this mindset is part of a broader trend of social media psychological warfare that has been emerging largely unnoticed over the past five years. The first question that is rarely asked by our media is the most important one: what constitutes a “false narrative,” and who decides what constitutes one? Recent attempts by UK authorities to stifle the speech of the Russian-backed, English-language TV station RT show that false narratives are whatever Western governments determine they are.

According to the Guardian, "Russia Today is to be investigated by media regulator Ofcom over anti-western comments in a late-night discussion on Ukraine—its sixth ongoing inquiry into the Kremlin-backed news channel following complaints by viewers."

That Western officials would extend this crackdown on Russian-backed narratives from traditional to social media is not surprising. What is worth noting is that the media routinely downplays or under-reports what such a plan would entail—namely, the use of sockpuppet or fake social media accounts that would be used to counter these so-called false narratives. As the Guardian revealed in 2011, the Defense Department has been developing such technology for some time:

The US 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…

The Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations "without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries".

The multiple persona contract is thought to have been awarded as part of a programme called Operation Earnest Voice (OEV), which was first developed in Iraq as a psychological warfare weapon against the online presence of al-Qaida supporters and others ranged against coalition forces. Since then, OEV is reported to have expanded into a $200m programme and is thought to have been used against jihadists across Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

These sockpuppet accounts, according to the Guardian report and separate revelations by Anonymous, are not your run-of-the-mill spambot accounts. They are not easily spotted, like Twitter accounts with egg avatars and 15 followers. They are formatted like the accounts of real people and are often operated by real military personnel (who run dozens at a time) to give the appearance of total legitimacy. We also know, as NBC reported in October, that the FBI has been using similar technology over the past few years to lure wannabe online jihadists:

[A review of Federal Court cases by NBC] shows that undercover FBI agents or informants first identified or connected with the suspects via social media in at least four cases, using fake social media identities to engage them and, in Sheikh's case, possibly engaging in "catfishing" by luring him into a personal relationship with a phony online persona. Agents also created a "false-flag" or "honeypot" Facebook page to help snare him.

The actual court transcript describes in further detail the fake “al Nusra” Facebook page and fake “al-Nusra nurse” the FBI set up to lure Mr. Sheikh: As the FBI would testify under cross examination:

Yes. The CHS (Confidential Human Source) had a Facebook page as well set at the direction of the FBI. Similar types of posts, the Islamic extremism point of view are on this Facebook page….

This type of social media infiltration, marked by increasingly sophisticated sockpuppeting software and mood analysis, is quickly becoming the preferred battleground for MISO (formerly known as “PsyOps or “psychological warfare”). While this may sound benign when targeting the evil “terrorists," in an age of global, real-time information sharing, compartmentalizing these types of militarized information campaigns is all but impossible. If NATO is countering “false” Russian narratives” on Twitter by using sockpuppets and other forms of modern psychological warfare, these efforts will undoubtedly bleed over into the average American’s social media experience. This fact should creep out even the most committed anti-Putin partisans.

Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst at FAIR and contributing writer for AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @AdamJohnsonNYC.

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