US military launches Operation Sock Puppet, pays contractor $2.76m for social media ops (UPDATED)

From the Your Tax Dollars at Work file, news that the US military's Central Command (CENTCOM) has awarded a $2.7 million contract to Ntrepid, a newly-formed Los Angeles-based startup, to create fake online "personae" for the purpose of manipulating online conversations and spreading pro-American, pro-military propaganda in social media. The "online persona management service" called for in the contract would permit one US serviceman or woman to manage up to 10 separate sock puppets.

The Guardian article today says the program would make it possible to "secretly manipulate social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter." CENTCOM disagrees with this characterization of the program, and their statement to Boing Boing is at the bottom of this post.

Snip from Guardian:

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 workstations "without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries". Centcom spokesman Commander Bill Speaks said: "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.

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 co-ordinated Facebook messages, blogposts, tweets, retweets, 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 Operations Command.

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 programme 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. Since then, OEV is reported to have expanded into a $200m programme and is thought to have been used against jihadists across Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Read the whole article in the Guardian: "Revealed: US spy operation that manipulates social media"

Update: Commander Bill Speaks of the Centcom public affairs office, who is quoted in the Guardian piece excerpted above, tells Boing Boing:

Regarding your post, I want to make clear that the persona management software contract discussed in Ian Cobain's Guardian story is not, and will not, be used in any online engagements with US audiences, or on web sites based in the US. This includes, of course, Facebook and Twitter.

I hope you will see fit to update your post, as the suggestion that this technology will be used to set up "phony Facebook, Twitter psyops accounts" is inaccurate.

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