Pentagon officials are looking into the Department of Defense’s own secret use of social media to stoke pro-U.S. sentiments overseas, according to a report from The Washington Post. The alleged review follows news from last month that Twitter and Meta have both uncovered and removed a linked network of dozens of fake, apparently pro-U.S. accounts targeting social media users abroad.
Colin Kahl, undersecretary for policy at the DoD, reportedly requested that all military branches conducting online psychological operations fully account for their activities by next month. He announced the review at a National Security Council meeting last Tuesday, said The Post, citing multiple, unnamed sources.
The undersecretary asked to be informed of what types of online influence operations have been enacted, using what tools, who is being targeted, why, and how effective these social media campaigns have been. One anonymous defense official reportedly told WaPo that the key takeaway from the meeting was, “you have to justify to me why you’re doing these types of things.”
Federal concern over DoD online influence campaigns is growing, said The Post, spurring the new internal audit. An August report, from Stanford University and analytics firm Graphika, found that Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have collectively removed nearly 230 accounts from across platforms. Some of those accounts were found to be part of an overt U.S. campaign called the “Trans-Regional Web Initiative,” while others were determined to be part of covert campaigns spanning about five years.
The accounts were banned under the social media companies’ policies barring “platform manipulation and spam” as well as “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” And report researchers determined that the deleted accounts were seemingly linked and part of intentional pro-U.S. propaganda efforts in Russia, China, and Iran.
From the August report:
These campaigns consistently advanced narratives promoting the interests of the United States and its allies while opposing countries including Russia, China, and Iran. The accounts heavily criticized Russia in particular for the deaths of innocent civilians and other atrocities its soldiers committed in pursuit of the Kremlin’s “imperial ambitions” following its invasion of Ukraine in February this year. To promote this and other narratives, the accounts sometimes shared news articles from U.S. government-funded media outlets, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, and links to websites sponsored by the U.S. military. A portion of the activity also promoted anti-extremism messaging.
The focus on targeting Russia is particularly telling given the amount of U.S. media attention on Russia’s own online propaganda networks. For instance, the country’s social media campaigns to influence the 2016 U.S. election, and the online battle for hearts and minds surrounding the war in Ukraine. China too, has been repeatedly implicated in the use of social media to sway public perception. But clearly, the United States is seeking to use the internet to curry influence abroad as well.
Although the report didn’t explicitly attribute the bunk accounts to the U.S. military, Twitter and Meta reported that the false activity originated mostly in the U.S.. The researchers further found the accounts had the hallmark traits of an intentional influence campaign. WaPo further reported today that the U.S. Central Command is one of the sectors under examination.
Though U.S military influence campaigns targeting public opinion aren’t new, the use of social media and fabricated accounts is relatively recent. And, worth noting, lying online is not explicitly against Pentagon policy. From The Post:
Pentagon policy and doctrine discourage the military from peddling falsehoods, but there are no specific rules mandating the use of truthful information for psychological operations. For instance, the military sometimes employs fiction and satire for persuasion purposes, but generally the messages are supposed to stick to facts, officials said.
Success of influence campaigns can be difficult to measure, but the Stanford and Graphika analysis doesn’t bode well for the U.S. efforts. “The vast majority of posts and tweets we reviewed received no more than a handful of likes or retweets,” the report said.
A full 81% of the accounts and pages had fewer than 1,000 followers, and most tweets garnered fewer than one like or retweet. “Tellingly, the two most followed assets in the data provided by Twitter were overt accounts that publicly declared a connection to the U.S. military,” the authors wrote.
Twitter and Facebook did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
In response to Gizmodo’s questions, a DoD spokesperson sent the following comment in an email, “As a matter of policy, the Department of Defense conducts military information support operations in support of our national security priorities. These activities must be undertaken in compliance with U.S. law and DoD policy. We are committed to enforcing those safeguards.”