Do the US intelligence services troll Linkedin as well as other social media?
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
The author is a Moscow based private practice lawyer
Though not having been an active user of LinkedIn from the moment of joining it in 2010 (I browse the newsfeed there mostly when traveling to and from work and occasionally on weekends) with the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis at the beginning 2014, while glimpsing occasionally (but not on an everyday basis) at the posts and comments of my contacts I began to notice some strange activities.
There are obviously some fake profiles, with altered images of certain countries’ leaders or blurred photos, and/or bogus credentials that cannot be independently verified, including current and previous employment and education (further – the "assaulters") who post provocative and often explicitly insulting "trolling" comments in groups (in particular, the Russian International Affairs Council) and/or under updates regarding Russia and the Ukraine, and when countered by other users, if they have not been able respond with fact-based arguments, they will employ the lowest argumentative fallacies, including:
ad hominem attacks (a favorite one is calling an opponent a "Kremlin/Russian troll", a "useful idiot" etc.), as here:
false attribution (e.g. citing American corporate media like the New York Times and the Washington Post, Ukrainian propagandist sites like euromaidanpress.com and such notorious "opposition activists’" as Kasparov blogs and Facebook pages as credible sources of information) and trying to disparage alternative media, investigative journalists and bloggers as ″conspiracy theorists″ and/or ″Kremlin propagandists″:
hasty generalizations without any objective evidence (like "Russians are the most drinking/sloppy/aggressive nation") and explicit bigotry and smearing of Russia and Russians:
appeal to ridicule (like "Based on your new photo you have gained weight, it must have been due to sanctions"), "straw man", etc.
Finally, they disseminate express disinformation, in particular regarding the Ukrainian crisis:
Note: the fact that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) sponsored Ukrainian opposition groups prior to the coup in February 2014 is quite well documented, just like the fact that three weeks before the putsch in Kiev, the U.S. State Department was planning to orchestrate the removal of Ukraine’s duly elected President Viktor Yanukovych and select new leaders for Ukraine (i.e. a four-minute intercepted telephone conversation between Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland and the U.S. Ambassador in Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt was published on YouTube).
Note: On 21 February 2014, Victor Yanukovych conceded to the Maidan protesters and signed the Agreement on settling the crisis in the Ukraine that provided, in particular, for a return to the Constitution of 2004 and re-election of the president by the end of 2014. Apparently fearing that the violence at the Maidan would escalate nevertheless, since the shootings that took place just a couple of days before showed there were gunmen among the crowd and professional snipers provoking the escalation, Yanukovych ordered the police and special forces to withdraw from Kyiv by the same date as the Agreement was signed, fled from Kyiv himself and made a public statement that what was happening was an unconstitutional takeover.
On 22 February 2014, the Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) was "reformed": seventy deputies of the pro-government Regions Party that held the majority gave up their seats. The reformed Rada decided to hold early presidential elections on 24 May 2014 - in violation of both the Constitution of the Ukraine article 108, which provides that the president may be ousted only in the following cases: 1. resignation (Yanukovych had not resigned); 2. inability to perform his duties due to health conditions (he was able but was not permitted to); 3. impeachment (he was not impeached); 4. death. The respective decision of Rada did not even refer to the Constitution regarding the legal basis for ouster of the president. A complete analysis of all the violations of the Ukraine's Constitution sustained in the process of ousting Yanukovych and the election of the new government was made by the Kyiv Times.
Occasionally, when assailants totally ran out of arguments, they would suggest that if you did not like the way they lead a ″discussion″ you could leave LinkedIn, since it is ″their″ social network:
Although such actions constitute blatant violations of the LinkedIn Community Guidelines and the LinkedIn User Agreement, paragraphs 8.1. and 8.2., LinkedIn support has usually done nothing when such users’ insulting and often defamatory comments were flagged as inappropriate and in response to the notices on their allegedly fake profiles, even when obvious discrepancies in the information on their profiles were clearly demonstrated and evidence of the respective misrepresentation from external sources (i.e. official web sites of government authorities and companies’ registers, as well as e-mail correspondence with their alleged employers) was provided.
The most active of these assaulters who appear to spend 24/7 at LinkedIn posting and commenting, have something in common (if one takes for granted at least part of the data on their profiles):
they claim to be either former or active US government officials, including a "retired CIA operations officer", or "management analysts at the Office of Security, U.S. Department of Commerce" or a "US army veteran" or an "analyst at Wikistrat″, or a ″retired independent consultant″, an ″independent contractor", etc.;
they generally act as a team by commenting on, liking and sharing the same posts aimed at disparaging Russia and almost simultaneously:
they try not only to insult but also to defame and discredit anyone who dares to argue with them, libeling the latter as a "Russian troll" and/or ″Kremlin asset″, be it a Russian Ph.D engineer or lawyer, an American professor of political science, a French entrepreneur or a Canadian journalist, etc.
they appear to do all this scientifically, i.e. recording their own and others comments (in particular, in order to file ″collective″ complaints with LinkedIn when someone they specifically provoke does not respond politely):
The most constructive way to deal with assailants has been to block them, but even then you receive messages from your contacts that they continue to insult and defame you when your name is mentioned by a third party or without any reason whatsoever.
Generally, the assailants act not as typical Internet trolls but rather as IPredators engaged in ″victimization, stalking or disparagement of others using information and communications technology″. They can go so far as to publish on their blogs outside LinkedIn posts dedicated to particular LinkedIn users (whom they could not ″defeat″ in the course of exchanges of comments) in which they libel them as "Russian trolls" without any proof or valid reason, spreading this libel/defamation throughout LinkedIn.
This phenomenon of cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking on the 400 millions user social network is peculiar not only considering the claimed background of the "assailants" (US intelligence services and/or military forces) and the geopolitical context (the "Cold War-II”), but also given that the most active assailants expressly state on their profiles such specializations as "Information Operations/Information Warfare, Electronic Warfare, Deception, Operational Security, Cyberwar, Intelligence, Special Forces and Special Operations".
This prompts a reasonable question: could they actually be US government-sponsored trolls?
According to anecdotal evidence by former CIA clandestine service trainee and DIA analyst Lynnae Williams, the FBI and CIA use trolls to monitor social media and interact with users to discredit information disseminated on the web. Williams explained that the CIA provides training videos to new recruits on how to troll the internet. Once a target is locked-in, all open source information is obtained on the individual, and any angle is used on social media sites to discredit them.
The trolls’ work usually falls within several categories, in particular:
they combine vast knowledge with disinformation and ridicule, in order to make a subject appear as uninteresting and misleading as possible;
they usually post discrediting messages in groups, supporting each other's claims, while demoting, ridiculing or spreading disinformation in all interesting threads. These trolls are usually very active and are the first to post replies;
they usually support each other's threads;
they are very active and are part of many groups and communities, but they are mainly activated by specific subjects - those they know best.
As revealed by the Guardian, the US military is developing software that will let it secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.
A Californian firm Ntrepid was awarded the $2.76m contract with United States Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what is described as an "online persona management service" that would allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world and, working around the clock in one location, respond to online conversations with any number of co-ordinated messages, blogposts, chatroom posts and other interventions. The personas should be "replete with background, history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographically consistent", a Centcom tender document said.
The multiple persona contract was thought to have been awarded as part of a program called Operation Earnest Voice (OEV), which was first developed in Iraq as a psychological warfare weapon against the online presence of al-Qaida supporters and others ranged against coalition forces.
David Petraeus, then commander of Centcom, described the operation as an effort to "counter extremist ideology and propaganda and to ensure that credible voices in the region are heard". Petraeus's successor, General James Mattis, then told the US Senate's armed services committee that OEV "supports all activities associated with degrading the enemy narrative, including web engagement and web-based product distribution capabilities".
According to Centcom, their only objective was ″to counter extremists and enemy propaganda outside of the U.S.″, saying that it would be unlawful to address U.S. audiences.
However, the 2013 version of the NDAA included an amendment that legalized domestic deceptive propaganda. The new law allows the U.S government to legally carry out misinformation campaigns against U.S. citizens.
It is worth mentioning in this connection that a close adviser of Obama and the White House’s former head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein proposed in 2008 that the US government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-”independent” advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites, as well as other activist groups, as well as sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups” which spread what he views as false and damaging “conspiracy theories” about the government.
Papers leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden indicate that the US and British intelligence agencies have been deeply engaged in planning ways to covertly use social media for purposes of propaganda and deception. Documents prepared by NSA and Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) (and previously published by the Intercept as well as NBC News) revealed aspects of some of these programs.
In particular, Glenn Greenwald published and analyzed the document issued by a previously secret unit of GCHQ - Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) entitled “The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations.”
According to this document, 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.
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.
The “targets” for this deception and reputation-destruction include: hostile nations and their leaders, military agencies, and intelligence services. The title page of one of these documents reflects JTRIG’s own awareness that it is “pushing the boundaries” by using “cyber offensive” techniques against people who have nothing to do with terrorism or national security threats. The discussion of many of these techniques occurs in the context of using them in lieu of “traditional law enforcement” against people suspected (but not charged or convicted) of ordinary crimes or, more broadly still, “hacktivism”, meaning those who use online protest activity for political end. As Glenn Greenwald concludes, ″the broader point is that, far beyond hacktivists, these surveillance agencies have vested themselves with the power to deliberately ruin people’s reputations and disrupt their online political activity even though they’ve been charged with no crimes, and even though their actions have no conceivable connection to terrorism or even national security threats.″
The U.S. government as well has actually been caught manipulating social media discourses at such major sites like Reddit and editing Wikipedia, in particular, suggesting that InforWars anchors Alex Jones and Abby Martin are Kremlin propagandists.
The circumstantial evidence, therefore, suggests, that on LinkedIn there may be one of the US intelligence agencies’ programs for "countering the enemy’s narrative”actively implemented through the "assailants" who employ the tactics according to the rules for Internet disruption and disinformation, in particular:
pretend that alternative media – such as blogs written by op experts in their fields, without any middleman – are untrustworthy or are motivated solely by money (for example, use the derogatory term “blogspam” for any blog posting, pretending that there is no original or insightful reporting, but that the person is simply doing it for ad revenue);
coordinate with a couple of others to “shout down” reasonable comments (especially effective when the posters launch an avalanche of comments in quick succession, the original, reasonable comment gets lost or attacked so much that it is largely lost);
use "sock puppets" to monitor social media and “correct” information which you don’t like, or use software that allows you to quickly create and alternate between several false identities, each with their own internet address;
question motives: twist or amplify any fact that could be taken to imply that the opponent has a hidden personal agenda or other bias which avoids discussing issues and forces the accuser on the defensive.
Another question that a reasonable person would ask in this connection is to what extent LinkedIn Corporation is involved in the implementation of such a program: does it act as a mere provider of an interactive computer service that "shall not be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider" under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act or does it deliberately provide the platform for government sponsored trolls to cyber harass and assault anyone who expresses views that may be deemed an "information threat" by certain circles within the US establishment, curbing thereby the freedom of speech, - one of the fundamental constitutional freedoms in many jurisdictions?
To be continued
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
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