Operation Earnest Voice
Operation Earnest Voice is an astroturfing campaign by the Federal government of the United States. The aim of the initiative is to use sockpuppets to spread pro-American propaganda on social networking services based outside of the US. The campaign is operated by the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), thought to have been directed at jihadists across Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries in the Middle East.
According to CENTCOM, the US-based Facebook and Twitter networks are not targeted by the program because US laws prohibit state agencies from spreading propaganda among US citizens as according to the Smith–Mundt Modernization Act of 2012. However, according to the Smith–Mundt Modernization Act of 2012, dissemination of foreign propaganda to domestic audiences is expressly allowed over the Internet including social media networks. Isaac R. Porche, a researcher at the RAND Corporation, claims it would not be easy to exclude US audiences when dealing with Internet communications.
The US government signed a $2.8 million contract with the Ntrepid web-security company to develop a specialized software, allowing agents of the government to post propaganda on "foreign-language websites".
Main characteristics of the software, as stated in the software development request, are:
- Fifty user "operator" licenses, 10 sockpuppets controllable by each user.
- Sockpuppets are to be "replete with background, history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographically consistent". Sockpuppets are to "be able to appear to originate in nearly any part of the world."
- A special secure VPN, allowing sockpuppets to appear to be posting from "randomly selected IP addresses," in order to "hide the existence of the operation."
- Fifty static IP addresses to enable government agencies to "manage their persistent online personas," with identities of government and enterprise organizations protected which will allow for different state agents to use the same sockpuppet, and easily switch between different sockpuppets to "look like ordinary users as opposed to one organization."
- Nine private servers, "based on the geographic area of operations the customer is operating within and which allow a customer's online persona(s) to appear to originate from." These servers should use commercial hosting centers around the world.
- Virtual machine environments, deleted after each session termination, to avoid interaction with "any virus, worm, or malicious software."
USCC commander David Petraeus, in his congressional testimony, stated that Operation Earnest Voice would "reach [a country's] regional audiences through traditional media, as well as via Web sites and regional public-affairs blogging," as an effort to "counter extremist ideology and propaganda". However, his successor, Jim Mattis, altered the program to have "regional blogging" fall under general USCC public-affairs activity. On how they would operate on these blogs, Petraeus explained: "We bring out the moderate voices. We amplify those. And in more detail, we detect and we flag if there is adversary, hostile, corrosive content in some open-source Web forum, [and] we engage with the Web administrators to show that this violates Web site provider policies."
- Monbiot, George (23 February 2011). "The need to protect the internet from 'astroturfing' grows ever more urgent". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
- Fielding, Nick; Cobain, Ian (17 March 2011). "Revealed: US spy operation that manipulates social media". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 January 2017.
- Lee, Amy (17 March 2011). "U.S. Military Launches Spy Operation Using Fake Online Identities". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 29 January 2017.
- Spillius, Alex (17 March 2011). "Pentagon buys social networking 'spy software'". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 22 June 2013.
- Waterman, Shaun (1 March 2011). "U.S. Central Command 'friending' the enemy in psychological war". The Washington Times. Retrieved 29 January 2017.
- Thornberry, Mac (10 May 2012). "The Smith–Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 (H.R. H. R. 5736)" (PDF). GovTrack. Retrieved 29 January 2017.
- "Text of H.R. 5736 (112th): Smith–Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 (Introduced version)". GovTrack. Retrieved 2017-03-01.
- United States Air Force (22 June 2010). "Persona Management Software. Solicitation Number: RTB220610". FedBizOpps.gov. Archived from the original on 22 February 2011. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
- Pincus, Walter (28 March 2011). "New and old information operations in Afghanistan: What works?". The Washington Post. Retrieved 29 January 2017.
- Solicitation Number RTB220610 Personal Management Software official contract details posted on the FedBizOpps.gov website in 2010.