A woman uses her cellphone as she sits on the Malecon in Havana, Cuba. Image credit: Franklin Reyes/AP
This week, the Associated Press exposed a secret program run by the U.S. Agency for International Development to create “a Twitter-like Cuban communications network” run through “secret shell companies” in order to create the false appearance of being a privately owned operation. Unbeknownst to the service’s Cuban users was the fact that “American contractors were gathering their private data in the hope that it might be used for political purposes”–specifically, to manipulate those users in order to foment dissent in Cuba and subvert its government. According to top-secret documents published today by The Intercept, this sort of operation is frequently discussed at western intelligence agencies, which have plotted ways to covertly use social media for ”propaganda,” “deception,” “mass messaging,” and “pushing stories.”
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. Documents prepared by NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ–and previously published by The Intercept as well as some by NBC News–detailed several of those programs, including a unit devoted in part to “discrediting” the agency’s enemies with false information spread online.
The documents in the archive show that the British are particularly aggressive and eager in this regard, and formally shared their methods with their U.S. counterparts. One previously undisclosed top-secret document–prepared by GCHQ for the 2010 annual “SIGDEV” gathering of the “Five Eyes” surveillance alliance comprising the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the U.S.–explicitly discusses ways to exploit Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media as secret platforms for propaganda.
The document was presented by GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG). The unit’s self-described purpose is “using online techniques to make something happen in the real or cyber world,” including “information ops (influence or disruption).” The British agency describes its JTRIG and Computer Network Exploitation operations as a “major part of business” at GCHQ, conducting “5% of Operations.”