Bulletins

US military orders audit of its own online manipulation operations

The Biden administration reportedly wants to account for the scope of online manipulation operations, given their potential to erode U.S. credibility.

An aerial of the Pentagon

Suspected pro-Western online influence accounts targeted Central Asia.

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

In 2020, employees from Facebook and Twitter contacted the Pentagon with concerns about fake accounts they suspected had ties to the U.S. military, according to a Washington Post report. One Facebook executive even reached out to the Pentagon’s head of influence operations policy, Christopher C. Miller. The executive warned Miller that foreign adversaries could likely suss out the origin of these accounts, given that Facebook could, too.


Altogether, Facebook and Twitter ended up taking down around 150 fake profiles and media sites suspected of being created by the U.S. military as part of psychological operations, known as psy-ops. It’s a tactic the U.S. has frequently accused Russia of employing, as with the Russian disinformation issue that surrounded the 2020 elections.

The Biden administration seems intent to rein in or at least account for the scope of such operations. Last week, the undersecretary of defense for policy, Colin Kahl, ordered a full report of the military’s online influence operations for White House review by October, The Post reported. The Biden administration has also reportedly asked the Pentagon to provide more information on its policies for conducting online influence campaigns, concerned that their use could erode U.S. credibility.

One problem: Congress green-lit this activity in 2019 when it passed Section 1631, which gave the military permission to conduct and defend against online information operations, so long as it didn’t infringe on the CIA’s covert authority. Of note, Section 1631 also exempted those activities from the typical oversight system.

We have a better sense of the nature of pro-Western online influence operations thanks to an August 2022 report from Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory. The report found that suspicious pro-Western accounts on Twitter and Meta “created fake personas with GAN-generated faces, posed as independent media outlets, leveraged memes and short-form videos, attempted to start hashtag campaigns, and launched online petitions.” Their efforts didn’t seem to go all that well, as the majority of posts received “no more than a handful of likes or retweets.” The studied activity spanned eight social platforms and went back as far as March 2012.

The campaigns promoted U.S. talking points, often taking aim at strategic geopolitical regions such as Central Asia and Iran. Favored topics included “U.S. diplomatic and humanitarian efforts in the region, Russia’s alleged malign influence, Russian military interventions in the Middle East and Africa, and Chinese ‘imperialism’ and treatment of Muslim minorities,” according to the researchers. In some cases the accounts posted content from U.S.-backed media outlets such as Radio Free Europe.

The acknowledgement of suspected U.S.-led online influence operations could diminish U.S. authority to speak out against similar campaigns conducted by China and Russia. Direct communications between U.S. social media platforms and the Pentagon could also be used to further justify government oversight of social media in places like India, Nigeria and Indonesia.

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