The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Pentagon’s alleged secret social media operations demand a reckoning

The Pentagon on Jan. 26, 2020. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

The U.S. military has apparently adopted a new national security strategy: internet trolling. The Post reports that the Pentagon will conduct a sweeping review of its policies regarding clandestine information warfare, after Facebook and Twitter removed fake accounts suspected of being run by the Defense Department.

The news raises the question of whether social media companies should crack down on fake accounts that exist for benign purposes, such as promoting democracy. On the other hand, it is also reasonable to ask whether the U.S. government should conduct offensive cyberoperations to influence foreign peoples. Though it seems contradictory, the answer to both questions is yes.

Social media sites need rules against platform manipulation, and those rules need to have a bright line: A site can’t pick and choose which false personas it likes and which it doesn’t based on the countries they come from or values they promote — doing so would make effective enforcement nearly impossible.

At the same time, the U.S. government cannot leave the online influence battlefield. U.S. adversaries are all too present on the front of online influence, from China’s so-called 50-Cent Army of propagandists, which spreads misinformation about Hong Kong, Taiwan, the cultural genocide of the Uyghur Muslim minority and more, to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which sought to magnify racial tensions among American feminists preparing for the 2017 Women’s March.

Fighting back is tricky. The U.S. military’s reluctance to cede the clandestine information space to malign foreign forces makes sense — but in trying to seize some of the territory for itself, the Defense Department also risks undermining this country’s own objectives. Spreading truthful information, such as the facts about the coronavirus pandemic, through false means, such as inauthentic personas, reflects this nation’s values better than spreading false information through false means. But inauthentic personas themselves can prove a problem: Their widespread use, when uncovered, promotes an internet-era nihilism, suggesting that nothing on the internet can really be believed.

Under narrow circumstances, deception might be the best or the only option. But the Pentagon’s alleged efforts don’t seem to have been effective: The operations uncovered by Facebook and Twitter and documented by researchers show the indiscriminate creation of fake accounts, sometimes with faces generated by artificial intelligence, spamming platforms with petitions, memes and hashtag campaigns, all boosted inorganically. They did not succeed; overt operations generated more engagement. And, of course, they could not hide their fake nature; the platforms managed not only to disrupt them but also to identify them as likely associated with the U.S. military.

The Defense Department should ensure that any policy emerging from its audit treats platform manipulation not as a default but as an intervention that demands careful justification. Meanwhile, the government as a whole, from the Pentagon to the State Department to intelligence agencies, ought to rethink, with the help of academic input and public debate, what a digital-age hearts-and-minds campaign looks like. U.S. information operations should elevate the truth and expose falsehoods, and any clandestine tactics should be based on research about what works. Those conducting these salvos should be trained in how to do the job right. They should also make sure not to get caught.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

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