Opinion | The Pentagon’s alleged fake social media accounts demand a reckoning

The US military has apparently launched a new national security strategy: internet trolling. The Post reports that the Pentagon will conduct a major review of its policy on clandestine information warfare after Facebook and Twitter removed fake accounts suspected of being operated by the Department of Defense.

The news raises questions about whether social media companies should crack down on fake accounts that exist for benign purposes like promoting democracy. On the other hand, it is also reasonable to ask whether the US government should conduct offensive cyber operations to influence foreign peoples. Although it may seem contradictory, the answer to both questions is yes.

Social media sites need rules against platform manipulation, and those rules must have a clear line: A site cannot choose which fake personas it likes and which it doesn’t based on the countries they come from or the values ​​they hold encourage — this would make effective enforcement almost impossible.

At the same time, the US government cannot leave the battlefield of online influence. US opponents are all too present on the front lines of online influence, from China’s so-called 50-cent army of propagandists spreading misinformation about Hong Kong, Taiwan, the cultural genocide of the Uyghur Muslim minority and more, to Russia’s internet Research Agency that sought to increase racial tensions among American feminists preparing for the 2017 Women’s March.

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Fighting back is difficult. The U.S. military’s reluctance to cede the classified information space to smear foreign forces makes sense — but in attempting to claim some territory for itself, the Department of Defense also risks undermining that country’s own goals. The dissemination of truthful information, such as facts about the coronavirus pandemic, through false means, such as inauthentic personas, better reflects the values ​​of this nation than the dissemination of false information through false means. But inauthentic personas themselves can pose a problem: their widespread use, if uncovered, promotes an internet-era nihilism that suggests that nothing on the internet can truly be believed.

In tight circumstances, deception may be the best or only option. But the alleged efforts of the Pentagon do not seem to have worked: The operations uncovered by Facebook and Twitter and documented by researchers show the indiscriminate creation of fake accounts, some with faces generated by artificial intelligence, the spamming of platforms with petitions, memes and hashtag campaigns , all inorganically reinforced. They didn’t succeed; Obvious operations generated more engagement. And of course they could not hide their false nature; The platforms not only managed to disrupt them, but also linked them as likely to the US military.

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The Department of Defense should ensure that any policy resulting from its review does not treat platform manipulation as a standard, but rather as an interference that must be carefully justified. Meanwhile, the government as a whole, from the Pentagon to the State Department to the intelligence community, should use academic input and public debate to rethink what a heart-and-mind campaign looks like in the digital age. US intelligence operations should unearth the truth and expose untruths, and all covert tactics should be based on research into what works. Those performing these salvos should be trained on how to do the job properly. You should also be careful not to get caught.

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