This story was written for Newswriting, one of my classes at Boston University.
By Grace Ferguson
December 18, 2019
A University of Oxford study published this fall showed that the U.S. government has used a variety of tactics to influence public opinion using online propaganda.
Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project compiled information on 70 countries in their 2019 Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation. In each of those countries, at least one political party or government agency used social media to influence public attitudes. The researchers collected the data by analyzing news reports, academic articles and public records, as well as consulting with experts.
The report categorized the U.S. as having a high “cyber troop” capacity—the researchers defined cyber troops as “government or political party actors tasked with manipulating public opinion online.” Countries with a high capacity have a large budget and a large, year-round staff. The propaganda targets both domestic and foreign audiences.
It might not be a surprise that, according to the report, American political parties are covertly bending the truth to exert influence online. But the report makes clear that U.S. government agencies and contractors are also doing so.
According to the report, the online propaganda pursues a variety of messaging goals. There are simple pro-government or pro-party ideas. There are attacks on the opposition, including smear campaigns and harassment of individuals. There is also propaganda for the sake of distraction or driving divisions.
The report described U.S. propaganda in broad strokes, but an accompanying case study that the researchers provided cites several specific instances of online influence operations.
In one instance, an owner of a Pentagon contractor targeted two USA Today journalists in an online smear campaign that involved fake websites and social media accounts created in the journalists’ names.
According to news sources cited in the case study, Tom Vanden Brook and Ray Locker were investigating U.S. propaganda campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Vanden Brook was working on the story in January 2012, he noticed someone registered tomvandenbrook.com. Another website in Locker’s name emerged after his byline appeared on the story.
Without naming any perpetrators, a USA Today story published in April 2012 revealed the extent of the smear campaign.
“Fake Twitter and Facebook accounts have been created in their names, along with a Wikipedia entry and dozens of message board postings and blog comments,” the article by Gregory Korte said.
The activity appeared to be an attempt to discredit the journalists. For example, the edit to Vanden Brook’s Wikipedia page said he “gained worldwide notoriety” for a reporting mistake in 2006, according to USA Today. Vanden Brook’s early coverage of a West Virginia mine disaster included an inaccurate number of fatalities, but so had the early coverage by other major news outlets.
In May 2012, an owner of Pentagon contractor Leonie Industries admitted to creating the websites, according to another USA Today article. Camille Chidiac was a 49% stakeholder of Leonie Industries, which Vanden Brook identified as “the Pentagon’s top information operations contractor in Afghanistan” in his investigative story.
The Oxford case study also describes an influence operation that targeted Cuban citizens. The researchers cited news articles on ZunZuneo, a “Twitter-like” social media platform that USAID ran from 2009 to 2012.
In April 2014, the Associated Press revealed the secret program. According to their article, USAID hid the U.S.’s involvement by using shell companies and foreign banks. ZunZuneo’s tens of thousands of users were not made aware of the platform’s origins.
“First, the network would build a Cuban audience, mostly young people; then, the plan was to push them toward dissent,” said the AP article by Alberto Rice.
U.S. law requires the president to authorize in writing all covert action. The president then must share the written authorization with members of congress. The Obama administration defended ZunZuneo, saying it was not a covert operation, according to a later AP article. Two senior Democrats on congressional intelligence and judiciary committees told the AP they had no knowledge of the operation.
Both of these operations described in the case study originated in nontraditional circumstances.
“Who comes up with [influence operations] is almost always the National Security Council working in concert with the president,” said Joseph Wippl, a professor of international relations at Boston University. Wippl worked for 30 years as an operations officer for the CIA’s National Clandestine Service.
Influence operations are just one type of covert action. While other types may involve supplying material weapons to a group abroad or physically sabotaging a state’s nuclear program, influence operations attempt to manipulate the knowledge and beliefs of a targeted audience.
The activities described in the case study take place primarily during the Obama presidency.
“The covert action president is none other than Barack Obama,” said Wippl. “No one signed more findings than he did, ever. And we’ve never engaged in more covert action than when he was president of the United States.”
Wippl said he believed Obama saw covert action as an alternative to the choice between sending or not sending troops to resolve a situation abroad. The former operations officer described covert action as “somewhere in between doing nothing and engaging in war.”
Wippl downplayed the role of propaganda and disinformation in U.S. covert action since the Cold War.
“On the influence operations area, you should always stick to the truth,” he said. “Projecting disinformation or false information at any time other than war time does not make any sense and will just come back to bite you.”