Intelligence Agencies Use Social Media for 'Dirty Tricks,' Propaganda: New Report

Written by Andrew Kreig
Published on March 1, 2014

Western intelligence agencies secretly use social media to inflict dirty tricks on enemies and to manipulate the public's political perceptions, according to a major investigative report last week by Glenn Greenwald.

Based on documents provided last year by former NSA and CIA employee Edward Snowden, Greenwald published How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations in cooperation with NBC and via the First Look Intercept site. 

"I want to focus and elaborate on the overarching point revealed by all of these documents," Greenwald wrote Feb. 24. "Namely, that these agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the internet itself."

Glenn Greenwald First Look InterceptGreenwald is shown in a file photo describing the implications of secret western national security documents that Snowden took when he worked as an NSA contractor.

The revelations extend via new documentary evidence in a more visible way similar dirty tricks previously reported. In 2011, for example, the hacktivist group Anonymous released hacked documents from a federal contractor showing elaborate plots to smear Greenwald and other journalists -- and also to create phony sock puppets to gather information via social media.

Lee Fang of Think Progress first reported, for example, that "Holly Weber" was an avatar created for Facebook by contractors, and not a real person. I reported the implications of that story in Feeling Friendly This Week? Beware, and also in my recent book, Presidential Puppetry: Obama Romney and Their Masters.

Holly WeberThis week's revelations have sparked a wider ranging debate on the extent of Western intelligence to use social media -- which includes such platforms as Facebook and Wikipedia -- to distort the operations of users, and undertake propaganda and other political operations.

We have been writing separately about potential intelligence uses to use Wikipedia through its network of anonymous editors to shape public perceptions. Aside from the intelligence agencies, the Naval War College in Rhode Island is a major center for such operations with the traditional and social media in the United States.

Related issues arising last week included how much prominence social and traditional media would grant such revelations. Reddit, for example, banned links to the Greenwald story form one of its major distribution platforms.

Greenwald said the report was based on four classified GCHQ documents presented to the NSA and the other three partners in the English-speaking “Five Eyes” alliance that includes the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The GCHQ is the UK's equivalent to the NSA. The document below is from a stash of secrets within the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group, JTRIG, a previously secret unit with the GCHQ.

Greenwald described the importance as follows: 

"By publishing these stories one by one," he wrote, "our NBC reporting highlighted some of the key, discrete revelations: the monitoring of YouTube and Blogger, the targeting of Anonymous with the very same DDoS attacks they accuse 'hacktivists' of using, the use of 'honey traps' (luring people into compromising situations using sex) and destructive viruses."

Greenwald continued:

Edward Snowden Intelligence Effects Document But, here, I want to focus and elaborate on the overarching point revealed by all of these documents: namely, that these agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the internet itself. Among the core self-identified purposes of JTRIG are two tactics:

(1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and

(2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable.

To see how extremist these programs are, just consider the tactics they boast of using to achieve those ends: “false flag operations” (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting “negative information” on various forums.

In The Conspiracy Theory Is True: Agents Infiltrate Websites Intending To "Manipulate, Deceive, And Destroy Reputations," Tyler Durden of Zero Hedge concluded the revelations confirm some of the worst fears of the public about what national security agencies do in secret.

 
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Editor's Recommendations

First Look Intercept, How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations, Glenn Greenwald, Feb. 24, 2014. One of the many pressing stories that remains to be told from the Snowden archive is how western intelligence agencies are attempting to manipulate and control online discourse with extreme tactics of deception and reputation-destruction.

Related News

GCHQ LogoZero Hedge, The Conspiracy Theory Is True: Agents Infiltrate Websites Intending To "Manipulate, Deceive, And Destroy Reputations," Tyler Durden, Feb. 24, 2014. In the annals of internet conspiracy theories, none is more pervasive than the one speculating paid government plants infiltrate websites, social network sites, and comment sections with an intent to sow discord, troll, and generally manipulate, deceive and destroy reputations. Guess what: it was all true. And this time we have a pretty slideshow of formerly confidential data prepared by the UK NSA equivalent, the GCHQ, to confirm it, and Edward Snowden to thank for disclosing it.

WhoWhatWhy, Handy chart for conspiracy theorists, Russ Baker, March 15, 2014. Lazy and imitative journalists and academics like to bandy around the term “conspiracy theory.” It is a one-size-fits-all putdown. But those who are unafraid of the real world know that conspiracies happen, and not only on House of Cards. Conspiracies are prosecuted every day in courthouses throughout the land. As for outfits like the FBI and the CIA, journalism’s job is to continuously forget all the abuses and outright illegalities perpetrated over the years by these institutions, and to treat their claims with respect and trust. The use of “conspiracy theory” is highly selective. When powerless people say that the CIA is doing something like illegally entering others’ computers, they are conspiracy theorists. But when Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says it, she’s…well, a senator condemning an illegal act by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Daily Dot via Salon, Why Reddit moderators are “censoring” Glenn Greenwald’s latest bombshell, Fernando Alonso III, Feb. 28, 2014. One administrator claims the original article "breaks preexisting rules as to analysis and opinion." Greenwald’s piece has been removed more than six different times from r/news and at least once from r/worldnews. The removal of the article was carried out by r/news moderators, volunteer gatekeepers of subreddits who have the power to ban users and content that either break Reddit’s official rules or rules instituted by each individual forum. Moderator positions, particularly those on default subreddits like r/news, are coveted positions. All new registered Reddit users are automatically subscribed to these subreddits when they join, and most never unsubscribe from them. And thanks to Reddit’s 112 million–plus unique visitors last month, a permanent place on Reddit’s front page results in tremendous traffic and attention for sites submitted to these forums.

OpEd News, Feeling Friendly This Week? Beware, Andrew Kreig, Aug. 22, 2011. Are you feeling friendly? Perhaps you’d like to meet Holly Weber or others like her through their Facebook, Linked-In and Twitter accounts. Or maybe recent news has prompted you to get active in politics -- or even to protest in some way? Here's the bottom line: Be careful, whatever your views. New evidence emerged in Washington late last week of sophisticated avatar, phishing and similar surveillance plots. The snitch scams were reportedly run by government-affiliated IT contractors to obtain personal information from those who criticize federal officials or key members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Holly Weber, the lovely University of Denver alumn, for example, apparently does not exist -- except as avatar of a composite.

Wayne Madsen Report, Add Wikipedia to NSA's cyber-warfare weapons inventory, Wayne Madsen, right, Feb. 27, 2014. Wikipedia lauds itself in its own entry in the on-line encyclopedia as a "collaboratively edited, multilingual, free Internet encyclopedia that is supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Volunteers worldwide collaboratively write Wikipedia's 30 million articles in 287 languages, including over 4.4 million in the English Wikipedia. Anyone who can access the site can edit almost any of its articles, which on the Internet comprise the largest and most popular general reference work." However, Wikipedia is also a stated weapons platform for National Security Agency's and British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) offensive information warfare operations that target individuals and groups in cyber disinformation campaigns. This strategy is part of a program known as Computer Network Information Operations (CNIO). Wikipedia is jammed full of erroneous information, intelligence agency-generated and otherwise, which has burned more than one person who dared use it as a primary source.

Catching Our Attention on other Justice, Media & Integrity Issues

Stieg LarssonNew York Daily News, Swedish Leader Murder Takes Stieg Larsson Turn, Deborah Hastings, Feb. 25, 2014. Swedish author Stieg Larsson, shown in a portrait, sent droves of documents to Swedish authorities linking the 1986 murder of Prime Minister Olof Plame to South African security forces, a newspaper reported Tuesday. The unsolved 1986 murder of Swedish leader Olof Palme took a strange turn Tuesday worthy of the country's blockbuster mystery novelist Stieg Larsson. In fact, according to the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, it's all about Larsson, the mega-selling author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He dropped dead from a heart attack at age 50 in 2004. Larsson also was an investigative journalist who tackled highly sensitive issues, including racism in Sweden. He reportedly sent more than a dozen boxes of paperwork connecting Palme's assassination to South African security forces. The Swedish leader was a vociferous opponent of apartheid in South Africa when he was shot to death in Stockholm after going to the movies with his wife. Like myriad speculation surrounding the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, his murder has sparked many conspiracy theories.