by Nick Fielding and Ian Cobain
17 March 2012
This article was amended on 18
March 2011 to remove references to
Facebook and Twitter, introduced
during the editing process, and to add a comment from Centcom,
received after publication, that it is not targeting those sites.
Military's 'sock puppet' software
creates fake online identities to spread pro-American propaganda.
Gen David Petraeus
has previously said US online
are aimed at 'countering
extremist ideology and propaganda'.
Photograph: Cliff Owen/AP
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 corporation has been awarded a contract with United States
Central Command (Centcom),
which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to
develop what is described as an "online persona management service" that
will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate
identities based all over the world.
The project has been likened by web experts to China's attempts to control
and restrict free speech on the internet. Critics are likely to complain
that it will allow the US military to create a false consensus in online
conversations, crowd out unwelcome opinions and smother commentaries or
reports that do not correspond with its own objectives.
The discovery that the US military is developing false online personalities
- known to users of social media as "sock puppets" - could also encourage
other governments, private companies and non-government organizations to do
The Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona must have a
convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50
US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their
"without fear of being discovered by
Centcom spokesman Commander Bill Speaks
"The technology supports classified blogging
activities on foreign-language websites to enable Centcom to counter
violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the US."
He said none of the interventions would be in
English, as it would be unlawful to "address US audiences" with such
technology, and any English-language use of social media by Centcom was
always clearly attributed.
The languages in which the interventions are
conducted include Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto.
Centcom said it was not targeting any US-based web sites, in English or any
other language, and specifically said it was not targeting
Facebook or Twitter.
Once developed, the software could allow US service personnel, working
around the clock in one location, to respond to emerging online
conversations with any number of coordinated messages, blogposts, chatroom
posts and other interventions. Details of the contract suggest this location
would be MacDill air force base near Tampa, Florida, home of US Special
Centcom's contract requires for each controller the provision of one
"virtual private server" located in the United States and others appearing
to be outside the US to give the impression the fake personas are real
people located in different parts of the world.
It also calls for "traffic mixing", blending the persona controllers'
internet usage with the usage of people outside Centcom in a manner that
must offer "excellent cover and powerful deniability".
The multiple persona contract is 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
Since then, OEV is reported to have expanded
into a $200m program and is thought to have been used against jihadists
across Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
OEV is seen by senior US commanders as a vital counter-terrorism and
counter-radicalization program. In evidence to the US Senate's armed
services committee last year, General David Petraeus, then commander of
Centcom, described the operation as an effort to,
extremist ideology and propaganda and to ensure that credible
voices in the region are heard".
He said the US military's objective was to be
"first with the truth".
This month Petraeus's successor, General James Mattis, told the same
"supports all activities associated with
degrading the enemy narrative, including web engagement and web-based
product distribution capabilities".
Centcom confirmed that the $2.76m contract was
awarded to Ntrepid, a newly formed corporation registered in Los Angeles. It
would not disclose whether the multiple persona project is already in
operation or discuss any related contracts.
Nobody was available for comment at Ntrepid.
In his evidence to the Senate committee, Gen Mattis said:
"OEV seeks to disrupt recruitment and
training of suicide bombers; deny safe havens for our adversaries; and
counter extremist ideology and propaganda."
He added that Centcom was working with "our
coalition partners" to develop new techniques and tactics the US could
use "to counter the adversary in the cyber domain".
According to a report by the inspector general
of the US defence department in Iraq,
OEV was managed by the multinational forces
rather than Centcom. Asked whether any UK military personnel had been
involved in OEV, Britain's Ministry of Defence said it could find "no
The MoD refused to say whether it had been
involved in the development of persona management programs, saying:
"We don't comment on cyber capability."
OEV was discussed last year at a
gathering of electronic warfare specialists
in Washington DC, where a senior Centcom officer told delegates that its
purpose was to,
"communicate critical messages and to
counter the propaganda of our adversaries".
Persona management by the US military would face
legal challenges if it were turned against citizens of the US, where a
number of people engaged in sock puppetry have faced prosecution.
Last year a New York lawyer who impersonated a scholar was sentenced to jail
after being convicted of "criminal
impersonation" and identity theft. It is unclear whether a
persona management program would contravene UK law.
Legal experts say it could fall foul of the
Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981, which states that,
"a person is guilty of forgery if he makes a
false instrument, with the intention that he or another shall use it to
induce somebody to accept it as genuine, and by reason of so accepting
it to do or not to do some act to his own or any other person's
However, this would apply only if a website or
social network could be shown to have suffered "prejudice" as a result.