WASHINGTON — The tweets surface innocently in Twitter feeds, often passing as legit news or normal social media posts.
Often, Soldiers may not even know they have been fed disinformation. According to a Clemson University academic, Russian hackers apply disinformation tactics to spread divisive, political tweets to Soldiers and other Americans. Army leaders discussed the threat at an Association of the U.S. Army “Hot Topics” forum Monday on cyber and networks.
Army leaders want Soldiers to be aware of disinformation tweets and posts created by foreign agents, especially when perusing social media. Disinformation agents could be using duplicate or fraudulent accounts of military members and often pose as senior U.S. military leaders, according to experts.
Darren Linvill, communications professor at Clemson University, has sifted through millions of tweets by Russian, Chinese and Saudi accounts and said that Twitter ranks as the online tool foreign agents most frequently use to spread misinformation. Russian users in particular have grown skilled in the use of Twitter and can quickly gain followers, he said.
Linvill broke online disinformation in Twitter into two categories: offensive and defensive. While the majority of foreign agents use “defensive” tweets, often in response to negative news, the Russians primarily use “offensive” tweets to spread dissidence through the social media platform.
“They have decided it’s in their best interest to mess with us, pushing the political conversations in this country to polarizing different directions,” Linvill said. “It’s fundamentally an offensive operation.”
Col. Gittipong Paruchabutr, director of information operations, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, said the Army has taught identity management to help Soldiers protect themselves against fraudulent use of social media. He added the Army assigned specialized teams to monitor such activities. Linvill said the offensive tweets have not personally attacked any U.S. Soldiers but Russians have used tweets to attack Ukrainian military members.
Paruchabutr said Soldiers should remain wary of polarizing tweets.
“It’s about awareness that these activities are happening at the Soldier level and more importantly how it affects the Soldier’s families,” he said. “We have to be cognizant that, even if it’s not attacking Soldier X or unit Y, these accounts, these online activities are targeting general Americans and it further polarizes our divisions.”
Countering the Threats
To help combat disinformation and other cyber threats — such as online hackers and cyberattacks — the Army has been developing and fielding next-generation electronic warfare systems.
The Army has developed “I2CEWS” or intel, information, cyber, electronic warfare and space elements nested inside the Multi-Domain Task Force.
“That’s the element that’s intended to penetrate A2/AD [anti-access/area-denial technology] formations and disintegrate formations,” said Brig. Gen. Richard Angle, deputy commanding general of operations, Army Cyber Command. “It’s up. It’s running. It’s being exercised … and it’s doing some great work.”
A2/AD refers to technology used by near-peer adversaries designed to deny freedom of movement to potential enemies, including U.S. forces.
The Army has also established the advanced tactical technology course, taught at Fort Bragg’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. The course trains Soldiers to defend, inform and exploit within the digital terrain through advanced knowledge of computer systems and social media platforms.
The 30-day course trains Soldiers on basic digital force protection, targeting and sub-net target isolation and analysis. Soldiers who meet the prerequisites are eligible to take the course.
“There is a sense of urgency and need for speed,” Angle said. “Because as we develop these concepts, we have to recognize this threat is here today, it’s not theoretical.”
To help advance the ability to counter against cyberattacks, Soldiers take part in cyber-themed exercises including a Cyber Blitz at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Cyber Blitz is an annual exercise co-hosted by the Command, Control, Communication, Computers, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance — or C5ISR — Center, at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, and the U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence at Fort Gordon, Georgia. It teaches Soldiers how to employ cyberspace electromagnetic activities across all aspects of Army doctrine, training and education.
U.S. Army Special Operations Command units now participate in combat training center rotations and warfighter exercises, where they are supported by Army Cyber formations in replicating near-peer information environments against U.S. internal formations, Paruchabutr said.
“This is an absolutely critical capability on how we look at ourselves,” he said. “How do our formations look before we go into a combat training center because we know that the competition is here now; our enemies are looking at our formations across the United States.”
In order to compete successfully in a congested and contested environment, Angle said that the Army must increase leader education and training development at all levels to change the mindset and the culture.
He added that exercises need to be revised with greater “depth” to fully synchronize the Army’s new cyber capabilities to gain and maintain an advantage against adversaries.
“And that needs to be exercised in both conflict and competition scenarios and we have to force ourselves to operate it in congested and contested environments,” he said.