As the possibility of another Iraq War looms overhead, liberal skepticism must keep pace with modern tools of propaganda

The Daily Mail's Bogus ISIS Twitter Story & the Limits of Social Media

As the possibility of another Iraq War looms overhead, liberal skepticism must keep pace with modern tools of propaganda

Friday, the Daily Mail, in its official capacity as the bottom-feeding shitstew of punched-up Anglo-American agitprop, posted an entirely bogus and easily discreditable scare piece about an "ISIS Twitter charm offensive" along with alledged "supporting tweets" from "around the globe".

The opening salvo makes clear their listed examples of this ISIS "support" appear on social media after an "ISIS charm offensive" using the hashtag #AllEyesOnISIS

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From their breathless open:

"Extremist fighters flooded the social media site"

"Within minutes, their stunt - which Twitter is powerless to block or moderate - was met with chilling messages of support from countries all over the globe"


There's only one problem:

The examples they cite as proof of this "global support" predate the "charm offensive" by many months, if not years.


BULLSHIT "SUPPORT" BY COUNTRY

Italy

Looks like ISIS got "support from Rome" on June 20th


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But wait, ISIS also got this "support from Rome" three months previously on March 29th


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So, maybe at some point there was a guy in Rome who tweeted something about ISIS? Great, but it wasn't recent and it certainly wasn't in response to a "charm offensive".


Palestine

Here The Daily Mail posts an undated picture of "Palestinians" holding (upside down?) the "Black Standard" flag used by ISIS and several other Islamists groups, the only description being:

Under the sea: These Palestinian supporters grinned as they took a picture of them with a flag under water in Gaza

Fucking grinners.


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But wait, this picture is at least over 16 months old, posted on Tumblr in Jan 2013 long before most pundits even knew what ISIS was. Shown below is its June 2013 webarchive.org screencap:


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Indeed, considering this variation of the Black Standard is used by everyone from al‑Shabaab in East Africa to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to rebels in Lybia there's no reason to believe the flag was meant to display support for ISIS at all.


Saudi Arabia

The caption reads:

Officers: A member of the Saudi Armed forces apparently tweeted a picture of their badges, pledging allegiance to the group


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Who the hell the "officers" in reference here are is not made clear. What is clear is that these images predate the ISIS's June 20th "charm offensive" by at least 3 1/2 months, appearing originally on a Syrian-run website called Syriatube.net in March 2014.


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Needless to say, the Assad regime and its Youtube knock-off sites are probably not the most reliable source on these matters


Switzerland


Reposted June 20th, originally posted March 26th


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Kosovo


Originally posted on March 26th


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Denmark

Reposted June 20th, originally posted April 22nd


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United States

And what all-encompassing Evil Terrorists™ scare piece would be complete without the obligatory "homegrown" terrorist? The Daily Mail's picture (left) is in reference to this June 20th tweet by @truthsmaster (right)


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But, again, this picture wasn't in reponse to any Twitter "charm offensive", it had been tweeted or referenced several times over the past several weeks complete with an armchair investigation as to the young man's whereabouts by foaming "jihad watchers" on the internet. The original post of this picture, as far as it goes, was from April 23rd by an anonyomous, ostensibly supportive account.

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All of The Daily Mail's "social outpouring" examples originate from the same account, @truthsmaster. What we have, it seems, is one overzealous anonymous Twitter account reverse engineering a "Twitter campaign" by cutting and pasting old photos of varying veracity and relevance, and posting them as new to build a narrative. A narrative that - like all narratives that build to war - suits both the martyr and the martyrer; the demagogue and the democrat. It's overarching premise of a global orgy of Islamist solidarity then, though entirely bullshit, spreads unchallenged. And its effect, convincing the populations of these countries that ISIS is a potentially domestic concern, seeds unquestioned.


Social media is not a reliable source

Regardless of what one thinks about the reality vs the hype of the ISIS threat or Daily Mail's cheesy timeline fudging it's important that when reading and interpreting stories about the "Muslim world" based entirely on social media, one do so with a heavy dose of skepticism.

The U.S. military spends at minimum $200 million a year running fake social media accounts to influence public opinion overseas, most of which are targeted at Muslims

This isn't to suggest any of these examples are as such, but a bit of context.

Firstly, let's quickly look at three highlights that define our last two existential and pressing threats in the Middle East.


Bin Laden as a Bond villain



Saddam's "mobile" WMD



And of course the conflation of the two:


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From the same article:


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Which brings us to the inherent problems with the military's new frontier of propaganda, social media:


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A March 2011 report in the Guardian - as well as parallel disclosures by Wikileaks and Anonymous - revealed what many long suspected: the US Military manages tens of thousands of "sock puppet" social media accounts (or "Persona" as their technically known) to influence public opinion abroad or, in the words of former Centcom Commander General Mattis "counter extremist ideology and propaganda".

Similar technologies have also been used for years by blackbox PR and marketing agents in need of astroturf "virality" or tweaked product messaging or pumped up Yelp reviews. This, along with the Military's own admission, went along way to explaining why study after study continuely showed roughly 10% of all Twitter and Facebook accounts were fictional.


As The Guardian's Ian Cobain explains:


...[E]ach 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".

An early 2010 contract for "Persona Managment Software" by the Air Force can be read here here (though the domain has sinced been scrubbed, Raw Story managed to grab a PDF).


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IBM's 2009 patent here.


Immediately after the revelation, military officials went out of their way to insist these tactics would not be used on "English-Language audiences" and "Americans". Per usual, this caveat would virtually guarantee the mainstream press would leave the story uncovered.

[Centcom spokesman Commander Bill Speaks] 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

Why officials equated "English-language" with American was never clear, what was clear however, was that those from typically Muslim countries or background would be the program's primary target.

The languages in which the interventions are conducted include Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto.

(It's) 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.

Present Capacity

What's missing in the Guardian's initial reporting but spelled out in chilling detail by email exchanges obtained by Anonymous and published by Wikileaks between defense contractor HBGary Federal and the US Air Force is the degree to which Persona systems were more than just mindless bots. In the late 2000's human-managed Persona - even when one person was controlling up to 50 persona types - combined with sophsticated predicative algorthims designed by companies like CIA-founded Palantir began to take on a degree of verisimilitude. Indeed, a follow-up HBGary demo, also revealed by Wikileaks in 2011, showed quite clearly that HBGary's Persona capacity included entirely realistic Facebook profiles as early as 2010.

Meet "Holly Weber":


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Complete with a Linkedin profile tethered to a real company, Lockheed Martin.


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Though photo assets for this paticular demo were created by modifyfing an existing Maxim model, subsquent improvements in computer effects make it likely this process can now be entirely built from scratch to guarantee what Persona experts refer to as "deconflicting", or the inability for outside observers to notice conflicts, or inconsistencies in the online fabric of a Persona entity. (Obviously, most important when building Persona ecosystems for clandestine field agents and their oftentimes multiple aliases. Goldfinger would have no doubt Googled James Bond.)

One stark example of how far human image creation technology has come: Japanese pop star Aimi Eguchi, (a/k/a AKB48) who, in 2011, had music videos, an online profile, and was featured in dozens of photos but, much to the heartbreak of fans, turned out to be an entirely digital creation


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This, along with steady improvements in management sophistication over the next few years began to paint a cynical and dark, yet irresistible, picture. In his email exchange, HBGary's Aaron Barr, after describing the first two tiers of "Persona Characters" dives head-first into Phillip K. Dick territory explaining the most advanced (and presumably most expensive) "Persona character" available, Level 3 (via Daily Kos)


Level 3 Character: The most detailed character. These personas are required to conduct human-to-human direct contact likely in-person to satisfy some more advanced exercise requirements. This character must look, smell, and feel 100% real at the most detailed level. This character will need to be associated with a real company, hold a real position with that company and have all the technical and business artifacts associated with the position and organization. The trick here is while the persona needs to be real, the actual person may not be working in this role 100% of the time.

In these cases there are still tricks that can be used to more rapidly age or update accounts. One such trick is to build outward facing accounts such as twitter, YouTube, or blogs with generic names, for example setting up a twitter account s0c1alman. Using some of our micro-blogging techniques for auto-generating content we can manage many of these types of accounts automatically and age them. Then when a real persona is created for a particular exercise we can associate a twitter, YouTube, and blog account that has been aging and link it to a LinkedIn and Facebook profile that was just created. This gives the perception that this person has been around in this space for a while.


ARE YOU SUGGESTING ISIS IS JUST AN ELABORATE, EVIL GOVERNMENT CONSPIRACY AND ALL THEIR SOCIAL ACTIVITY IS A RUSE?


Not at all. ISIS, and radical Islamists in Iraq are both real and terribly deadly. Their activities online, to the extent they are consistent and corroborated, are real and very troubling.

Why it's important to establish what the US and its allies' foreign Psycological Operations (PSYOP) (Changed in 2010 to "Military Information Support Operations", or MISO) is as it pertains to Social Media - both from a technology and a systems perspective - is that in an age of global communication, the distinction between American and non-American "audiences" is, in government parlance, "subject to bleed over". English and non English, when it comes to topics of War and Peace and our recent tick of only invading those who don't look and talk like us, trivial. Indeed, it stands to reason, with almost 100% certainty, a portion of all of our social experiences are subject to these covert mechanisms of information manipulation. And of course, we have been since the beginning. Since the first painting of the Boston Massacre featured British soldiers mercilessly shooting at innocent Americans (including a puppy), to the destruction of the Maine, to the sinking of the Lusitania, to the Gulf of Tonkin. All of which, like WMD just 10 years ago, were as real and as axiomatic and as obvious as the divine right of any run-of-the-mill monarch but no less convenient and no less fictitious and no less manufactured. What the job of anyone who considers themselves a liberal or a dissident now is, is not to relitigate ad nasueum the ways we were all duped in the past, but rather consider and highlight the new ways these same forces are trying to pitch us the same phantom or overblown enemies.

Does this mean one should go around being paranoid about every instance of non-corroborated social exchange in the off chance it's political spam?

No. But history, as it often does, asserts itself.

In our political generation, there exists a clear and undoubtable record of subterfuge targeted at Muslims both at home and abroad. As former Obama Advisor and head of the Information Office Cass Sunstein infamously spelled out in his 2008 advocation of what he referred to as "cognitive infiltration", or the act of government agents going undercover, posing as like-minded citizens, to online forums and social media to discredit "radical" views:

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And of course, in this paper, Muslims are the most in need of this benevolent deceit. The fact that "conspiracy theorizing is undoubtedly virulent" and "has a sharply anti-American inflection" on "the part of some Muslims" cannot be blamed on decades of propping up brutal dictators and invading their countries and imposing sanctions against them and categorically supporting Israel no matter their excesses (to say nothing of the ironic fact that what Sunstein was proposing was, itself, literally the defintion of conspiracy). No, it must be "radicalism". Just the same, an insurgency in Iraq cannot be a justified, albeit religiously polluted, movement to overthrow a corrupt puppet regime - it must be a batshit, cartoon jihadist orgy of religious violence.

The specter of these hidden mechanisms - in concert with the life and death stakes at play of yet another war in the Middle East - renders social media accounts as a source for reliable information at best a non sequitur and at worst suspect. And this is the real problem with the media uncritically quoting Twitter and Facebook at the expense of direct contact: it's not news. It's not actual news. It's aggregation. A pile of data, 500 million tweets a day, that, by definition, can only serve to build narratives either by reverse engineering them or through the naively libertarian appeal to "viral" legitimacy. The temptation and the ease with which these otherwise benign social media systems - as recent sockpuppet electioneering scandals in South Korea and Russia make clear - can quickly become corrupted by asymmetrical power, should give us pause. And in this pause we should look at all "viral" media narratives, especially those in the Muslim world, as we do any other media narrative: one part reality, one part bullshit. If not, then we should ask for our $200 million a year back.

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