BEIJING, Dec. 14 (Xinhua) -- "Do you know who the greatest propagator of disinformation in the history of the world is? The U.S. government," U.S. Senator Rand Paul spoke bluntly at a Senate hearing in May.
Paul cited a series of examples for his assertion, one of which was the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 on a pretext of "weapons of mass destruction."
The presentation of so-called "evidence" -- a test tube containing white powder -- by then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell at a UN Security Council meeting on Iraq has a lasting place in the world's hall of shame.
For a long time, the U.S. government has been spreading disinformation and weaving a dark web of rumors on more obscure occasions to manipulate public opinion, demonize other countries and maintain its own hegemony.
"Bots" have manipulated public opinion in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, said researchers from the University of Adelaide, after they analysed 5,203,764 tweets, retweets, quote tweets and replies posted to Twitter between Feb. 23 and March 8, containing hashtags related to the crisis.
"We found that between 60 and 80 percent of tweets using the hashtags we studied came from bot accounts" during the first two weeks of the Russia-Ukraine conflict from Feb. 24, said co-lead researcher Joshua Watt, an MPhil candidate in Applied Mathematics and Statistics from the University of Adelaide's School of Mathematical Sciences.
"Social media has created a new environment where public opinion can be manipulated at a very large scale," Watt said.
The researchers asserted no further findings about the origin of the tweets, but did find that some bots "are pushing campaigns specific to certain countries, and hence sharing content aligned with those timezones," U.S. magazine Monthly Review reported in early November.
"The data does show that the peak time for a selection of pro-Ukrainian bot activity corresponded with being between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. across U.S. timezones," the magazine said.
In May this year, General Paul Nakasone, director of the U.S. National Security Agency and commander of U.S. Cyber Command, revealed that the Cyber Command has been conducting offensive information operations in support of Ukraine.
"We've conducted a series of operations across the full spectrum: offensive, defensive, (and) information operations," Nakasone said in an interview.
In the Ukraine crisis, "we are facing a classic propaganda trap, with a propaganda campaign that uses both public and private transnational media. And blogs and social media are actively joining this campaign," said Feodor Voitolovsky, director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Similar operations were previously found by Australian researchers. In June 2020, a report by the Australian Institute, a Canberra-based independent think tank, revealed that there were many bot-like, U.S.-related accounts on social media spreading rumors that the coronavirus is "a bioweapon created by China."
"The United States are masters of using all means to conduct such information and propaganda campaigns," said Voitolovsky.
The U.S. government has been spreading falsehoods through the Internet around the world, observers have said.
According to evidence presented by the Cuban government in July 2021, since mid-June of that year, some anti-Cuban forces in the United States, with the assistance of the U.S. government, have deliberately spread lies through social media networks about "the collapse of the Cuban medical system under the pandemic" to create an excuse for the United States to launch military intervention in Cuba.
A Washington-based firm "ran fake Facebook accounts" in Venezuela, Bolivia and Mexico to sow disinformation and foster U.S.-backed opposition forces, whose accounts were later closed by Facebook, according to a report by The Washington Post in 2020.
The rise of social media provides the United States with a new environment and new means for large-scale manipulation of public opinion. And the U.S. government has massively disseminated disinformation in cyberspace for deception.
Research published in August by the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) and Graphika, a social media analytics firm, has exposed years-long covert influence operations for promoting pro-Western narratives on social media platforms, with the role of the U.S. government under scrutiny.
In July and August 2022, Twitter and Meta -- the parent company of Facebook and Instagram -- removed two overlapping sets of accounts for violating their platforms' terms of service. Further analysis by the SIO and Graphika revealed an interconnected web of accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and five other social media platforms that "used deceptive tactics to promote pro-Western narratives in the Middle East and Central Asia."
The findings showed that the platforms' data sets appeared to "cover a series of covert campaigns over a period of almost five years rather than one homogeneous operation," so as to consistently advance "narratives promoting the interests of the United States and its allies while opposing countries including Russia, China and Iran."
Some accounts deployed in the campaign were linked to a U.S. government messaging campaign, called "the Trans-Regional Web Initiative."
The study pointed out the accounts were divided into different groups based on the country and region where the target audiences were located. In order to expand the effect of the public opinion manipulation, the group accounts usually coordinated their actions, and sometimes even posted messages automatically.
Specifically, the Central Asia group consisted of 12 Twitter accounts, 10 Facebook pages, 15 Facebook profiles, and 10 Instagram accounts, engaging in connected activity on Telegram, YouTube, and Russian social media platforms VKontakte and Odnoklassniki.
The research showed the assets identified by Twitter and Meta created fake personas, posed as independent media outlets, leveraged memes and short-form videos, attempted to start hashtag campaigns, and launched online petitions.
To create "trending topics," the accounts were in some cases highly active and focused on posting. One example was that in February this year when the Ukraine crisis was escalated, the Central Asia group sent nearly 200 posts a day, hyping Russia's "threat" to Central Asian countries.
Those accounts were found to have shared information from pro-Western media, U.S. embassies and consulates, and the U.S. military, sometimes deliberately packaging the fake messages as original, or interlinking them with other affiliated accounts and websites.
The research was reminiscent of previous revelations by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
According to their disclosure, a "deep state" was organized by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department, which act as a "command center" for manipulating public opinion.
The center determines the target of the public opinion assault, and sets the topics. Then, the U.S. government, Western media, politicians, think tanks follow up and stage the "wolf pack strategy." The fake accounts on social media are obviously part of the "wolf pack."
WEAPONIZE SOCIAL MEDIA
U.S. magazine Monthly Review said the investigations were "part of a growing body of evidence showing how Western governments and their allies have weaponized social media platforms and turned them into weapons."
Kambakhsh Khalaji, editor-in-chief of Iran Daily, told Xinhua that U.S. manipulation of public opinion through internet and social media is a growing threat to democracies across the globe.
"The U.S. has hired an army of cyber troops to disseminate fake news and biased information about these countries, including Iran, on social networks," Khalaji said. "Flooding social media with toxic information is an inseparable part of Washington's dirty play to shape public attitudes and victimize its opponents, namely Iran."
What the SIO-Graphika research revealed "is just the tip of the iceberg," said Tehran Times, an English daily in Iran.
"It does highlight how Washington has lost confidence on placing boots on the ground and is now more optimistic on using social media to sow discord and division against its adversaries," said the newspaper.
In the West, the use of social media and other channels in cyberspace to spread misinformation and influence public opinion is classified as "a campaign in a grey zone," said Tian Shichen, founder of the Global Governance Institution, a think-tank in Beijing, adding that in recent years, the United States has attached great importance to competition in the "gray zone."
Even if there are voices in the U.S. government against the military doing the "dirty work," they are unlikely to change relevant policies in the short term due to the influence of interest groups such as the military-industrial complex, Tian said. ■