Gaming Social Networks for Influence and Propaganda

For a while now I have argued that the contemporary operating environment has two dimensions: ‘the first is the actual tactical field of battle in which bullets fly, bombs explode and blood is shed; the second is the virtual, informational realm in which belligerents contend with words and images to manufacture strategic narratives which are more compelling than those of the other side and better at structuring the responses of others to the development of events.’

The ‘virtual dimension’ which I refer to in the paper could be called lots of things. In general terms I think it approximates an information age version of what Habermas described as the ‘public sphere’: ‘…the realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed’. Castells uses the term ‘public space’ in Communication Power. It bears a strong familiarity with what Hoskins and O’Loughlin call the ‘media ecology’ in Television and Terror. And I think it is what doctrine writers mean when they talk about the ‘information environment‘ (see p.  37). You can call it what you want. My main point is that the virtual dimension of conflict matters a great deal; in fact the perception of conflict matters as much, possibly more in some respects, as the material actuality of it.

If you accept this premise then the recent revelation that the United States Government is investing in software to ‘Create Fake People on Social Networks to Promote Propaganda‘ should not surprise. After all, the conclusion that the management of the perception of conflict is important follows very logically. The story has been picked up in several places. In a nutshell,

a federal contract from the 6th Contracting Squadron at MacDill Air Force Base, located south of Tampa, Florida, that solicits providers of ‘persona management software.’ While there are certainly legitimate applications for such software, such as managing multiple ‘official’ social media accounts from a single input, the more nefarious potential is clear. Unfortunately, the Air Force’s contract description doesn’t help dispel suspicions. As the text explains, the software would require licenses for 50 users with 10 personas each, for a total of 500. These personas would have to be ‘replete with background , history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographacilly consistent.’ It continues, noting the need for secure virtual private networks that randomize the operator’s Internet protocol (IP) address, making it impossible to detect that it’s a single person orchestrating all these posts. Another entry calls for static IP address management for each persona, making it appear as though each fake person was consistently accessing from the same computer each time. The contract also sought methods to anonymously establish virtual private servers with private hosting firms in specific geographic locations. This would allow that server’s ‘geosite’ to be integrated with their social media profiles, effectively gaming geolocation services. The Air Force added that the ‘place of performance’ for the contract would be at MacDill Air Force Base, along with Kabul, Afghanistan and Baghdad. The contract was offered on June 22, 2010. It was not clear exactly what the Air Force was doing with this software, or even if it had been procured.

The last line is important–it’s not clear what they were doing with the software and whether in fact it had even been procured–but the suspicion is clear enough. It is irksome on two fronts, for me at any rate. One, I think that the ‘war of ideas’ really does matter, and that (as note in the previous post) we are more likely to win the day if we let ideas find their own level. We should be pushing the freedom of the networks, enabling people to say what they think not messing about with the content and playing tricky games. The West’s ideals, it bears emphasising, however often enslaved to realpolitik, are deeply subversive and far more in accordance with the postulated and actual ideals of the new revolutionaries of the ‘virtual dimension’. My vote for the smartest thing said by a UK minister in 2011 goes to foreign secretary William Hague who at the Munich Security Conference stated,

…as liberal democracies we also have a compelling vision in supporting democratic ideals in cyberspace, and working to convince others of this vision. When we talk about defending ourselves against cyber threats, we also mean the threat against individual rights to freedom of expression that is posed by states blocking internet communications. The free flow of ideas and information is an essential underpinning of liberty.

Two, if you are going to actively manipulate opinion in this manner could you please do it covertly? It reminds me of a sci-fi book by Scottish far-Lefty Ken Macleod The Execution Channel which I did not much care for, to be honest. One of the (several) things I did not like about it was where he described a small military unit actively sowing disinformation and rumour on social networks. It stuck in my craw because I thought ‘well they wouldn’t do it that way, that’s such an industrial age approach to an information age function–they’d be much smarter, more network-y.’ I guess Macleod was righter than me. Buy the book, decide for yourself. I suppose it goes to show how painfully maladapted governments are to the environment. I mean if you’re preparing to do something which looks an awful lot like messing with public discourse in a way that is bound to put people’s backs up why put it out to public tender? It reminds me of Bruce Sterlings comments on the wikileaks saga at Blast Shack (a must read):

Unfortunately for the US State Department, they clearly shouldn’t have been messing with computers, either. In setting up their SIPRnet, they were trying to grab the advantages of rapid, silo-free, networked communication while preserving the hierarchical proprieties of official confidentiality. That’s the real issue, that’s the big modern problem; national governments and global computer networks don’t mix any more. It’s like trying to eat a very private birthday cake while also distributing it. That scheme is just not working.     

I have a feeling that this story is going to get bigger quite quickly.


10 thoughts on “Gaming Social Networks for Influence and Propaganda

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  3. Outstanding post guys and this brings up all sorts of ideas as to the potential uses of such software. Driving traffic to blogs, manipulating opinion for political campaigns, damage control for bad news brought upon a company…there are many things here to look at.
    I also look at the various FB pages and groups with skepticism, and have always wondered how many of the folks that ‘like’ something or are participating, are real or just various persona’s being managed by the dude that started the group or page. Or some individual trying to sway opinion or generate buzz.
    How about in the middle east with the current unrest. How many persona’s are being created by jihadists to stir the pot and give the impression that the movement is bigger, or that the extremist elements are the status quo and not that extreme? Lots of ideas with this stuff.

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  7. Ed says:

    Just a small ponder, if these two opertional zones do exsist, could it be possible to detach one from the other. In other words could you provide so much information through ‘new media’ that you can convince a population, government, army, group of indivduals any given target that an event has occured or not occured, regardless of reality. Even if it is only for a small timeframe it could be used to change peoples minds.

    Rather than a tool for internal propaganda or suppression, can social media be used as a weapon in strategic deception?

    • David Betz says:

      I think they are very hard to separate completely. You’d need 1984 like levels of control.

      You might think of it like an OODA loop in which the main interest of the propagandist is in the Orient phase. That’s where he pours all of his efforts attempting to structure how the observer makes sense of an Observed event.

      I think you definitely could use social media for strategic deception.

    • Ed (the real one) says:

      Oh dear, how confusing, a new Ed. I won’t call him an imposter, but I’m thinking it.

  8. IronCapt says:

    McDill AFB is also home to the Joint Special Operations University, which falls under SOCCOM, which has an Information Operations mission (or MISO, or whatever we call it these days). It sounds like a great tool, which, of course, could be used for nefarious ends.

    McDill also has some very nice beaches and good seafood. I’m sure the tech geeks will appreciate it.

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