Ride the Lightning

Cybersecurity and Future of Law Practice Blog
by Sharon D. Nelson Esq., President of Sensei Enterprises, Inc.

Pentagon Orders Review of U.S. Psyops After Fake Social Media Accounts Taken Down

September 20, 2022

The Washington Post reported (gift article) on September 19th that “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 — tactics used by countries such as Russia and Iran in violation of the platforms’ rules.”

You may recall that, a few weeks ago, Facebook and Twitter removed a network of phony accounts promoting a pro-U.S. message.

Two officials said U.S. Central Command (Centcom) is among those under investigation over tweets that targeted an audience in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. The network analysis firm Graphika and Stanford University had discovered in their joint report that one of the removed accounts had links to a Twitter handle that had previously claimed to operate on behalf of Centcom, and there were many other links to Centcom material.

One tweet from March claimed that Afghan refugees had reported bodies returning home from Iran with organs missing, which would “absolutely be a violation of doctrine and training practices” if found to be the work of Centcom, a defense official said.

While U.S. law authorizes the use of fictitious substitute accounts, Pentagon policy and doctrine discourage spreading false information. Congress in 2019 effectively allowed the military to strike back online when countering foreign disinformation campaigns.

The White House, State Department and some in the Defense Department have raised concerns about whether existing policies are too broad, and State officials admonished Defense officials over the military’s clandestine activities.

The concern is that using social media accounts for clandestine information warfare poses risks to the U.S. reputation, even if they promote truthful information.

“Our adversaries are absolutely operating in the information domain,” said a second senior defense official. “There are some who think we shouldn’t do anything clandestine in that space. Ceding an entire domain to an adversary would be unwise. But we need stronger policy guardrails.”

Colin Kohl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, on Tuesday gave a deadline to military commands that conduct psychological operations online to report on their activities next month. He wants them to explain the types of operations, what tools they’re deploying and why they chose their tactics.

The White House declined to comment, and so did Centcom.

Facebook in 2020 took down fake personas intended to counter disinformation from other countries, The Post story independently confirmed. Officials at Facebook and Twitter, suspicious that fake accounts they were removing had connections to the military, contacted the Pentagon.

One conversation was between David Agranovich, Facebook’s director for global threat disruption, and Christopher C. Miller, who at the time served as assistant director for special operations and low-intensity conflict under President Donald Trump.

Agranovich’s “point was, ‘Guys, you got caught,’” said one person familiar with the conversation. “That’s a problem.”

Agranovich brought the issue up again last year after Joe Biden became president. He spoke with Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology, carrying a similar message that Facebook easily detected the accounts and that it would enforce its policies against such activity.

Facebook and Twitter declined to comment.

I am glad we are doing these audits and hope that we do impose, as suggested above, “stronger policy guardrails.”

Sharon D. Nelson, Esq., PresidentSensei Enterprises, Inc.
3975 University Drive, Suite 225Fairfax, VA 22030
Email:   Phone: 703-359-0700
Digital Forensics/Cybersecurity/Information Technology