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Pentagon, a Purveyor of Fake News, is Developing Software to Fight Fake News

U.S. Army Soldiers assigned to the Military Information Support Task Force-Central (MISTF-C) Production Development Detachment capture a Psychological Operations Specialist setting up a Next Generation Loudspeaker System on Dec. 7, 2016 at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. (Photo: U.S. Army, Staff Sgt. Brian)
U.S. Army Soldiers assigned to the Military Information Support Task Force-Central (MISTF-C) Production Development Detachment capture a Psychological Operations Specialist setting up a Next Generation Loudspeaker System on Dec. 7, 2016 at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. (Photo: U.S. Army, Staff Sgt. Brian)

In something of an ironic twist, the Pentagon, which has a long history of creating fake news, is developing software to detect “falsified media assets.”

Concern over the widespread use of “fake or false news” ahead of the presidential election in 2020 has prompted the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to create a custom military software program to combat fake news and disinformation, as Bloomberg reported over Labor Day weekend.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency under the Pentagon umbrella, is determined to wage war on disinformation and “fake news” through a mechanism called Semantic Forensics (SemaFor). The Pentagon hopes the new tool “can unearth fakes hidden among more than 500,000 stories, photos, video, and audio clips,” as Bloomberg wrote.

DARPA has also already undertaken developing a program to analyze images called “MediFor” to block the use of counterfeit pictures in texts.

“If successful, the MediFor platform will automatically detect manipulations, provide detailed information about how these manipulations were performed, and reason about the overall integrity of visual media to facilitate decisions regarding the use of any questionable image or video,” writes DARPA’s website about the MediFor program.

Pentagon Joint Artificial Intelligence Center director Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan elaborated to an artificial intelligence conference on August 29th how Washington’s foes had used misleading information to attack the U.S., citing the experience in the 2016 election.

We saw strong indications of how this could play out in the 2016 election, and we have every expectation that – if left unchecked – it will happen to us again,” Shanahan said at the Laurel, Maryland conference last week. “As a department, at least speaking for the Defense Department, we’re saying it’s a national security problem as well. We have to invest a lot in it. A lot of commercial companies are doing these everyday. The level of sophistication seems to be exponential.”

Shanahan stated that once the DARPA project is finished, it is expected to help the military to spot counterfeit videos and images and track how they are created.

“The technologies developed under the Semantic Forensics program will help identify, deter, and analyze enemy disinformation campaign,” DARPA said in a September 3 press release. “The Semantic Forensics (SemaFor) program seeks to develop technologies that make the automatic detection, attribution, and characterization of falsified media assets a reality. The goal of SemaFor is to develop a suite of semantic analysis algorithms that dramatically increase the burden on the creators of falsified media, making it exceedingly difficult for them to create compelling manipulated content that goes undetected.”

The budget for such a project is unknown.

The Dangerous Vagueness of Fake News

The Pentagon, of course, has not clearly defined the definition of fake news, as the type of fake news that took hold in 2016 is a vague notion and hard to pin-point – dissenting or unpopular opinions can be lumped into the fake news category.

The vagueness of fake news is what makes the government’s attempt to regulate it dangerous. According to Bloomberg’s report, the project, if successful in its four-year trial, could be expanded to combat “malicious intent,” which is sure to spark fears that the program will be abused to target journalistic works critical to mainstream coverage.

In a report for Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi wrote about DARPA’s SemaFor and MediFor programs and aptly summed up the potential dangers of putting the Pentagon in control of determining fake news.

“It’s the latest in a string of stories about new methods of control over information flow that should, but for some reason do not, horrify every working journalist.

“From the Senate dragging Internet providers to the Hill to demand strategies against the sowing of ‘discord,’ to tales of hundreds of Facebook sites zapped for ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior’ following advice by government-connected groups like the Atlantic Council, it’s been clear the future of the information landscape is going to involve elaborate new forms of algorithmic regulation.”

Would DARPA’s project detect the most damaging fake news of all, that of propaganda put out by government organizations and officials? Would DARPA have detected the Weapons of Mass Destruction lie that propelled the U.S. to invade Iraq in 2003 or any number of the thousands of lies that President Trump has told? 

Propaganda, Misinformation is the Pentagon’s Business

Let’s not forget that the U.S. has an infamous history of paying off hundreds of journalists to publish articles intended to sway public opinion in whatever direction the CIA wanted. The program, called Operation Mockingbird, was revealed in a 1977 Rolling Stone article by Carl Bernstein. Bernstein unearthed how the CIA pressured and blackmailed even the most prominent journalists into publishing the CIA’s messaging.

A German journalist and former editor for the German daily newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), Udo Ulfkotte published in 2014 the book Gekaufte Journalisten (Bought Journalists) where he alleged the CIA still “buys” journalists and plants stories in major media outlets across the world – admitting he had planted stories for the CIA himself. Ulfkotte’s book was released in English in 2017 but went largely under the radar and is available on Amazon in hardcover for $912.

In other recent histories, in 2012, a top propaganda firm working for the Pentagon admitted to targeting two USA Today journalists in a smear campaign intended to discredit the journalists. USA Today most likely became a target after publishing a report investigating Pentagon propaganda contractors. Multiple social media accounts and websites using the journalists’ names popped up as well as fake Wikipedia pages.

In 2014, The Associated Press reported that during the Obama administration the U.S. created and funded a Cuban social media network intended to undermine Cuba’s communist government.

“The U.S. government masterminded the creation of a ‘Cuban Twitter’ — a communications network designed to undermine the communist government in Cuba, built with secret shell companies and financed through foreign banks,” wrote The Associated Press.

In fact, a 2018-2019 budget report for the U.S. Office of Cuba Broadcasting explicitly stated that its plans included using “native” and “non-branded” Cuban Facebook accounts to spread government-created content without informing Cuban Facebook users, as Miami New Times reported.

Back in 2011, the Guardian reported that “the US military is developing software that will let it secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.”

“A Californian corporation has been awarded a contract with United States Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what is described as an ‘online persona management service’ that will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world,” The Guardian wrote.

As recently as 2016, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed how the U.S. Defense Department hired a U.K.-based PR media Bell Pottinger — known for its controversial clients such as Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the Saudi royal family — to create fake terrorist videos aimed at tarnishing the image of insurgent group Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The Pentagon paid the PR firm $540 million to produce propaganda footage from 2006 to 2011. The company’s former video editor, Martin Wells, told the Bureau his time working at Camp Victory where he produced videos alongside high-ranking US military officers was “shocking, eye-opening, life-changing.”

“The work consisted of three types of products. The first was television commercials portraying Al Qaeda in a negative light. The second was news items which were made to look as if they had been ‘created by Arabic TV.’ Bell Pottinger would send teams out to film low-definition video of Al Qaeda bombings and then edit it like a piece of news footage. It would be voiced in Arabic and distributed to TV stations across the region,” Wells spoke to the Bureau.

Also controversially, in 2009, the Pentagon contracted another controversial public relations firm, The Rendon Group, to screen journalists before being embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq, aimed at ensuring that those reporters had written positive stories about the U.S. military, as Star and Stripes revealed.

SemaFor Not for the 2020 Election

As the 2020 presidential election is fast approaching, DARPA’s new fake media detection tools are not expected to be ready to track fake content related to the coming election.

Jennifer Grygiel, assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University, told Bloomberg that the time allotted is not enough for the project, adding that promoting a literacy education aimed at identifying fake news is essential.

“Educating the public on media literacy, along with legislation, is what is important. But elected officials lack motivation themselves for change, and there is a conflict of interest as they are using these powerful platforms to get elected,” Grygiel stated.

Many believe that the widespread malicious content on social media platforms and partisan websites played a role in helping Donald Trump to win the 2016 election. A massive study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that fake news far outperforms real news on social media, reaching more people and spreading faster than real news stories.

“It seems to be pretty clear [from our study] that false information outperforms true information,” Soroush Vosoughi, a data scientist at MIT who has studied fake news since 2013 and who led the study, told the Atlantic. “And that is not just because of bots. It might have something to do with human nature.”

Misinformation and fake content are seen as a major threat to the American public, more dangerous than terrorism, as a Pew Reseach Center study revealed last June. According to that study, 70 percent of Americans surveyed believe fake news had eroded their trust in U.S. government institutions under the Trump administration. 

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Yasmeen Rasidi

Yasmeen is a writer and political science graduate of the National University, Jakarta. She covers a variety of topics for Citizen Truth including the Asia and Pacific region, international conflicts and press freedom issues. Yasmeen had worked for Xinhua Indonesia and GeoStrategist previously. She writes from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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