American and British intelligence hope to take advantage of social media platforms, like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, in an effort to spread disinformation and propaganda, as well as potentially foment public protests, recent Snowden leaks claim.
According to Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who first broke the news on the Snowden NSA leaks, an Orwellian-style dystopia is lurking on the horizon as western spy agencies see an opportunity for manipulating public opinion and disseminating state propaganda by exploiting global internet giants, such as Flickr, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
“These ideas – discussions of how to exploit the internet, specifically social media, to surreptitiously disseminate viewpoints friendly to Western interests and spread false or damaging information about targets – appear repeatedly throughout the archive of materials provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden,” Greenwald revealed in the online publication, The Intercept, where he is an editor.
While it is already known is that British analysts had instructed the NSA in 2012 how to conduct real-time surveillance on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, as well as collect the computer addresses of billions of the sites’ users, the new report shows the GCHQ has moved to actively push particular news stories into the public domain.
At the 2010 annual “SIGDEV” gathering of the “Five Eyes” surveillance alliance comprising the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the US, discussion focused on developing methods for the purpose of “discrediting” foreign governments by secretly exploiting social media for “propaganda,” “deception,” “mass messaging,” and “pushing stories,” Greenwald reveals.
The leaked documents are from a GCHQ publication titled ‘Psychology: A New Kind of SIGDEV’ (Signals Development).
The document, presented by GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG), outlines the goal of “using online techniques to make something happen in the real or cyber world,” including “information ops (influence or disruption).” The agency said its JTRIG and Computer Network Exploitation operations make up “5 percent of Operations” at GCHQ.
The annual SIGDEV conference, according to one NSA document released by The Intercept, “enables unprecedented visibility of SIGINT Development activities from across the Extended Enterprise, Second Party and US Intelligence communities.”
And for anybody who thought the mainstream media could not possibly become less independent, think again. The document details a practice called “credential harvesting,” which – in an earlier report drawn up by NBC – is described as an effort to “select journalists who could be used to spread information” advantageous to the government.
According to NBC, GCHQ operatives would use “electronic snooping to identify non-British journalists who would then be manipulated to feed information to the target of a covert campaign.” Then, “the journalist’s job would be to provide access to the targeted individual, perhaps for an interview.”
Anonymous sources quoted in the NBC report claimed at the time that GCHQ had not employed the technique.
Fomenting dissent one Tweet at a time
Communist-ruled Cuba has already been used as a testing ground for exactly such foreign infiltration. This week, the Associated Press revealed a clandestine operation – call it The Bay of Tweets – run by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to create “a Twitter-like Cuban communications network” to promote dissenting viewpoints among its audience.
The program, dubbed ZunZuneo (Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s tweet), operated in the shadows as a social media platform for more than two years, attracting tens of thousands of subscribers. Its audience, mostly young Cubans, had no idea the site was a product of USAID, nor that the social media platform was accumulating personal data about users “in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes,” AP noted.
By 2011, the documents revealed that USAID was paying “tens of thousands of dollars in text messaging fees to Cuba’s telecommunications monopoly routed through a secret bank account and front companies.”
By mid-2012, the shady new Cuban platform had vanished, while USAID, which relies on public trust to continue its operations in foreign countries, seems to have a lot of explaining to do. But it won’t be the first time.
In September 2012, Russia’s Foreign Ministry denied USAID permission to continue with its operations on the territory of Russia after 20 years, saying that the agency was seeking to manipulate the election processes in the country.
“The character of the agency’s work…did not always comply with the declared aims of cooperation in bilateral humanitarian cooperation,” the Foreign Ministry said. “We are talking about issuing grants in an attempt to affect the course of the political processes in the country, including elections at different levels and institutions in civil society.”
Meanwhile, revelations of USAID’s secret “Cuban Twitter” program come at a particularly curious time in global affairs, especially with ongoing civil strife in Ukraine. That ongoing political crisis witnessed Western-orientated protesters, which are strongly suspected of receiving Western support for their activities, engaging in violent anti-government protests in Kiev that ultimately forced democratically elected President Viktor Yanukovich to flee the country.
USAID, which has been operating in Ukraine since 1992, declares on its Ukrainian website that it is “partnering with Ukrainians for more participatory, transparent and accountable governance processes.” Whatever the validity of that mission statement may be, it is indisputable that the US State Department, as witnessed by comments by Viktoria Nuland in a leaked phone call with the US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, is certainly no disinterested spectator to the events unraveling on Russia’s border.
“I don’t think that (Vitaly) Klitschko should go into the government. I don’t think it is necessary. I don’t think it is a good idea,” Nuland reportedly said.
“In terms of him not going into the government, just let him stay out and do his political homework,” a male voice – believed to be Pyatt – replied. “In terms of the process moving ahead, we want to keep the moderate democrats together.”
Ukrainian opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk should be in charge of the new government, Nuland asserted, and Klitschko would not get along with him. “It’s just not going to work,” she said.
Whether USAID, with the complicity of the biggest names on the internet, were attempting to foment civil unrest in Ukraine and Russia remains unknown, but the details of its work in Cuba has dark connotations.
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