"If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, then a friend of my enemy, is my enemy . . . "

Ancient Proverb

The oldest recorded expression of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" dates all the way back to 4th century B.C.

In the age of Sanskrit, with its limited technology and resources,  it was vital to know your enemies and create alliances to survive. As the centuries have passed, though we've become more comfortable and sophisticated than the ancients could have ever dreamed, the need to assess danger and forge alliances for the safety of family and country has evolved.

Rather than blood oaths, our national alliances are now invisible lines,  held together with trade agreements and international consortiums like NATO, NAFTA and the G8. Rather than village greens or city blocks, family alliances now stretch across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and Youtube. The world is bigger, yet smaller.

We laugh.

We cry.

We share cat videos.

And for American military members and veterans reaching out to connect with their loved ones, this small world has been infiltrated by Russian cyber-propagandists. In October articles from The Washington Post and McClatchy DC Bureau,  data scientists delved into the research released by the Oxford Project on Computational Propaganda ("OPCP") report, "Junk News on Military Affairs and National Security" (co-authored by Graphika Inc.'s Director of Science, Vlad Barasch and CEO, John Kelly).

Studying how news and propaganda spread through social networks of Americans during 2016 Presidential Election, we see powerful evidence of "Psy-Ops" - Russian cybernetworks targeting U.S. active military members and veterans.  In this cybersocial propaganda war,  these Russian cyber disrupters and "troll farms"  turn the American military's  own love of family and country against them - making them unwitting puppets in a Russian strategy to undermine faith in the American government and in democracy itself. 

We’ve found an entire ecosystem of junk news about national security issues that is deliberately crafted for U.S. veterans and active military personnel. It’s a complex blend of content with a Russian view of the world – wild rumors and conspiracies.
— Phillip Howard, Professor of Internet Studies at Oxford University

In the run-up to the 2016 Presidential Election, vast numbers of Americans replaced the relentless drone of the nightly news with their Facebook Timeline or Twitter Feed.  The news of the day, with all its ups and downs, was more palatable when broken up by pictures of friends' children, funny videos and personal anecdotes.

But the conflation of facts with personal opinions, blurs the clear line that once existed. Where once there was the news section versus the Op-Ed section, now it's all just one big, messy "feed" or "timeline".  This is what Russian cybernetworks take advantage of - Americans trust the information "liked" and "shared" on our timelines/feeds because we trust our network. Because they're our friends and family.

American military families and veterans experience the increased responsibility and unique vulnerability that accompanies a deployment and/or dealing with the physical & emotional effects of its aftermath and their experience has enormous social network space devoted to it. 

The very idea that there’s aggressive campaigns to target military personnel with misleading content on national security issues is surprising. It’s disappointing. Because they’re opinion leaders, they get more attention from governments and people who spread misinformation.
— Philip N. Howard, Oxford professor, co-author of “Junk News on Military Affairs and National Security: Social Media Disinformation Campaigns Against US Military Personnel and Veterans"

 

The American military family experience has enormous social network space devoted to it.  As a result, they have some of the most well-developed social networks with individualized groups and pages specifically tailored to the unique needs of military families and veterans.  Using a test month in 2017, the OPCC monitored popular military conversations on Twitter under the hash tags #GoArmy and  #Iraq. In addition to Twitter and Facebook, they also monitored military- specific websites. The OPMCC reports:

[On Twitter there has been] significant and persistent interaction between current and former military personnel and a broad network of Russia-focused accounts, conspiracy theory focused accounts and European right wing accounts . . . aimed at undermining American’s trust in democracy.

The OPMCC report believes that this active targeting was "aimed at undermining American's trust in democracy".

Military families share and post on genuine American accounts like U.S. Military.Org, Service Personnel Veterans, Facebook "User Groups" that cater to specifically military-family-oriented needs and interests. As reported in Politico, these sites mixed advice for veterans" for such benign activities as jobs and medical bills w/ headlines like "Ukraine's Ku Klux Klan - NATO's New Ally" that normalized and celebrated hate groups.

This is further evidencer of the Kremlin’s holistic effort to to try to get inside the minds, computers and communications of our forces to steal information on things such as the locations and deployment schedules of specific military units and to conduct Psy-Ops against our troops.
— Mike Carpenter, former senior Pentagon official and Russia specialist

The Kremlin's global "active measures" campaign has been around since the era of the Soviet Union. Newer social media tools have "enabled explosive growth of networks dedicated to distributing false and misleading information".

Carpenter, a Pentagon official who specializes in Russian activities, explains that by targeting certain subgroups of society, they could cause deep social rifts and undermine Americans trust in government - by exploiting the voices that Democracy empowers.

Democracy, by its very nature, invites conversation. Americans pride themselves on their freedom to express any and all beliefs. Russian propagandists took that pride of Democracy and used it to expose the prejudice, anger, and hate lingering below the surface in American society.

To take a page from "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (the 2008 Spielberg disappointment that made Russians furious), the Russians are choosing social networks over crystal skulls to harness " . . . the greatest natural force the world has ever known. Power over the minds of man."

During the study's monitored time-frame, this "aggressive campaign to influence the military"  - both veterans and active duty members  - with fake or highly slanted news pervaded military social networks.  The "fake news" spread through both liberal and conservative political content, sustainable agriculture sites, mental health and addiction groups and pages, and even conspiracy theory websites. This disinformation quickly reaches a huge social network of the military and veterans friends and family and comes a seal of approval - the interest of a friend or family member.  It is that very emotional buy-in the Russians seek when they chose to engage with military families, leveraging their large networks to undermine faith in our government and in democracy in general.

The feeling in the research community is that studies on Russian propaganda with its bots, fake websites, pages and groups haven't gone far enough.

The Next Step should be open collaboration that explains the network effects and helps restore public trust in social media.

While Facebook has released considerably more information than Twitter, greater transparency will be needed going forward.  Particularly as we begin to fully understand the scope of the impact that these ads have had upon the country's Facebook users.  Congress's recent hearing during which they interviewed,  Facebook and Twitter coincides with Twitter, achieving profitability for the first time in its history.  Twitter, in particular, repeatedly has chosen to release the bare minimum to Congress and during the recent Congressional hearings, "No counsel — especially not Twitter's — could reconcile the inherently necessary power of automation on their platform with their company's inability to fully control it across their platform."

If our social media contacts are the unwitting friends of our nation's enemies, and if the social networks of even our military are vulnerable to their manipulations, how do Americans learn the difference?


Next Week: Top 10 Ways to Spot a Fake Tweet.