UK General Wants Power to 'Spread Lies' on Twitter and Facebook

News & Politics

For the fourth time in the last year, Western military officials insist they are “losing” the propaganda battle against ISIS and they must, in turn, be given more power to combat it. British Army General Sir Richard Barrons, Commander of Joint Forces Command put his intentions in no uncertain terms:

The Armed Forces must be prepared to use Facebook and Twitter to spread “lies” to help fight Isil, a senior British military commander has said.

Gen Sir Richard Barrons, Commander of Joint Forces Command, said the West is lagging behind Islamic State (Isil), which is tweeting in 23 languages. He said the armed forces must be more prepared to use social media to help achieve strategic objectives in Iraq.

While the example he gives is specific to overseas military operations, the inclusion of "23 languages" indicates that these efforts will likely not be limited to them.

As AlteNet has previously reported, Western military attempts to influence opinion online are not new. The UK announced a similar program earlier this year:

British army creates team of Facebook warriors

The British army is creating a special force of Facebook warriors, skilled in psychological operations and use of social media to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age.

And similar American programs were revealed by the hacker collective Anonymous and by the Guardian in 2011:

Revealed: US spy operation that manipulates social media

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.

According to reports at the time, the US program was mainly targeted at foreign Muslim countries and operated at a cost of $200 million a year.

What is the new, however, is the urgency with which Western governments are openly asking for more power to do so. Previously, these efforts have been largely clandestine in nature, but over the past year, everyone from the State Department to CIA to NATO have become more open about the importance of controlling online narratives.

It’s difficult to gauge whether the West is objectively “losing a propaganda” battle to ISIS. NATO-allied countries’ collective military budgets are 460 times greater than ISIS’ and employ about 100 times more personnel. The ISIS social media influence has been widely reported (and, some have argued, overblown) but given the opaque nature of Western military psychological operations there’s little to measure against it.

When noting repeated cries by Western officials that they’re also losing the online PR battle against Russia, Pando‘s Mark Ames commented that Kremlin online propaganda — another PR problem consistently trotted out by Western officials — has become the new version of the “missile gap." The missile gap was a wildly inflated assertion by US officials during the Cold War that the Soviet Union had far more nuclear weapons than the US. This turned out to be largely untrue, but it provided the political urgency necessary for the US to stockpile more nuclear weapons.

As the distinction between “ISIS” as a formal military that’s being fought overseas and an abstract ideology that lives on social media— a dragnet that necessarily includes Western citizens — becomes less defined, the degree to which Western militaries target their own populations with online propaganda becomes more blurred. Recent statements by CIA officials did little to make such a distinction, highlighting the fears of "lone wolves" in the United States as one of the primary reasons they need to combat ISIS propaganda online. 

The military term for when PsyOps meant to target foreign audiences' influence on domestic opinion is referred to as "bleed over." In 2006, the Washinton Postrevealed the Bush Defense Department, in an effort to discredit the leader of ISIS predecessor AQI, had inflated the savagery and scope of its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. This misinformation campaign invariably "bled over" into U.S. coverage of the war and created an archvillain cartoon that bore little resemblance to reality. 

The U.S., for its part, does have some safeguards against the military directly propagandizing domestically. However, those safeguards were weakened with the passage of the 2013 NDAA, which included provisions allowing for the State Department and Board of Governors — the agency that runs Voice of America and other pro-American media outlets— to directly target US citizens at home. 

It's unclear what, if any, policy changes the British Army anticipates enacting. 

h/t @marymad

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