Sock Puppets, Cyber-Warfare, Social Media and Intelligence: Why Should You Care?

By Bill Harp
Reader Columnist

Countless dangers lurk in the cyber landscape: Public opinion tampering through social media and forums is one of the least understood aspects.

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Reddit, Tumblr, Google+ and LinkedIn have changed the world in just a few years. Just last year, who would have predicted that the highest authority of the United States would execute the responsibilities of his office with Twitter?  Not me, and I would never have predicted Facebook would become the closest things to a collective cultural memory of the world.

Using social media, a wave of people now receive and analyze news and engage in heated discussions about anything and everything. Most news media have comment areas, and competition for your eyeballs and opinion is fierce. Even locally, Facebook, Daily Bee comments, letters to editors, and City-Data.com forums are daily informing, defining and shaping people’s thoughts and opinions.

Sock Puppets Perform in the Social-Media Theater

New on the scene are public opinion operatives that are paid by national governments to drive public opinion in a certain direction. Intelligence agencies have a slang word for these operatives: sock puppets. No one knows for sure how many state paid operatives are active in social media, but it is probably much larger than any estimate. Just one person can control hundreds or even thousands of sock puppet identities. These puppets are social media identities made “real” with a fake profile, philosophy and history. They can be semi-automated or even fully automated by bots and are dedicated to spreading lies, innuendo, half-truths and false news, perhaps with some real truths mixed in. All the large intelligence agencies have programs that manage and counter this trend. An example of Russian activity is a wide variety of cyber attacks that impacted the last U.S. election. Russia’s social media campaign strategy used surrogate puppets, and it is the least understood and perhaps the most successful of their activities.

How do Sock Puppets Act?

Imagine that English-speaking persons in a variety of countries are paid by a government or pseudo-government agency to insert certain talking points into their social media accounts and on-line forum identities. For example, the message might be as simple as “Blame the Obama administration for vetting Michael Flynn’s security clearance.” A popular operative’s comments and tweets bearing this message will be re-posted again and again.

After first denying the existence of Russian Facebook activities in the recent U.S. election campaign, Facebook later admitted that Russian operatives paid more than $100,000 for over 3,000 “politically divisive” ads. The Daily Beast also reported that these covert propaganda ads were likely seen by 23 to 70 million people. That happens to be a large percentage of the voting population.

And if you think that this manipulation of social media is an international issue with little relevance to local politics, then think again. The Daily Beast reported in September that Russian operatives under the Facebook name “Secured Borders” (with over 130,000 followers) rallied for an anti-immigrant demonstration in Twin Falls, Idaho, of all places. Apparently only a handful of folks attended.

Because of re-tweet and re-send, one comment that resonates with a certain group could reach, with the speed of light, tens of thousands, even millions of readers. Multiply this effect by hundreds of sock puppets that a single operative might control, and you can appreciate how powerful this strategy could be in the hands of a clever operative. Then multiply this impact by hundreds or thousands of operatives, and you have a program that can actually push global public opinion in almost any direction. Of course, this is a numbers game, so the masters of the sock puppet owners have to carefully calculate the statistical probability of a successful operation and engage the appropriate amount of resources. Russia and China have extensive experience in this process and, we, the U.S., have been one of the test dummies.

Counter-Theater

A U.S. State Department agency, the Global Engagement Center (GEC), has a mission to counter the propaganda of foreign governments or their surrogates through the promotion of reasonable and honest journalism. In an open democratic environment where free speech is protected, it is difficult to defend against propaganda directly.

You can imagine the irony of the GEC countering propaganda with more artificial propaganda. On the home front, the best defense is support for local publications and professional media to ensure that local issues receive the appropriate and honest journalistic consideration. This is an important counterpoint to the unmoderated and wild discussions that can endlessly take place in the forums, discussion groups and social media that talk about local issues.

Does this Social Media Performance Affect Me?

If you read comments in the forums and mainstream news, look at news from social media, or interact on “alternative“ websites, absolutely, yes! Imagine that social media accounts are like the spam you receive in your email: some messages are full of intentions to deceive. I think that an operative with deception as the mission is fundamentally different from a person who has a strong opinion.

Again, you may say that this is not a problem in North Idaho. I beg to differ. Fake social media accounts and fictitious individuals do participate in regional venues. ISIS itself, or its collaborators, has even defaced official Idaho websites such as the Idaho State Treasurer Office. These cyber terrorists posted a pro-ISIS banner that, among other things, touted “I Love Islamic State” on the state website. Read the full article, “Hard Cyber,” in the July 6 Inlander that details regional hacks, intrusions and cyber-security issues, and will you recognize that Idaho is not exempt: https://issuu.com/theinlander/docs/inlander_07-06-2017.

Final Curtain

We are all susceptible to the propaganda arm of paid operatives who insert themselves and their carefully crafted opinions into online forums and social media. As these ideas may be re-posted many times, it is often difficult to know the origin of a post. And it is almost impossible to determine who is a real person expressing a strongly held opinion from a paid operative manning a small army of sock puppets. However, an awareness of how common this strategy has become for manipulating public opinion is the first step for building one’s online awareness.

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