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Pentagon opens sweeping review of clandestine psychological operations

www.washingtonpost.com

Complaints about the U.S. military’s influence operations using Facebook and Twitter have raised concern in the White House and federal agencies.

 

The Pentagon has ordered a sweeping audit of how it conducts clandestine information warfare after major social media companies identified and took offline fake accounts suspected of being run by the U.S. military in violation of the platforms’ rules.

Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, last week instructed the military commands that engage in psychological operations online to provide a full accounting of their activities by next month after the White House and some federal agencies expressed mounting concerns over the Defense Department’s attempted manipulation of audiences overseas, according to several defense and administration officials familiar with the matter.

The takedowns in recent years by Twitter and Facebook of more than 150 bogus personas and media sites created in the United States was disclosed last month by internet researchers Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory. While the researchers did not attribute the sham accounts to the U.S. military, two officials familiar with the matter said that U.S. Central Command is among those whose activities are facing scrutiny. Like others interviewed for this report, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military operations.

The researchers did not specify when the takedowns occurred, but those familiar with the matter said they were within the past two or three years. Some were recent, they said, and involved posts from the summer that advanced anti-Russia narratives citing the Kremlin’s “imperialist” war in Ukraine and warning of the conflict’s direct impact on Central Asian countries. Significantly, they found that the pretend personas — employing tactics used by countries such as Russia and China — did not gain much traction, and that overt accounts actually attracted more followers.

Centcom, headquartered in Tampa, has purview over military operations across 21 countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Central and South Asia. A spokesman declined to comment.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement that the military’s information operations “support our national security priorities” and must be conducted in compliance with relevant laws and policies. “We are committed to enforcing those safeguards,” he said.

Spokespersons for Facebook and Twitter declined to comment.

Facebook and Twitter removed pro-West fake accounts originating in the United States

According to the researchers’ report, the accounts taken down included a made-up Persian-language media site that shared content reposted from the U.S.-funded Voice of America Farsi and Radio Free Europe. Another, it said, was linked to a Twitter handle that in the past had claimed to operate on behalf of Centcom.

One fake account posted an inflammatory tweet claiming that relatives of deceased Afghan refugees had reported bodies being returned from Iran with missing organs, according to the report. The tweet linked to a video that was part of an article posted on a U.S.-military affiliated website.

Centcom has not commented on whether these accounts were created by its personnel or contractors. If the organ-harvesting tweet is shown to be Centcom’s, one defense official said, it would “absolutely be a violation of doctrine and training practices.”

Independent of the report, The Washington Post has learned that in 2020 Facebook disabled fictitious personas created by Centcom to counter disinformation spread by China suggesting the coronavirus responsible for covid-19 was created at a U.S. Army lab in Fort Detrick, Md., according to officials familiar with the matter. The pseudo profiles — active in Facebook groups that conversed in Arabic, Farsi and Urdu, the officials said — were used to amplify truthful information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the virus’s origination in China…

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