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Guest Post: Pentagon Seeks to Manipulate Social Media for Propaganda Purposes

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By Washington’s Blog


Wired reported on Friday:

The Pentagon is looking to build a tool to sniff out social media propaganda campaigns and spit some counter-spin right back at it.

On Thursday, Defense Department extreme technology arm Darpa unveiled its Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program. It’s an attempt to get better at both detecting and conducting propaganda campaigns on social media. SMISC has two goals. First, the program needs to help the military better understand what’s going on in social media in real time — particularly in areas where troops are deployed. Second, Darpa wants SMISC to help the military play the social media propaganda game itself.

This is more than just checking the trending topics on Twitter. The Defense Department wants to deeply grok social media dynamics. So SMISC algorithms will be aimed at discovering and tracking the “formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes)” on social media, according to Darpa’s announcement.

***

SMISC needs to be able to seek out “persuasion campaign structures and influence operations” developing across the social sphere. SMISC is supposed to quickly flag rumors and emerging themes on social media, figure out who’s behind it and what. Moreover, Darpa wants SMISC to be able to actually figure out whether this is a random product of the hivemind or a propaganda operation by an adversary nation or group.

Of course, SMISC won’t be content to just to hang back and monitor social media trends in strategic locations. It’s about building a better spin machine for Uncle Sam, too. Once SMISC’s latches on to an influence operation being launched, it’s supposed to help out in “countermessaging.”

***

SMISC is yet another example of how the military is becoming very interested in what’s going on in the social media sphere.

Indeed, as I wrote in February:

I noted in 2009, in an article entitled “Does The Government Manipulate Social Media?”:

The U.S. government long ago announced its intention to “fight the net”.

As revealed by an official Pentagon report signed by Rumsfeld called “Information Operations Roadmap”:

The roadmap [contains an] acknowledgement that information put out as part of the military’s psychological operations, or Psyops, is finding its way onto the computer and television screens of ordinary Americans.

“Information intended for foreign audiences, including public diplomacy and Psyops, is increasingly consumed by our domestic audience,” it reads.

“Psyops messages will often be replayed by the news media for much larger audiences, including the American public,” it goes on.

***

“Strategy should be based on the premise that the Department [of Defense] will ‘fight the net’ as it would an enemy weapons system”.

Indeed, the Pentagon publicly announced years ago that it was considering using “black propaganda” – in other words, knowing lies.

CENTCOM announced in 2008 that a team of employees would be “[engaging] bloggers who are posting inaccurate or untrue information, as well as bloggers who are posting incomplete information.”

The Air Force is now also engaging bloggers. Indeed, an Air Force spokesman said:

“We obviously have many more concerns regarding cyberspace than a typical Social Media user,” Capt. Faggard says. “I am concerned with how insurgents or potential enemies can use Social Media to their advantage. It’s our role to provide a clear and accurate, completely truthful and transparent picture for any audience.”

In other words, the government is targeting “social media”, including popular user-ranked news sites.

In addition, when you look at what the Israeli lobby has done with Megaphone software to automatically vote stories questioning Israel down and to send pro-Israel letters to politicians and media (see this, this and this), you can start to see how the U.S. military – an even larger and better-funded organization – could substantially influence voting on social news sites with very little effort.

Moreover,the military has outsourced many projects to private contractors. For example, in Iraq, much of the fighting has been outsourced to Blackwater. And governmental intelligence functions have largely been outsourced to private companies.

It is therefore not impossible that the government is hiring cheap labor to downvote stories on the social media sites which question the government, and to post pro-government comments.

(other governments and large companies “astroturf” online as well. See this, this and this.)

I pointed out the same month:

Government propagandists, their hired private contractors and useful idiots are creating “downvote bots” or scripts to bury stories which question the government.

***

One free, simple scripting program to create automatic downvotes of certain topics or news posters is called “Greasemonkey”, which is commonly used on large social news sites such as Reddit.

For example, there are some 2,480 hits [now past 9,000] for the google search site:reddit.com greasemonkey downvote. This is some 2,480 times that Reddit users are publicly admitting to using greasemonkey (see also this).

Propaganda agents obviously aren’t going to publicly brag about what they are doing, and you can bet that their use of downvote bots is much greater. Moreover, they probably have more sophisticated software than Greasemonkey.

Today, Raw Story reports that the Air Force ordered software to manage army of fake virtual people:

Internet users would be well advised to ask another question entirely: Are my “friends” even real people?

In the continuing saga of data security firm HBGary, a new caveat has come to light: not only did they plot to help destroy secrets outlet WikiLeaks and discredit progressive bloggers, they also crafted detailed proposals for software that manages online “personas,” allowing a single human to assume the identities of as many fake people as they’d like.

The revelation was among those contained in the company’s emails, which were dumped onto bittorrent networks after hackers with cyber protest group “Anonymous” broke into their systems.

In another document unearthed by “Anonymous,” one of HBGary’s employees also mentioned gaming geolocation services to make it appear as though selected fake persons were at actual events.

“There are a variety of social media tricks we can use to add a level of realness to all fictitious personas,” it said.

Government involvement

Eerie as that may be, more perplexing, however, is a federal contract from the 6th Contracting Squadron at MacDill Air Force Base, located south of Tampa, Florida, that solicits providers of “persona management software.”

While there are certainly legitimate applications for such software, such as managing multiple “official” social media accounts from a single input, the more nefarious potential is clear.

Unfortunately, the Air Force’s contract description doesn’t help dispel their suspicions either. As the text explains, the software would require licenses for 50 users with 10 personas each, for a total of 500. These personas would have to be “replete with background , history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographacilly consistent.”

It continues, noting the need for secure virtual private networks that randomize the operator’s Internet protocol (IP) address, making it impossible to detect that it’s a single person orchestrating all these posts. Another entry calls for static IP address management for each persona, making it appear as though each fake person was consistently accessing from the same computer each time.

The contract also sought methods to anonymously establish virtual private servers with private hosting firms in specific geographic locations. This would allow that server’s “geosite” to be integrated with their social media profiles, effectively gaming geolocation services.

The Air Force added that the “place of performance” for the contract would be at MacDill Air Force Base, along with Kabul, Afghanistan and Baghdad. The contract was offered on June 22, 2010.

It was not clear exactly what the Air Force was doing with this software, or even if it had been procured.

Manufacturing consent

Though many questions remain about how the military would apply such technology, the reasonable fear should be perfectly clear. “Persona management software” can be used to manipulate public opinion on key information, such as news reports. An unlimited number of virtual “people” could be marshaled by only a few real individuals, empowering them to create the illusion of consensus.

***

That’s precisely what got DailyKos blogger Happy Rockefeller in a snit: the potential for military-run armies of fake people manipulating and, in some cases, even manufacturing the appearance of public opinion.

“I don’t know about you, but it matters to me what fellow progressives think,” the blogger wrote. “I consider all views. And if there appears to be a consensus that some reporter isn’t credible, for example, or some candidate for congress in another state can’t be trusted, I won’t base my entire judgment on it, but it carries some weight.

“That’s me. I believe there are many people though who will base their judgment on rumors and mob attacks. And for those people, a fake mob can be really effective.”

***

“Team Themis” [tasked by the Chamber of Commerce to come up with strategies for responding to progressive bloggers and others] also included a proposal to use malware hacks against progressive organizations, and the submission of fake documents in an effort to discredit established groups.

HBGary was also behind a plot by Bank of America to destroy WikiLeaks’ technology platform, other emails revealed. The company was humiliated by members of “Anonymous” after CEO Aaron Barr bragged that he’d “infiltrated” the group.

And see this, this, this, this.

Indeed, as I noted in 2008, the Pentagon is using artificial intelligence programs to try to predict how people will react to propaganda:

As a new article by investigative reporter Christopher Ketcham reveals, a governmental unit operating in secret and with no oversight whatsoever is gathering massive amounts of data on every American and running artificial intelligence software to predict each American’s behavior, including “what the target will do, where the target will go, who it will turn to for help”.

The same governmental unit is responsible for suspending the Constitution … in the event that anything is deemed by the White House in its sole discretion to constitute a threat to the United States. (this is formally known as implementing “Continuity of Government” plans).

***

Bear in mind that the Pentagon is also running an AI program to see how people will react to propaganda and to government-inflicted terror. The program is called Sentient World Simulation:

U.S defense, intel and homeland security officials are constructing a parallel world, on a computer, which the agencies will use to test propaganda messages and military strategies.

Called the Sentient World Simulation, the program uses AI routines based upon the psychological theories of Marty Seligman, among others. (Seligman introduced the theory of ‘learned helplessness’ in the 1960s, after shocking beagles until they cowered, urinating, on the bottom of their cages.)

Yank a country’s water supply. Stage a military coup. SWS will tell you what happens next.

The sim will feature an AR avatar for each person in the real world, based upon data collected about us from government records and the internet.”

Postscript: Gaming social media is only one propaganda technique employed by the government:

  • The New York Times discusses in a matter-of-fact way the use of mainstream writers by the CIA to spread messages
  • A 4-part BBC documentary called the “Century of the Self” shows that an American – Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays – created the modern field of manipulation of public perceptions, and the U.S. government has extensively used his techniques
  • The Independent discusses allegations of American propaganda
  • And one of the premier writers on journalism says the U.S. has used widespread propaganda
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34 comments

  1. Cedric Regula

    This is getting creepy. Didn’t some guy write a book about this long ago?

    I was wondering if this means ‘bots have 1st Ammendment rights, and if we need to ask the supreme court or not.

    In the mean time, I’ve developed an electronic counter measure to scramble their little robo-brains. Here it goes. Don’t look.

    kjdbciwed7867234rberiy9erhv5rjf3o548tr pifl;12=3-94394075489375%$#%&%*&T&(Y()U:Jkl;ejpfojwejcwpiecpwejeqjdqj

    1. Cedric Regula

      Leave it to the USG to pay some guy for stuff the guy ripped off from Pavlov.

      “Called the Sentient World Simulation, the program uses AI routines based upon the psychological theories of Marty Seligman, among others. (Seligman introduced the theory of ‘learned helplessness’ in the 1960s, after shocking beagles until they cowered, urinating, on the bottom of their cages.)”

      1. psychohistorian

        These concepts have been being used with TV for years folks. Why do you think the masses are voting against their best interest?

        The manipulation has been going on for so long that people are ignorant of it until they get away from the medium for a while.

        Here come da Borg mind.

        1. VooDoolittle

          Hey there, I’ve been online most of the day and am tired and can’t remember how I came across your post, but it’s great stuff. (Maybe Corrente?)

          Anyway, don’t mean to crash this party, but after reading much stuff all day and night and coming across this I started to wonder if maybe all the info out there on super-secret-stuff is out there *because* they want people to become cynics/afraid/whatever.

          A tiny bit like this –
          What’s Victory? The Nine Orwellian Propaganda Terms That Define Our War State
          http://www.alternet.org/story/151401/what%27s_victory_the_nine_orwellian_propaganda_terms_that_define_our_war_state
          Covert War: It used to mean secret war, a war “in the shadows” and so beyond the public’s gaze. Now, it means a conflict in the full glare of publicity that everybody knows about, but no one can do anything about. Think: in the news, but off the books.
          We gotsta brag, scare the bejebus out of people, and be helpless.

          Though, most of you seem to be over the whole spying thing.

          Personally, I feel like one of Seligman’s dogs at times, especially because of being on disability – Makes you vulnerable.

          How in the hell does one avoid Google and Facebook?! I’ve turned them off in NoScript, etc., but *everything* seems to go through them. Now Google is even doing DNA and have some kind of deal with the effing CIA.

          But the whole reason I’m posting at all is because “Here come da Borg mind” cracked me up and immediately made me think of this article – (seems like a Duh, but yeah – think of all the “low-info voters” constantly with the tv…)

          Face value
          Study shows that low-information voters are most likely to be swayed by candidates’ appearances.

          Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office
          July 18, 2011
          http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2011/face-value-voting-0718.html

          The looks of political candidates are a key factor influencing voters, a phenomenon identified by a number of scholars in recent years. Now, a new study by MIT political scientists adds to this body of research by detailing which types of citizens are most influenced by candidate appearances, and why: The tendency is most prevalent among low-information voters who watch a lot of television.

          Using data from the 2006 U.S. Senate and governors’ races, the study shows that for every 10-point increase in the advantage a candidate has when rated by voters on his or her looks, there will be a nearly 5 percent increase in the vote for that candidate by the uninformed voters who are most firmly planted on their couches. Yet that same advantage in looks is worth only about a 1 percent increase among low-information voters who watch little television.

          [snip]

          And for more reading enjoyment – http://searchengineland.com/has-facebook-become-the-master-key-to-unlocking-the-web-75139

      2. dimchester

        My guardian angel informed me that Seligman is burning in hell at this moment and forever. Just a heads up for all.

    2. KnotRP

      If they succeed, they should win the Turing Award.
      If they fail (more likely), they’ll create an echo chamber full of automated astroturfers who will destroy the credibility of a blog, if the blog owner doesn’t see it coming and shut them down…

    3. ambrit

      Friends;
      What’s next, the return of Lysenko? These tactics are just what Stalin era Soviet scientists and technicians were tasked with in the ‘good old days.’ Look what happened to them.

  2. prostratedragon

    Do consider: One of Bernays’ earliest jobs in propaganda (he actually preferred the term to “public relations”) was on campaigns to sell World War I to a reluctant American public. Things have been creepy for a very long time.

  3. Parvaneh Ferhadi

    “I am concerned with how insurgents or potential enemies can use Social Media to their advantage.”
    ————–
    Potential enemies? That would be just about everyone, I assume, especially those who openly disagree or just give signs of disagreeing.
    Public perception is obviously more important to them, then what is actually happening on the ground. Another thing where Orwell had it right.

    1. Up the Ante

      “.. [engaging] .. bloggers who are posting incomplete information.”

      “Potential enemies? That would be just about everyone, I assume, especially those who openly disagree or just give signs of disagreeing.
      Public perception is obviously more important to them, ”

      Let’s see, “incomplete information”, that’s defined as any description of anything where the event described is not ‘complete’ or done. Any use of language as positing “incomplete information”.

      In that brute world, expressing anything when it is not desired by Psyops identifies you as an enemy.

      Public perception becomes the default task of fending off the rise of awareness. Suppression identified.

  4. Mark Hoffman

    This is propaganda targeted at U.S. citizens, which is clearly illegal. See this page, among others:

    http://www.prwatch.org/node/7261
    Quote:
    It violates, for starters, specific restrictions that Congress has been placing in its annual appropriation bills every year since 1951. According to those restrictions, “No part of any appropriation contained in this or any other Act shall be used for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States not heretofore authorized by the Congress.”

    As explained in a March 21, 2005 report by the Congressional Research Service, “publicity or propaganda” is defined by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to mean either (1) self-aggrandizement by public officials, (2) purely partisan activity, or (3) “covert propaganda.” By covert propaganda, GAO means information which originates from the government but is unattributed and made to appear as though it came from a third party.

    /Quote

    When is the DOJ going to look into this clear violation of U.S. laws?

    1. lambert strether

      BWA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!! “When is the DOJ going to look into this clear violation of U.S. laws?” Stop it, you’re killing me! “…. DOJ …. laws….” BWA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!! ZOMG!!!!

      1. ran

        lulz!

        reminds me of the scene in Big Lebowski where the Dude asks the cop if they have any leads on who stole his car.

        “Leads! Hahaahaha! We’ve got four of our best detectives on it! They’re working in shifts!!

  5. MRW

    What do you think Google+ is? It’s the old Google with the privacy controls removed. When you agree to use it, to sign up, you tacitly give Google permission to scrape everything Google has stored about you for the past 10 years, and essentially spy on you. It will target info to you, or bring you info it deems “relevant” to you.

    Google’s powerful algorithm and cloud server farms are making sense of all your past profiles + Google Voice messages + Gmail you’ve written or received + YouTube Accts + Google search history + Blogger content (public or private) + Google Checkbook (or Wallet or whatever its called).

    Then, based on algorithms dreamt up by people who somehow think they have this right, they are going to rank you over time, determine your reputation.

    The SVP at Google said on Friday that Google wants the world to perceive G+ as just plain Google.

    The little +, the little nudge, is the anonymity you give up when you use it, and the control over your privacy and anonymity forever.

    When you add these databases to what is being discussed in the posts above, it makes this speech even more important:
    http://freedomboxfndn.mirocommunity.org/video/5/the-alternate-net-we-need-and-

    Please listen to this, Yves.
    http://freedomboxfndn.mirocommunity.org/video/5/the-alternate-net-we-need-and-

    1. Up the Ante

      “.. to scrape everything Google has stored about you for the past 10 years, and essentially spy on you. It will target info to you, or bring you info it deems “relevant” to you.

      Google’s powerful algorithm and cloud server farms are making sense of all your past profiles + Google Voice messages + Gmail you’ve written or received + YouTube Accts + Google search history + Blogger content (public or private) + Google Checkbook (or Wallet or whatever its called).”

      Good, good. So by me quoting that portion of your statement, and commenting on it hereinafter, I am effectively forcing them to admit to themselves that I know what they are doing, and, lol, is equivalent to they fumbling with their trou’.

      That would apply equally to the FBI, Air Force, or any other acronym of choice.

      You see, that absurdity is why the immediate reaction of people to the possibility of being spied upon is contempt, as in, “Nothing better to do with your time?”.

      lol

      I have noted on certain blogs more frequent comments of late that take the form of well-articulated statements that essentially confirm undesirable aspects of topics, leave a curious vacuum behind the confirming in the sense of lacking any direct condemnation of actors, leaving at the end an implicit acknowledgement that that’s the way they (read we) do this, and of course, (you’ve been done) ..

      See the above.

  6. AGK

    Uncle Sam is too stupid to know how to deploy these tools. No matter how hi-tech his pampers is, his arse will always be bleeding as long as he is serving stupid masters.

    1. prostratedragon

      That wouldn’t prevent the attempts from being costly. Just because a kid can’t shoot well doesn’t mean there’s no need to keep guns away from ‘em.

      I recommend that Century of the Self series, highly. Among other things it goes into how Maslow’s survey methods and focus groups and such techniques fed into making this the monster consumer society that it has become. This Google+ thing sounds like it could be the doomsday version of the same kit, even by accident.

      1. Lil'D

        Venal.

        Just the “invisible hand” guiding us to the best of all possible worlds as we each follow our enlightened self interest …

  7. Capo Regime

    Great article but alas pretty late in the game so to speak. It is widely known that there are firms in the D.C. area that hire people to enter comments in response to articles to shape debate or ferret out people with extreme views. Probably half of the posters and some of the hosts of “extremist” websites are government employees. Of course the one that is annoying is the sock puppets who work for people shorting stocks and thus fleecing lots of neubies….

    Ha, ha amazed that people are of the view that DOJ or any of the apparats of government are to protect the citizenry and uphold the views of some guys from 1789! Its a brave new world and nation creation myths do not help….

  8. Valissa

    No, really? Propaganda in social media? I’m shocked! I’m also shocked that the sun still rises in the east! Snark aside, some good info here if a bit old news.

    After watching the Century of the Self for free online, it was so good I also bought the DVD and watched it again with my husband (who would not have sat through the 4 hours on the laptop).

    Who knows if this is true, but it seems quite likely…
    Facebook – the CIA conspiracy http://globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=12685

    Also recommend this book…

    The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, by Evgeny Morozov

  9. Ransome

    Is there a Freedom Index on dis-information or message control? I presume the greater the message control possibilities the higher the score what with the importance of pledges and staying on message.

  10. Rudolf Hess

    There are more crooks in the banking system than in prison for terrorism, and Google is the public face of the NSA.
    Corporate tyrannies control all of it, including the Pentagoon.

  11. rps

    The boys don’t want a responsible adult getting in their way of playing with their toys and wargames

    “Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.”

    “It is the absolute right of the State to supervise the formation of public opinion.”
    Joseph Goebbels

  12. wafranklin

    I used to work in gummint intelligence. We were no brighter then than before or now. What you are seeing is makework, got to have a job or project to show off. They do that in bidness also (I hid out there for a good while also). People get all these bright ideas, spend millions, or more, and then it folds, usually quietly. After all, you do know that the Armed Forces and intel services are job programs in extreme.

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