Army leaders recently put out a warning to soldiers using Twitter to beware of foreign agents using tweets to spread disinformation in the ranks.
"It's about awareness that these activities are happening at the soldier level and, more importantly, how it affects the soldier's families," Col. Gittipong Paruchabutr, director of information operations at Army Special Operations Command, said recently at an Association of the United States Army event, according to a service news release.
These so-called disinformation agents could be using "duplicate or fraudulent accounts of military members" and often pose as senior U.S. military leaders, according to the release.
Even Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, has had his identity used to set up false profiles on social media.
Evidence of Townsend's identity being misused started to show up in 2014 on tip reports by anti-scam websites like Scamlot.com, according to an Aug. 14, 2018, Popular Mechanics story.
One report said someone posing as the Townsend "contacted me on Tinder and asked to use Hangouts to communicate," Popular Mechanics reported.
Twitter is the go-to online tool that foreign agents most frequently use to spread misinformation, according to Darren Linvill, a communications professor at Clemson University, who has sifted through millions of tweets by Russian, Chinese and Saudi accounts.
Russian users in particular have grown skilled in the use of Twitter and can quickly gain followers, Linvill said, according to the release.
"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," Linvill said in the release. "They have decided it's in their best interest to mess with us, pushing the political conversations in this country to polarizing different directions. ... It's fundamentally an offensive operation."
Former FBI agent Clint Watts described to lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2017 how Russia used armies of Twitter bots to spread false news reports using accounts that mimicked Midwestern swing-voter Republicans to influence the 2016 presidential election, NPR reported on April 3, 2017.
"So that way, whenever you're trying to ... convince them that the information is true, it's much more simple because you see somebody and they look exactly like you, even down to the pictures," Watts told the panel, according to NPR.
Soldiers should continue to remain wary of tweets that attempt to intensify the divides that exist between groups on social issues, Paruchabutr 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."
For the past few years, the U.S. military has been issuing warnings to service members to avoid scams on social media.
In early 2018, U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) warned soldiers to watch out for online scammers impersonating service members by using both real and fictitious information.
Hundreds of claims come in each month from people who said they have been scammed on legitimate dating apps, the release states.
"The scammers have asked for money for fake service-related needs such as transportation, communications fees, processing and medical fees -- even marriage," it adds. "CID said many of the victims have lost tens of thousands of dollars and likely won't get that money back."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.