by Rohan Sinha (’23) | October 7, 2022
In September 2022, news outlets reported the White House’s concern about social media operations launched by the Pentagon promoting pro-American content abroad. After the White House voiced its worries about this conduct to the U.S. Department of Defense, the Pentagon began auditing its own clandestine social media activity, which resembled Russia’s disinformation campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The Pentagon investigation followed actions by Twitter and Meta to shut down fake accounts associated with the U.S. military and pro-American content, the first takedown of U.S.-led foreign influence operations by social media companies.
The U.S. has clear political reasons for participating in information warfare. In light of the Ukraine’s invasion by Russia, an adversary of the U.S., the Pentagon used its secret social media presence to promote content critical of Russian atrocities against Ukrainian civilians. In Iran, another major U.S. adversary, a Pentagon-backed social media operation sought to create chaos and polarization by disseminating both pro- and anti-government narratives online. Since Russia and Iran have often been behind social media influence operations in the United States, the U.S. military may have sought to avoid forfeiting the information war to its adversaries.
These so-called psychological operations, intended to manipulate online public opinion, are not at all new to the U.S. military. However, the technology available to the Pentagon distinguishes this operation by increasing its potency. For example, Twitter and Meta have indicated that some Pentagon-backed social media accounts used AI-generated profile pictures. Recent innovations in deep fakes and other deceptive technologies would also enable the Pentagon to modify a pro-Western message to appeal to different international audiences. But given that the U.S.’s reputation is at stake, the Pentagon’s actions raise a major question: was its risky social media operation even worth it?
According to a report by internet researchers at Graphika, a social media analytics firm, and the Stanford Internet Observatory, the Pentagon’s work seems unproductive at best; its clandestine accounts did not achieve significant popularity abroad. Even the accounts explicitly associated with the U.S. military were significantly more popular than the Pentagon’s secret accounts. Moreover, Twitter and Meta were easily able to identify the accounts as part of the Pentagon’s larger influence operation. According to The Washington Post, Facebook executive David Agranovich allegedly warned a Pentagon official that if social media companies could identify inauthentic activity, foreign adversaries would definitely also be able to.
Furthermore, the Pentagon’s risky social media operation may actually undermine American goals and set a dangerous precedent. For one, the Pentagon’s work may decrease American credibility globally. Moreover, by partaking in information warfare, the Pentagon has essentially cynically acknowledged that geopolitical conflicts can only be won with deception, paving the way for increasingly deceitful information warfare by adversaries.
However, despite the negative implications of the Pentagon’s actions for social media itself, there may be a silver lining. In contrast to their limited response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, social media companies took a more active role against the Pentagon’s foreign influence operation. Twitter and Meta did not cooperate with the U.S. military’s clandestine operations, and Meta, which has published monthly reports on the disinformation campaigns it takes down from Facebook, was more transparent in providing data clarifying the scope of the operation. YouTube also shut down channels associated with the Pentagon that tailored their content to Arabic-, Farsi-, and Russian-speaking audiences. Thanks to the Pentagon’s operation, social media companies stepped up, a welcome departure from their previous “hands off” approach to information warfare.