Privacy SOS

Company that does sock puppet propagandizing for US military also identifies “anarchist networks” at home

That person you are arguing with in the comment section at the end of Glenn Greenwald's latest blog about the CIA’s not-so-secret operations in Pakistan may in fact work for the US government. And the corporation that's paid to do the propagandizing has previously touted its experience in identifying 'anarchist networks' and leaders in the United States.

Here's a 2011 Guardian report about how the DoD awarded a $2.76 million contract to the shadowy government contractor NTrepid to create fake internet personas and use them to spread US military propaganda online:

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.

A Californian corporation has been awarded a contract with United States Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what is described as an "online persona management service" that will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world.

The project has been likened by web experts to China's attempts to control and restrict free speech on the internet. Critics are likely to complain that it will allow the US military to create a false consensus in online conversations, crowd out unwelcome opinions and smother commentaries or reports that do not correspond with its own objectives.

The discovery that the US military is developing false online personalities – known to users of social media as "sock puppets" – could also encourage other governments, private companies and non-government organisations to do the same.

The Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations "without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries".

The military said back in 2011 that it wouldn’t do any propagandizing in English, because that would be "unlawful" and "specifically said it was not targeting Facebook or Twitter," the Guardian wrote. But since the contracts between the DoD and NTrepid are not public, and we therefore only have the government’s word, we can’t be sure that’s true. 

It wouldn't be a stretch to imagine that the military is indeed paying people to operate fake online personas to advance its agenda here at home. After all, the Department of Defense is concerned about "homegrown violent extremists" in the United States, according to its 2013 Strategy for Homeland Defense and Defense Support of Civil Authorities.

And troublingly, the company the US is paying to do the propagandizing, NTrepid, has some experience spying not just on violent extremists at home, but also on people who simply don’t like the government. 

Last year I wrote about how NTrepid markets a product to intelligence and security organizations called "Tartan Influence Model." The company used ‘Anarchist Groups’ as an example target. Its promotional materials describe the data mining program:

This project reveals a hidden network of relationships among anarchist leaders; a network that facilitates the spread of violent and illegal tactics to the broader protest movement in the United States.

Organizers create anarchist networks far more quickly and easily than in the past through the use of online communications. These same communications tools are used to transmit their radical ideologies and violent protest tactics. The Tartan model used a robust data set to identify 894 relationships within this network.

The DoD is therefore paying a company that monitors the internet use of anarchists and radicals in the United States to actively interfere with and inject pro-military propaganda into online conversations about politics. We can't be sure whether or not NTrepid does this propagandizing-for-pay on English language speaking websites, but that connection is troubling in itself.

Furthermore, given the US' concern about people like Anwar al Aulaqi propagandizing for al Qaeda in English, wouldn't it be silly for the military to ignore that demographic as it seeks to shift the conversation onto friendly terms? Are we really to believe that the US government killed a US citizen propagandist absent any kind of due process, but won't engage in its own English language propaganda because it's 'unlawful'?

© 2024 ACLU of Massachusetts.