To fight ISIS, government spies are trolling you on the Internet

Man Looking Through Binoculars

It’s time to admit the conspiracy theorists were right.

Once again, it’s time to admit the conspiracy theorists were right: Government agents are distributing misinformation online as a massive propaganda campaign. 

While much has been made of the social media campaigns of ISIS and other nefarious groups, it’s also becoming more clear how much governments—both Western and not—are spreading their message online. The Israeli Defense Force has long had an active online propaganda campaign, even offering scholarships to college students for circulating pro-IDF messages online. The Daily Dot’s own James Neimeister explored how Russian operatives spread rumors to the press through Twitter to assist pro-Russian rebels in the fight against Ukraine.

Just this week, Great Britain unveiled their own troop of “Facebook warriors” for the information age. The 77th Brigade—so named after a legendary and controversial group of British-Burmese guerrilla fighters—will practice “non-lethal warfare” by creating “dynamic narratives” on social media. In short, these 1,500 British troops will be scouring Facebook and Twitter to promote pro-Western narratives to combat the storyline ISIS uses to recruit young people across the planet.

If you aren’t a government agent or a terrorist operative, however, this still affects your life. The Internet, for all of its ability to bring the world’s libraries to your fingertips, is also a hotbed of misinformation, deceit, and plain old lies. While such campaigns have been waged by corporations, special interest groups, and trolling pranksters, this evolution of world governments participating—especially clandestinely—deserves the attention of even the most discerning consumer.

If you aren’t a government agent or a terrorist operative, however, this still affects your life.

On many levels, this British force is a necessary part of combatting groups like ISIS or the misinformation campaigns of Putin’s Russia. ISIS has created one of the most effective recruiting campaigns of any terrorist group in history, convincing thousands of Westerners to join their fight in Syria. Such a nefarious use of social media needs the truth to combat against it, such as this French campaign that promises future ISIS fighters “you will discover Hell on Earth and die alone and far from home.”

However, the 77th Brigade—much like the IDF forces it’s designed after—will be spreading “false flags” in order to trick the enemy into reacting in a way that hurts themselves. Lying to brutal terrorists isn’t exactly the highest crime, of course, but this information war is happening in the broadest of daylight. Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook is an open field for anyone to engage, and misinformation can only hurt the innocent as well.

If it sounds ludicrous to assert Western governments could popularize misinformation, understand how false leads breed online. The old guard of the mainstream press—from newspaper to broadcast—have become heavily reliant on the news generated within social media, especially from areas like Syria. News agencies have a hard enough time dissecting the truth from the rumors that organically spread online—imagine what happens when they face a major government campaign to create stories that don’t actually exist.

Misinformation can only hurt the innocent as well.

Such propaganda blitzes are a fact of life in many parts of the world. The aforementioned IDF campaign reached new peaks this past summer when government-sanctioned pro-Israeli messages began cropping up on social media to assist the missile campaign Israel was then waging on Palestinians. Using Facebook, YouTube, and even Tinder, Israel consistently painted themselves as a hero of the truth, glossing over the often disastrous results of their military campaign.

These propaganda missions aren’t always isolated to assisting military fights, either. Last summer, it was revealed the British security agency JTRIG was infiltrating the sites and forums of conspiracy theorists in an effort to tie plausible theories to implausible ones—by posting falsified UFO evidence on a political forum, for instance. Such campaigns not only show a deviousness to the operations of governments but prove they cannot be trusted with the right to spread information online.

Such powers also create the possibility of damaging themselves by lying in the name of the truth. When the U.S. government was working to infiltrate groups like the KKK or the Black Panthers as part of their COINTELPRO program of the 1960s, they likely worsened a severe lack of trust and further alienated these groups. Groups like the 77th Brigade threaten the same breach of trust, an ever-thinning resource as more and more pro-ISIS Europeans flee their homes for the frontlines.

Perhaps it is naive to expect a Boy Scout allegiance to the truth from politicans, but Internet users have the direct right to be fearful of a campaign with the stated purpose of building a government-sponsored narrative. While one can typically approach a political candidate’s stump speech with an appropriate level of discerning skepticism, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog

This troupe of online warriors will not be in a suit with campaign posters, announcing themselves as workers of the government. Their purpose and identity will be covert, meaning any viewpoint you read in a comments section could be their work, meaning they lessen the already minimized trust one can have in what’s said on the Internet. 

Photo via gerlos/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.